Books

Quotes – After Babel by George Steiner



George Steiner has some interesting (some might say downright weird) ideas about language. He relates it to religion, politics, and the universe as a whole, and often seems to be insinuating that language can be a kind of controlling force. Here are a few choice quotes from After Babel.

‘Bad translations communicate too much.’

‘The underlying grammar of all human speech forms is a mapping of the world.’ 

‘Shakespeare at times seems to ‘hear’ inside a word or phrase the history of its future echoes.’

‘A translation from language A into language B will make tangible the implication of a third, active presence.’

‘A single genuine exception, in any language whether living or dead, can invalidate the whole concept of a grammatical universal.’

‘Those numinous letters whose combinations make up the seventy-two names of God may, if they are probed to the hidden core of meaning, reveal the cipher, the configurations of the cosmos.’

‘The cosmic Word cannot be found in any known tongue; language after Babel cannot lead back to it. The bruit of human voices, so mysteriously and mutually baffling, shuts out the sound of the Logos. There is no access except silence.’

‘National character is ‘imprinted on language’, and, reciprocally, bears the stamp of language. Hence the supreme importance of the health of language to that of a people; where language is corrupted or bastardized, there will be a corresponding decline in the character and fortunes of the body politics.’

‘Being erratic blocs, all languages share in common myopia; none can articulate the whole truth of God or give its speakers a key to the meaning of existence. Translators are men groping towards each other in a common mist… men misconstrue and pervert each other’s meanings. But there is a way out of darkness: what Boehme calls ‘sensualistic speech’ – the speech of instinctual, untutored immediacy, the language of Nature and of natural man as it was bestowed on the Apostles, themselves humble folk, at Pentecost. God’s grammar sounds through echoing Nature, if only we will listen.’

‘Almost all linguistic mythologies, from Brahmin wisdom to Celtic and North African lore, concurred in believing that original speech had shivered into seventy-two shards, or into a number that was a simple multiple of seventy-two. Which were the primal fragments? Surely if these could be identified, diligent search would discover in them lexical and syntactic traces of the lost language of Paradise, remnants equitably scattered by an incensed God and whose reconstruction, like that of a broken mosaic, would lead men back to the universal grammar of Adam. If they did exist, these clues would be deep-hidden. They ought to be ferreted out, as Kabbalists and adepts of Hermes Trismegistus sought to do, by words and syllables, by inverting words and applying to ancient names, particularly to the diverse nominations of the Creator, a calculus as intricate as that of chiromancers and astrologers. The stakes were very high. If man could break down the prison walls of scattered and polluted speech (the rubble of the smashed tower), he would again have access to the inner penetralia of reality. He would know the truth as he spoke it.’

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