Andrew Snowdon

More thoughts on Language and the Arts

In art, language, theatre on Wednesday 23 February 2011 at 8:00

In my copious free time, I’ve been trying to pick up a bit of Ancient Greek.

There are a few reasons for this. The recent Ottawa University (La Comédie des Deux Rives) production of Iphigénie en Tauride (Iphigenia in Tauris), and the upcoming Third Wall remount of Antigone put the idea into my head. I’ve also been working on a play (that I don’t expect will ever see the light of day) that has its basis in Greek mythology, and I find it helpful to get as close to the source material as I can.

The more fundamental philosophical reason I occasionally choose to pick up the basics of a new language, however, is that it changes the way one thinks.

Many, if not most, human beings are verbal thinkers. This shows up in language itself; the English word logic comes from the Greek word λόγος (logos) for “word”, suggesting that all thought is, or can be, expressed in words (and conversely, that all words express thoughts). A few major religious philosophies, Zen Buddhism being a notable example, concern themselves heavily with divorcing thought from the limitations of language.

Language does define, to a certain extent, the way one thinks about certain concepts. Once you’ve gone beyond naming things and actions that we can all agree upon (cat, for instance, or kick), languages diverge markedly when it comes to “higher”, less tangible, concepts (love, peace, serenity). An oft-cited example is “I am hungry”. In English, it’s a state of being. But in French, it is “J’ai faim“; as in many other languages of more direct Latin descent, it is a condition one has. This is a subtle difference. More dramatically, in Japanese, a (polite) request may be phrased a number of different ways: social hierarchy is built into the language, such that one implores a social superior to “hand down” something, but a social inferior to “hand it up”. There are countless examples across many different languages.

The utility of being familiar with how a similar concept is expressed in different languages, or through different artistic disciplines, is one of perspective. Knowing more than one language can free one from thinking about things in one or the other language entirely. The awareness of there being more than one way to express a concept in words permits one to recognize that no one system of words “perfectly” captures that concept, and that concepts can exist independent of symbols.

We can look at the artistic disciplines as a set of languages insofar as they are different ways to express similar ideas. You can take an idea (democracy), a feeling (hopeless bleak despair), or an event (the Spanish Civil War), and one person can paint it, someone else can turn out a song about it, someone else could write a poem, another could write a play, make a sculpture, do a photo montage; each one of these is a valid, valuable interpretation. Each of them is different, even if based on the same inspiration.

Is there a parallel benefit, then, to appreciating more than one artistic discipline?

I certainly believe so. There is no doubt that an appreciation of theatre is increased by the study of literature or dance. Likewise, an appreciation for visual art and sculpture often go hand-in-hand. There is a fantastic trend in the “new media” (primarily electronic- and computer-based) arts to combine sculpture, visual elements, motion, and music in ways that defy categorization.

Science-fiction author Robert J. Heinlein once wrote that “specialization is for insects.” As much as it applies to the rest of human endeavour, I would say that it applies especially to the arts, and we are provided our richest aesthetic experiences by works that cross disciplines.

One day, I may even be able to say that in Ancient Greek.

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