William Godwin on the Advantages of the Multilingual Mind – Brain Pickings


William Godwin on the Advantages of the Multilingual Mind

Language shouldn’t be the content material of thought however the vessel that carries thought, the vessel into which we pour the ambivalences and contradictions of our considering in an effort to anneal our understanding of the world. The extra spacious the vessel, the extra latitude we’ve got to make clear our personal ideas, to achieve farther horizons on the waves of the thoughts. “We die. That could be the which means of life,” Toni Morrison asserted in her spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “However we do language. That could be the measure of our lives.” In language we fathom ourselves and our personal lives; in language we compose, to borrow Leonard Cohen’s pretty phrase, “the Constitution of the inner country.” And but language is inherently moored to the territory of an outer nation — to the lexicon, vocabulary, and folkloric tongue of a folks and a spot.

Nothing furthers the attain of thought in language extra certainly than proficiency in a number of lexicons, which confers upon the bilingual or multilingual thoughts a lush benefit of thought. That’s what the radical thinker William Godwin (March 3, 1756–April 7, 1836) explores in a passage from his altogether glorious 1797 e book The Enquirer: Reflections on Education, Manners, and Literature (public library) — the assortment of essays he composed whereas his associate, the thinker and feminism founding mom Mary Wollstonecraft, was pregnant with their daughter, who would at some point write the visionary Frankenstein.

William Godwin. Portrait by James Northcote. (Nationwide Portrait Gallery, London.)

Practically two centuries earlier than Ursula Okay. Le Guin noticed that the operate 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 can not replicate the experiences of the numerous folks compelled to talk it, Godwin makes an ardent case for the way the data of a number of languages liberates the thoughts and swells the energy of the human spirit. (A vital meta-sensitivity to language as an emissary of time and place is due in studying Godwin: His use of the masculine to handle common humanity is a mirrored image of his period’s lexical conference — he was writing two centuries earlier than the unsexing of he as the universal pronoun — and never of his beliefs: Godwin was an ardent exponent of gender equality, who courageously bore the opprobrium such radical views earned him, who cast with Wollstonecraft a a trailblazing marriage of equals, and who, in an period when ladies have been fully excluded from actual schooling and the world of concepts, raised his daughters with uncompromising focus on the life of the thoughts.)

Advocating for educating younger folks a number of languages, Godwin writes:

He that’s acquainted with just one language, will in all probability at all times stay in some extent the slave of language. From the imperfectness of his data, he’ll really feel himself at one time seduced to say the factor he didn’t imply, and at one other time will fall into errors of this type with out being conscious of it. It’s unimaginable he ought to perceive the full pressure of phrases. He’ll typically produce ridicule, the place he supposed to supply ardour. He’ll search in useless for the hidden treasures of his native tongue. He won’t ever be capable of make use of it in the most advantageous method. He can’t be effectively acquainted with its energy and its weak point. He’s uninformed respecting its true genius and discriminating traits. However the man who’s competent to and exercised in the comparability of languages, has attained to his correct elevation. Language shouldn’t be his grasp, however he’s the grasp of language. Issues maintain their simply order in his thoughts, concepts first, after which phrases. Phrases subsequently are utilized by him as the means of speaking or giving permanence to his sentiments; and the entire journal of his native tongue is subjected at his toes.

Artwork by Jackie Morris from The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane

Epochs earlier than Susan Sontag insisted that words are a tool of personal agency, Godwin argues that our vocabulary furnishes the constructing blocks of our understanding, which in flip foments our capability for efficient motion in the world:

Phrases are of the utmost significance to human understanding. Nearly all the concepts employed by us in issues of reasoning have been acquired by phrases. In our most retired contemplations we predict for the most half in phrases; and upon recollection can generally simply inform in what language we’ve got been considering. With out phrases, uttered, or thought upon, we couldn’t in all probability carry on any lengthy prepare of deduction. The science of considering subsequently is little else than the science of phrases. He that has not been accustomed to refine upon phrases, and discriminate their shades of which means, will assume and cause after a really inaccurate and slovenly method. He that’s not capable of name his thought by numerous names, borrowed from numerous languages, will scarcely be capable of conceive his thought in a method exact, clear and unconfused.

Complement with The Lost Words — author Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris’s brave act of resistance towards the impoverishment of our language, which is an impoverishment of our creativeness — and Iris Murdoch on language as an instrument of truth against tyranny, then revisit Godwin on how to raise a reader.

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