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Hopkins was right?

July 20, 2011

Gerard Manley Hopkins, while one of my favorite poets, isn’t equally beloved in most English departments. There are a number of reasons for this, but it’s probably at least in part due to what we might call his linguistic essentialism. Basically, he believed that the sound of a word was often connected, in a non-arbitrary way, to its meaning, mostly through onomatopoeia (and his position is often caricatured as “linguistic onomatopoeism”). Lengthy quotations from his journal can be found here (embedded in an essay which I have not read).

This wasn’t terrible science for its time, but soon after Hopkins died, Ferdinand de Saussure came along arguing that the connection between signifier and signified is ultimately arbitrary, that there is no basis in reality for a connection between “cow” and a cow; after all, he reasoned, the French don’t call it “cow,” they call it “bouef,” which has none of the same sounds. Any strong claim that “cow” necessarily means a cow is, of course, doomed to fail, and I doubt even Hopkins would have made one. Nevertheless, his linguistic essentialism makes him rather unpalatable to the deconstructionist theorists that followed in the wake of Saussurean semiotics.

But the absolute nature of the Saussurean dichotomy is, perhaps, called into question by recent scientific research. From this article in the New Scientist:

Nearly 100 years of linguistics research has been based on the assumption that words are just collections of sounds – an agreed acoustic representation that has little to do with their actual meaning. There should be nothing in nonsense words such as “Humpty Dumpty” that would give away the character’s egg-like figure, any more than someone with no knowledge of English could be expected to infer that the word “rose” represents a sweet-smelling flower.

Yet a spate of recent studies challenge this idea. They suggest that we seem instinctively to link certain sounds with particular sensory perceptions. Some words really do evoke Humpty’s “handsome” rotundity. Others might bring to mind a spiky appearance, a bitter taste, or a sense of swift movement. And when you know where to look, these patterns crop up surprisingly often, allowing a monoglot English speaker to understand more Swahili or Japanese than you might imagine (see “Which sounds bigger?” at the bottom of this article). These cross-sensory connections may even open a window onto the first words ever uttered by our ancestors, giving us a glimpse of the earliest language and how it emerged.

None of this is exactly new, but the article linked to does a good job of summarizing the historical debate and describing recent research on the subject. Where it doesn’t do a good job is describing the implications of the research–that section is full of non sequiturs and unhelpful speculation–but I can imagine the research justifying an argument not too far away from the one they’re trying to make.

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