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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

What Makes Language “Language”?

As I was reading Steven Knapp’s and Walter Benn Michaels’s article “Against Theory”, I was most intrigued by their discussion on what constitutes language, in particular their example regarding the poem written in the sand on the beach. You notice the stanza written in the sand and then a wave washes upon the shore and as it recedes another stanza is visible as if the poem was a coincidence of nature. “You will either be ascribing these marks to some agent capable of intentions (the living sea, the haunting Wordsworth, etc.) or you will count them as nonintentional effects of mechanical processes (erosion, percolation, etc.). But in the second case—where the marks seem to be accidents—will they still seem to be words? Clearly not. They will merely resemble words” (728). According to this excerpt, written words must have intention and purpose in order to be considered language. Seeing the poem written on the beach, you would assume that someone previously wrote the words in the sand, but after seeing the wave wash up and recede, leaving behind a formation in the sand that reads like a poem, then the writing only resembles words. The wave just left that form on the sand and did not write it with any purpose. It is only coincidence that “words” are there. Language is conscious, intentional, and purposeful.

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