Friday, 11 September 2015

On the Possibilities and Limitations of Language

by Catriona Ellis






“History is written by the victors.”[1]


Jorge Luis Borges
If we are to take this as a truism, is it possible to suggest that all of history contains elements of falseness? Can we incite that, (and I realise that any historian anywhere would shudder to hear me make this sweeping generalisation,) all of written history contains incorrectness that is deliberately embedded by the author to change the opinion of the reader? Again, if we are to then take this as truth, is it any larger a jump to assert that fiction is no less implausible as history? Both appear to have authors who set out to deceive their audiences, either through historical bias or simply through fantastical invention. If they succeed in their task, is it possible to deduce that both history and fiction are written by the victors?



This ‘fakeness’ and deception is a detail of written language that fascinated Jorge Luis Borges, an Argentinian writer born in 1899. In the foreword to his most famous collection of short stories, ‘Fictiones’[2], it is noted that, “it is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books- setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them.”[3] Thus, a common trait of this Argentinian writer’s works is a review or commentary on a work that is purely fantastical. Borges most notably uses these ‘literatry forgeries’ in his short story, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’[4] when discussing “the forty volumes of The First Encyclopedia of Tlön[5], a country which is itself a fabrication. The “Encyclopedia” forms a central motif in the story, and the readers find themselves questioning whether they were right to assume that the whole thing is nonsensical. Borges includes footnotes, references and corrections to ‘original’ excerpts to his fictional fictions, creating layers of deception and producing an inherent distrust in the narrator that could easily be said to have heralded postmodernism in South American literature. The possibilities of language seem endless when the writer assumes that every work possible has already been written and is merely awaiting criticism; Borges becomes the critic of imaginary works and through his belief in the non-existent language, it arguably becomes reality.



Using narrative to create reality in this way shows the potential of language as a means to alter the way we perceive experience. However, it is also possible to show that all narrative is untrue because the author, who determines what is included and what is omitted from their written prose, ultimately constructs it. In this way the experience that we perceive through the written word can be said to be false. Thus, language is also incredibly limited because it can never convey truth. Nietzsche famously and controversially proclaimed, “God is dead. […] And we have killed him”[6] as a means of showing that by rationally and scientifically examining the possibility that God does not exist, we have essentially disproved and thus ‘killed’ God. By trying to explain and put words to ‘Him’, we have made God ‘untrue’, or at least less divine, because we have verbalised what is not possible to describe. Hence, when language is used in an attempt to convey the truth or reality, it simply represents an unreality and thus is incredibly limited.



This is what is meant when I proclaim that words are arbitrary; they are simply representations, symbols, or specific collections of letters arranged in a particular order, which represent an object. For example, the word “pebble” is just a written symbol for the round-ish lump of rock usually found on a beach, however it is not the same as the actual object that you can touch and hold. As Sturrock says, “to put a name to something is to identify it with all the other actual and possible instances of that name, to identify the particular with the universal”[7]. Hence, to name something is to place a representation of the object in our minds, one that is untrue to the object in reality because there are an almost infinite number of different and individual “pebbles” on each beach, but human languages do not have an infinite number of words to describe the infinite number of different “pebbles”. The inability to transfer truth from reality into words is perhaps the primary limitation of all languages, but it is something that Borges attempts to address in ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ through the language of Tlön.



Benjamin Lee Whorf notably claimed that language has the ability to mould our perceptions of reality, and that speakers of different languages are not able to communicate the same world, but will have different insights into what reality shows.[8] Borges, however, questions with the language of Tlön whether it would be possible to have in existence a language where each speaker of said language will communicate a different reality using their choice of words. This is because the language of Tlön has no nouns, but is instead adjective-based or verb-based depending on which hemisphere of Tlön is the speaker’s natural home. Thus, “for the people of Tlön, the world is not an amalgam of objects in space; it is a heterogeneous series of independent acts”. In this way, the possibilities of language seem endless on Tlön because each object can be communicated in an infinite number of ways depending on what each speaker deems more important. For example, in the northern hemisphere of Tlön (where the language is verb-based) there is no word which could translate as the English “moon”, however there are verbs that would translate as “to moonate”[9] or “to enmoon”[10]. Thus, as Borges notes, if you waned to say “the moon rose above the river”[11] on Tlön, you would have to utter words that literally, if translated back to English, would signify, “upward, behind the onstreaming it mooned”[12], or anything similar that conveys the same message.




In a similar way, in the southern hemisphere, “nouns are formed by stringing together adjectives”[13], and therefore “one does not say “moon”; one says “ariel-bright above dark-round” or “soft-amberish-celestial” or any other string.”[14] This is, for me, the greatest demonstration of the possibilities of language in Borges’ work because it illustrates a dual-purpose; firstly, to show that it could be possible to convey every individual’s different perceptions of reality through language, and secondly to highlight how arbitrary our earthly languages are: they only allow for one representation of each object per word. As Standish summerises, Borges was “ever conscious of the restrictiveness and arbitrariness of his linguistic medium; and his scepticism is at its most radical in those stories that thematise the problem of defining perceptions and conveying them through the slippery medium of language.”[15]



Conversely, in his short story ‘The Circular Ruins’[16] Borges questions whether there is actually a human need for language at all. The story tells of a man who comes to rest in a set of circular ruins which form an ancient temple, and who is driven by his ultimate goal: “to dream a man.”[17] Borges details how each night the man dreams of a beating heart, firstly just observing it in his dream, then eventually touching it and inspecting it until he is satisfied. Next he sets about dreaming of the other major organs, then the skeleton, then the skin and finally the hair. Eventually, the man “had dreamed a fully fleshed man- a stripling- but this youth did not stand up or speak, nor could it open its eyes.”[18] Soon the God of the temple becomes involved and helps the man to bring the dreamed man into the world. Borges explains how slowly, “the man accustomed the youth to reality”[19], causing the reader to question whether the dream state has ended or whether it continues.



In this tale, Borges heavily questions the necessity for language as a human communicator: the man is able to create life without any utterances or writings and his creation, once bought into the world, is equally mute. Is language necessary to portray reality? Would it be possible to live without language by simply observing experience, rather than attempting to represent it with words? After all, it is entirely possible that the man in the story would not have been able to “dream a man” if he had been confined to use arbitrary language, and that it was only possible because he was able to see and to touch the dreamed organs, which thus matched their true counterparts in reality. Hence, I think it is possible that Borges is suggesting that although language is a phenomenon developed uniquely by humans which can aid life and communication, in order to truly experiencing reality, the base human instincts are able to convey true reality to a greater degree than words, something that he may have discovered from personal experience after loosing one of his senses, his sight, at the age of 55.



Finally, Borges explores the notion of dual realities and the possibility or inability of language to accurately document them in his short story, ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’[20]. The dominant motif in the story is that of an infinite labyrinth which, as the narrator discovers, is contained within a book. Although it is possible to wonder, as Albert does in the story, “how a book could be infinite”[21], Borges seems to be reinforcing that language has the ability to represent both past and future, whilst also posing the question of whether it is possible to convey both simultaneously. We learn that in the story every time a character meets a forking of paths- a chance to make a decision that will affect his future, he “simultaneously [chooses] all of them”[22], creating a novel in which every possible future is presented concurrently. This is the labyrinth Borges speaks of; an infinite documentation of every human decision possible and its outcome, or, as the narrator of the story imagines, “a labyrinth of labyrinths, a maze of mazes, a twisting, turning, ever-widening labyrinth that contained both past and future”[23]. In this way, Borges presents the possibilities of language: it is a medium that is capable of detailing every possible human decision and so could also be said to hold every fate of those destined to make those decisions.



Whilst a book such as the one described would be, in reality, impossible to create, Borges seems to revel in the notion that it could exist, something that is also echoed in his short story, ‘The Library of Babel’[24]. In this story the universe is described as a library that “contain[s] all possible combinations of the twenty-two orthographic symbols”[25] and yet in which “there are no two identical books.”[26] The idea of either a labyrinth or a library containing all the possibilities of something, be they human decisions or arrangements of letters, fascinates Borges who, although was said by Standish to be “on the adequacy of language to the task, […] an out and out sceptic,”[27] was also “resigned to the constraint of using it”[28].



Thus, I can conclude that for Borges, language was an intriguing and enthralling aspect to human communication, full of possibilities and limitations. Working through the Latin American Boom in South America, his works not only encapsulate elements of the bizarre and abstract common to Absurdist literature, but also demonstrate the Magical Realism inherent to the artistic movement occurring in his own native country. This genre allowed Borges to produce works such as ‘Fictiones’, which contains short stories such as those I have discussed, exploring how humans can use and manipulate language to influence the reader. From these tales it is possible to see the extent to which Borges has challenged the written word, pushing it to its ultimate capacity in order to highlight both the extent of what is possible to express with written language, but also to show the boundaries and constraints that oppose the writer. Hence, I agree fully that Borges “was meticulous in his writing but ever conscious of the restrictiveness and arbitrariness of his linguistics medium”[29]. He explored multiple topics through the written word but was ever conscious of “the problem of defining perceptions and conveying them through the slippery medium of language.”[30]




[1] Attributed to Winston Churchill but of unknown origin
[2] Borges, Jorge Luis. Fictiones. First published in England by Allan Lane The Penguin Press 1999 (later referred to as Fictiones)
[3] foreward, p.5 Fictiones,
[4] As included in the collection of works, Fictiones
[5] Fictiones, p.23
[6] Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Section 125, tr. Walter Kaufmann
[7] Sturrock, John. Paper Tigers: The Ideal Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges. Oxford, 1977 p.65
[9] Fictiones. p.13
[10] ibid.
[11] ibid.
[12] ibid.
[13] ibid.
[14] ibid.
[15] Standish, Peter. Borges and the Limits of Language. http://www.borges.pitt.edu/sites/default/files/Standish%20Borges%20and%20the%20Limits.pdf accessed 10/8/15
[16] As included in the collection of works, Fictiones
[17] Fictiones. p.45
[18] Fictiones. p.47
[19] Fictiones. p.48
[20] As included in the collection of works, Fictiones
[21] Fictiones. p.82
[22] Fictiones. p.83
[23] Fictiones. p.79
[24] As included in the collection of works, Fictiones
[25] Fictiones. p.69
[26] ibid.
[27] Standish, Peter. Borges and the Limits of Language. http://www.borges.pitt.edu/sites/default/files/Standish%20Borges%20and%20the%20Limits.pdf accessed 10/8/15
[28] ibid.
[29] ibid.
[30] ibid.

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