How the ability to call your idea “by various names, borrowed from various languages,” empowers you to conceive that idea “in a way precise, clear and unconfused.”
By Maria Popova
Language is not the content of thought but the vessel that carries thought, the vessel into which we pour the ambivalences and contradictions of our thinking in order to anneal our understanding of the world. The more spacious the vessel, the more latitude we have to clarify our own thoughts, to reach farther horizons on the waves of the mind. “We die. That may be the meaning of life,” Toni Morrison asserted in her spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” In language we fathom ourselves and our own lives; in language we compose, to borrow Leonard Cohen’s lovely phrase, “the Constitution of the inner country.” And yet language is inherently moored to the territory of an outer country — to the lexicon, vocabulary, and folkloric tongue of a people and a place.
Nothing furthers the reach of thought in language more surely than proficiency in multiple lexicons, which confers upon the bilingual or multilingual mind a lush advantage of thought. That is what the radical philosopher William Godwin (March 3, 1756–April 7, 1836) explores in a passage from his altogether excellent 1797 book The Enquirer: Reflections on Education, Manners, and Literature (public library) — the collection of essays he composed while his partner, the philosopher and feminism founding mother Mary Wollstonecraft, was pregnant with their daughter, who would one day write the visionary Frankenstein.
Nearly two centuries before Ursula K. Le Guin observed that the function of language is “to give people the words to know their own experience” and James Baldwin lamented the exclusionary nature of any single language, which may not reflect the experiences of the diverse people forced to speak it, Godwin makes an ardent case for how the knowledge of multiple languages liberates the mind and swells the power of the human spirit. (A crucial meta-sensitivity to language as an emissary of time and place is due in reading Godwin: His use of the masculine to address universal humanity is a reflection of his era’s lexical convention — he was writing two centuries before the unsexing of he as the universal pronoun — and not of his beliefs: Godwin was an ardent exponent of gender equality, who courageously bore the opprobrium such radical views earned him, who forged with Wollstonecraft a a trailblazing marriage of equals, and who, in an era when girls were entirely excluded from real education and the world of ideas, raised his daughters with uncompromising focus on the life of the mind.)
Advocating for teaching young people multiple languages, Godwin writes:
He that is acquainted with only one language, will probably always remain in some degree the slave of language. From the imperfectness of his knowledge, he will feel himself at one time seduced to say the thing he did not mean, and at another time will fall into errors of this sort without being aware of it. It is impossible he should understand the full force of words. He will sometimes produce ridicule, where he intended to produce passion. He will search in vain for the hidden treasures of his native tongue. He will never be able to employ it in the most advantageous manner. He cannot be well acquainted with its strength and its weakness. He is uninformed respecting its true genius and discriminating characteristics. But the man who is competent to and exercised in the comparison of languages, has attained to his proper elevation. Language is not his master, but he is the master of language. Things hold their just order in his mind, ideas first, and then words. Words therefore are used by him as the means of communicating or giving permanence to his sentiments; and the whole magazine of his native tongue is subjected at his feet.
Epochs before Susan Sontag insisted that words are a tool of personal agency, Godwin argues that our vocabulary furnishes the building blocks of our understanding, which in turn foments our capacity for effective action in the world:
Words are of the utmost importance to human understanding. Almost all the ideas employed by us in matters of reasoning have been acquired by words. In our most retired contemplations we think for the most part in words; and upon recollection can in most cases easily tell in what language we have been thinking. Without words, uttered, or thought upon, we could not probably carry on any long train of deduction. The science of thinking therefore is little else than the science of words. He that has not been accustomed to refine upon words, and discriminate their shades of meaning, will think and reason after a very inaccurate and slovenly manner. He that is not able to call his idea by various names, borrowed from various languages, will scarcely be able to conceive his idea in a way precise, clear and unconfused.
Complement with The Lost Words — writer Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris’s courageous act of resistance against the impoverishment of our language, which is an impoverishment of our imagination — and Iris Murdoch on language as an instrument of truth against tyranny, then revisit Godwin on how to raise a reader.