The dizzying world of Funes

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We can read today at the Catholic News Agency's website and elsewhere that:

Linguistics has a profound human value. It is a science that opens the heart and the mind. It helps us to put our lives, our hopes, our problems in the right perspective. In this regard, and here I speak as a priest and a Jesuit, it is an apostolic instrument that can bring us closer to God.

Wait, my bad. It was Fr. Funes, Director of the Vatican's Observatory, speaking, and he actually said that Astronomy has a profound human value etc. etc. Nobody ever got closer to God by reading Language Log. But anyway, Funes went on to comment on the possibility of extraterrestrial life, saying that:

 Just as there is a multiplicity of creatures over the earth, so there could be other beings, even intelligent (beings), created by God. This is not in contradiction with our faith, because we cannot establish limits to God's creative freedom. To say it with St. Francis, if we can consider some earthly creatures as 'brothers' or 'sisters', why could we not speak of a 'brother alien'? He would also belong to the creation. […] we could think that in this universe there can be 100 sheep, equivalent to different kinds of creatures. We, belonging to human kind could be precisely the lost sheep, the sinners that need the shepherd. God became man in Jesus to save us. In that way, assuming that there would be other intelligent beings, we could not say that they need redemption . They could have remained in full friendship with the Creator."

"But if they were sinners?" Funes' interviewer asked:

Jesus became man once and for all. The Incarnation is a single and unique event. So I am sure that also they, in some way, would have the chance to enjoy God's mercy, just as it has happened with us human beings.

I have no beef with the learned Fr. Funes. And not only have I no beef, I also have no linguistic hook, or at least only the vague stirrings of a linguistic association so faint that it is barely more perceptible than the scratching of  Melvyn Quince's quill, many hundreds of floors above me, and a little to the east. It's just that when I read of the grand speculations above, and though I gather that Funes is a not uncommon name, I could not help but be reminded of another Funes, Funes the Memorious. This Funes, who had talent enough to learn perfect classical Latin from a dictionary,  was, like the astronomical Funes,  a tad more imaginative than his brethren. We gather that he developed plans for some ambitious projects. And these projects were of no little linguistic interest. As Borges (Ficciones, 1944, tr. Anthony Kerrigan) writes

he had devised a new system of enumeration and that in a very few days he had gone before twenty-four thousand. He had not written it down, for what he once meditated would not be erased. The first stimulus to his work, I believe, had been his discontent with the fact that "thirty-three Uruguayans" required two symbols and three words, rather than a single word and a single symbol. Later he applied his extravagant principle to the other numbers. In place of seven thousand thirteen, he would say (for example) Máximo Perez; in place of seven thousand fourteen, The Train; other numbers were Luis Melián Lafinur, Olimar, Brimstone, Clubs, The Whale, Gas, The Cauldron, Napoleon, Agustín de Vedia. In lieu of five hundred, he would say nine. Each word had a particular sign, a species of mark; the last were very complicated. . . . I attempted to explain that this rhapsody of unconnected terms was precisely the contrary of a system of enumeration. I said that to say three hundred and sixty-five was to say three hundreds, six tens, five units: an analysis which does not exist in such numbers as The Negro Timoteo or The Flesh Blanket. Funes did not understand me, or did not wish to understand me.

Locke, in the seventeenth century, postulated (and rejected) an impossible idiom in which each individual object, each stone, each bird and branch had an individual name; Funes had once projected an analogous idiom, but he had renounced it as being too general, too ambiguous. In effect, Funes not only remembered every leaf on every tree of every wood, but even every one of the times he had perceived or imagined it. He determined to reduce all of his past experience to some seventy thousand recollections, which he would later define numerically. Two considerations dissuaded him: the thought that the task was interminable and the thought that it was useless. He knew that at the hour of his death he would scarcely have finished classifying even all the memories of his childhood.

The two projects I have indicated (an infinite vocabulary for the natural series of numbers, and a usable mental catalogue of all the images of memory) are lacking in sense, but they reveal a certain stammering greatness. They allow us to make out dimly, or to infer, the dizzying world of Funes.  



  1. rootlesscosmo said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 12:39 am

    Fifty years or so ago I met a guy who claimed his ex-roommate at Yale had tried to devise, and put into use, a kind of spoken shorthand; on meeting someone he would say something like "bprt" or "fnw," not spelling these out but actually pronouncing them as monosyllables, by way of "How are you?" or "Dreadful weather we're having," etc. The story (which on reflection I think was false through and through) ended with his being confined to a mental hospital.

  2. Matthew said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 2:07 am

    I love that story. I was surprised to learn a few days ago that there actually are people with nearly infallible memories, like Borges's Funes.

  3. Kel said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 3:18 am

    God's name is a verb (Yahweh, "I am"), He created the universe through words, and he is "the Alpha and the Omega." And then there's the whole "In the beginning there was the Word" thing. That quote could easily be about linguistics!

  4. Ellen K. said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 7:57 am

    Seems to me a name can originate out of a verb, but once it's a name, it's not a verb. I can't imagine that's any different in languages I don't speak than it is in the ones I speak. So, I would argue, whatever the origins, God's name, being a name, is no more a verb than the noun "step" in "take a step".

  5. Sean said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 9:23 am

    Interesting treatment on the nature of the names of God in Judaism available in the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia.

    Certainly, once YHWH became a name, it served as a noun, but it seems like its underlying meaning retained an important cultural significance. Moreso than, for example, the name Agnes would make one think of lambs, today.

  6. Sean said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 9:25 am

    Now that I've looked up the name origin for Agnes, rather than trusting my memory, I should have been thinking "pure, holy" rather than "white, wooly". Whoops.

  7. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 11:51 am

    Ellen and Sean bring up an interesting point: what is a noun, and what is a verb? The question is a difficult one with reference to many North American languages, where nouns can be inflected for verbal morphology (e.g., Blackfoot ninaawa, either 'the man' or 'he is a man'), or where there exists no difference on the stem level between a noun and a verb (not for all words, but for many, e.g., the Salishan and Wakashan languages).

    My intuition is with Ellen, that noun or verb status is determined pragmatically and syntactically rather than semantically. But there are definitely people who disagree with me. Also, a syntactic classification is usually difficult with the examples I introduced above. As far as I'm concerned, if it's a person's name, it's a noun, and if it appears as the argument of a verb, it's a noun.

  8. Sean said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 12:36 pm

    I concur on a pragmatic/syntactic determination. I'm open to the possibility that things like the name of God might be statistical outliers within certain cultures.

  9. James Crippen said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 3:20 pm

    The problem with simply saying “if it’s a name, it’s a noun, and if it’s the argument of a verb, it’s a noun” is that in some of the languages you mention you still can’t make such a distinction. People’s names can be used as verbs, for instance, or verbs can be subordinates or attributives and thus be arguments of other verbs while still not becoming nouns because e.g. they still undergo inflection. There’s some great work on the problem, but it’s far from decided.

    Even better is that we still don’t even know what a word is, much less what the boundaries are between parts of speech…

  10. Aaron Davies said,

    May 15, 2008 @ 12:48 am

    I was just thinking about names earlier today (and have been on and off for years). In English in particular, and in Christendom in general, it seems to me that names are "doubly arbitrary" (in the "arbitrariness of the sign" sense)–the sounds involved are disconnected not only from *some specific* meaning, but from *any meaning at all* (due mostly to the multiple layers of languages involved in their derivation). This does not seem to be the case for most of the rest of the world–Native Americans are named "Sitting Bull" or "Crazy Horse", Japanese are named "Snow" or "Dream" or "Star", etc. What I've always wondered, and never really had any way to find out, is what (if any) the Whorfian effects of this difference are? Does a Japanese man named "Yuki" think of himself as having something to do with snow, or is his name as arbitrary to him as mine is to me?

    The only thing I can speak to with personal experience is the closest equivalent in traditional English-language naming patterns, girls' flower (or occasionally jewel) names, and when I hear of a girl named "Lily" or "Rose" or "Pearl", I certainly don't think of the object as having any particular relevance–but is that because of something inherent in naming, or just because the vast majority of English personal names have no meaning beyond their referring to some person?

  11. JS Bangs said,

    May 15, 2008 @ 2:17 am

    While on the topic of religious people with an interest in linguistics: this person is crying out for a linguist to explain what's going. I stepped in and provided a short, unsatisfactory explanation, but I would love to see a more thoroughgoing description of what this person has observed.

  12. mmm said,

    May 19, 2008 @ 5:27 am

    Hey Kel,
    apart from the fact that "I am" is not a verb, YAHWEH does'nt mean it, either.

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