La conjetural Ursprache de Tlön

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David Brooks may be a fantasy-nonfiction author manqué, but Jorge Luis Borges has set a standard in that space that's hard to match. From  "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", in Ficciones:

There are no nouns in the hypothetical Ursprache of Tlön, which is the source of the living language and the dialects; there are impersonal verbs qualified by monosyllabic suffixes or prefixes which have the force of adverbs. For example, there is no word corresponding to the noun moon, but there is a verb to moon or to moondle. The moon rose over the sea would be written hlör u fang axaxaxas mlö, or, to put it in order: upward beyond the constant flow there was moondling. (Xul Solar translates it succinctly: upward, behind the onstreaming it mooned.)

The previous passage refers to the languages of the southern hemisphere. In those of the northern hemisphere (the eleventh volume has little information on its Ursprache), the basic unit is not the verb, but the monosyllabic adjective. Nouns are formed by an accumulation of adjectives. One does not say moon; one says airy-clear over dark-round or orange-faint-of-sky or some other accumulation. In the chosen example, the mass of adjectives corresponds to a real object. The happening is completely fortuitous. In the literature of this hemisphere (as in the lesser world of Meinong), ideal objects abound, invoked and dissolved momentarily, according to poetic necessity. Sometimes, the faintest simultaneousness brings them about. There are objects made up of two sense elements, one visual, the other auditory— the color of a sunrise and the distant call of a bird. Other objects are made up of many elements— the sun, the water against the swimmer's chest, the vague quivering pink which one sees when the eyes are closed, the feeling of being swept away by a river or by sleep. These second degree objects can be combined with others; using certain abbreviations, the process is practically an infinite one. There are famous poems made up of one enormous word, a word which in truth forms a poetic object, the creation of the writer. The fact that no one believes that nouns refer to an actual reality means, paradoxically enough, that there is no limit to the numbers of them.

The Spanish original:

No hay sustantivos en la conjetural Ursprache de Tlön, de la que proceden los idiomas “actuales” y los dialectos: hay verbos impersonales, calificados por sufijos (o prefijos) monosilábicos de valor adverbial. Por ejemplo: no hay palabra que corresponda a la palabra luna, pero hay un verbo que sería en español lunecer o lunar. Surgió la luna sobre el río se dice hlör u fang axaxaxas mlö o sea en su orden: hacia arriba (upward) detrás duradero-fluir luneció. (Xul Solar traduce con brevedad: upa tras perfluyue lunó. Upward, behind the onstreaming it mooned.)

Lo anterior se refiere a los idiomas del hemisferio austral. En los del hemisferio boreal (de cuya Ursprache hay muy pocos datos en el Onceno Tomo) la célula primordial no es el verbo, sino el adjetivo monosilábico. El sustantivo se forma por acumulación de adjetivos. No se dice luna: se dice aéreo-claro sobre oscuro-redondo o anaranjado-tenue-del cielo o cualquier otra agregación. En el caso elegido la masa de adjetivos corresponde a un objeto real; el hecho es puramente fortuito. En la literatura de este hemisferio (como en el mundo subsistente de Meinong) abundan los objetos ideales, convocados y disueltos en un momento, según las necesidades poéticas. Los determina, a veces, la mera simultaneidad. Hay objetos compuestos de dos términos, uno de carácter visual y otro auditivo: el color del naciente y el remoto grito de un pájaro. Los hay de muchos: el sol y el agua contra el pecho del nadador, el vago rosa trémulo que se ve con los ojos cerrados, la sensación de quien se deja llevar por un río y también por el sueño. Esos objetos de segundo grado pueden combinarse con otros; el proceso, mediante ciertas abreviaturas, es prácticamente infinito. Hay poemas famosos compuestos de una sola enorme palabra. Esta palabra integra un objeto poético creado por el autor. El hecho de que nadie crea en la realidad de los sustantivos hace, paradójicamente, que sea interminable su número.

In fact I don't think that there's any limit in principle to the number of nouns in English — or Spanish or Chinese. What this tells us about the relationship between nouns and reality I leave to you to determine.




  1. La conjetural Ursprache de Tlön • Zhi Chinese said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 12:51 pm

    […] Source: Language La conjetural Ursprache de Tlön […]

  2. philip said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 5:58 pm

    Oh I love this philosophy of philology stuff! In particular: "The fact that no one believes that nouns refer to an actual reality means, paradoxically enough, that there is no limit to the numbers of them."

    No one should believe that nouns refer to actual reality in any language. What I call a window when speaking English, I call a fenêtre in French and a fuinneog in Irish. I encounter the actual reality of the object when I put my fist through it, not when I assign a random noun to it.

  3. John said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 11:34 pm

    It seems to me that nouns can and do refer to actual reality. The existence of multiple words for the same concept does not disprove that. And referring to something is not the same as encountering it. Which leads me to the next point…

    There's an interesting difference between the Spanish and the English: the translator seems to have introduced the word "refer." I'm not fluent in Spanish but wouldn't the line "nadie crea en la realidad de los sustantivos" translate more directly as "no one believes in the reality of nouns"? I realize some flexibility is necessary in translation, but introducing a concept like "refer" here changes the point in a substantial way. It's a particularly strange oversight for a story like this one — nuances make a huge difference when discussing philosophy of language.

    Thanks for the excuse to think about this story again. It's always great to revisit Borges.

  4. Dennis King said,

    January 6, 2017 @ 12:56 am

    "el río" in the original, but "the sea" in translation? Odd and inappropriate to the Ursprache.

  5. ajay said,

    January 6, 2017 @ 10:47 am

    Yes, that is odd, especially when it continues to translate it as "constant flow" or "onstreaming" which matches a river but not the sea.

  6. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 6, 2017 @ 5:25 pm

    It seems to be Anthony Kerrigan's translation, now with "sea" corrected to "river". I prefer the translation linked to in the second sentence of the post.

  7. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 6, 2017 @ 5:34 pm

    Sorry about the hallucination of a correction. I also forgot to say thanks for the Borges!

  8. philip said,

    January 6, 2017 @ 7:18 pm

    @ John: OK let's take it from the Spanish. Nouns are not the reality; they are random words assigned to designate the concept or image. In a world where language did not exist, windows would still exist. You have a concept or image in your head of what a window is, and then call it by whatever noun is assigned to designate that image in whatever language you happen to be speaking, but that noun is not the reality of the window. Concrete nouns are even more funny, as all nouns are abstract in that sense. The colour orange existed before the fruit turned up (in sunsets, carrots, flowers). The colour did not change when the word 'orange' appeared in the language. The language game: Wittgenstein. And also, Humpty Dumpty: “When I use a word … it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
    When enough people decide that 'wallhole' is a better alternative to 'window', the word 'window' will disappear from use but the reality will remain.

  9. Mark S said,

    January 7, 2017 @ 8:15 am

    Why are some phenomena represented as nouns and others aren't? Suppose I convert "There's a dog running in the yard" to "The running in the yard is doggish" or "It runs doggishly in the yard" or "The yard was dogged runningly". It seems to me that the dog is a much longer-lasting phenomenon than the running, and thus is more naturally represented as a noun, not as an adjective, adverb, or verb.

    Obviously, one can find exceptions to this, but it seems a reasonable generalization. But I'm only an amateur linguist. Is there something in this?

  10. Cervantes said,

    January 7, 2017 @ 12:37 pm

    Mark S, you are touching on what we can call persistence, which linguists have used, along with such concepts as valence, stativity, and gradability, to explore lexical categories. If you want to pursue your line of thinking, there is plenty to read on the subject. To name just one text: Bill Croft's Syntactic Categories and Grammatical Relations: The Cognitive Organization of Information (Chicago, 1991).

  11. Andreas Johansson said,

    January 7, 2017 @ 12:50 pm

    as in the lesser world of Meinong

    I guess Borges didn't think highly of Meinong?

    philip wrote:

    In a world where language did not exist, windows would still exist.

    Nitpick, but that doesn't seem a given. The point might be better made with something like "rock".

  12. Cervantes said,

    January 7, 2017 @ 1:36 pm

    Andreas, it's not that Borges didn't think highly of Meinong. The word in his original Spanish is "subsistente." The translation knowingly refers to "the lesser world of Meinong" to reflect the way Meinong himself might have ranked "existence" and "subsistence" (and, for that matter, "absistence").

  13. philip said,

    January 7, 2017 @ 7:02 pm

    Hi Andreas: what I really meant is, if language suddenly disappeared from this current world, windows would still exist but the word 'window' would not exist.

  14. Dean Eckles said,

    January 8, 2017 @ 10:43 pm

    Quine also discusses a similar parable in the context of "radical translation"

    Should we translate that word as 'moon' or 'undetached moon parts'?

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