Many People, Few Ideas 3

Performing language

To stay with Copland and music a little longer, look what happens to his comments if we substitute ‘language’ for ‘music’ and ‘words’ for ‘notes’:

“My own belief is that all language has an expressive power, some more and some less, but that all language has a certain meaning behind the words and that that meaning behind the words constitutes, after all, what the piece is saying, what the piece is about.”


“Language expresses, at different moments, serenity or exuberance, regret or triumph, fury or delight. It expresses each of these moods, and many others, in a numberless variety of subtle shadings and differences.”

This is very close to Walter Benjamin’s formulation of what he termed “latent potency” in language. Benjamin drew a clear distinction between expression through language and expression within language – or put another way, between the instrumental use of language (where items of information and semantic content are conveyed through language) and the magical or poetic use whereby a very particular type of meaning emerges in the expression or in the manner of speaking – and which in no way has to match the content of what is being said. Indeed, he implied that, for him, the form of articulation is more fundamental for language than the communicable nature of semantic contents or their referentiality. This is more than merely stating that the meaning of what is being said is inseparable from the way of saying it or that the content of a speech act is intrinsically bound up with its form – he argued that the form of speech can produce a completely different, independent and above all latent meaning – as seen supremely in poetry, which cannot be wholly translated into something expressible because in poetic language something else beyond the named content is given expression, something akin to a mood or an atmosphere that is neither semantic nor communicable at the level of word meanings. I would argue that this is bound up with the fact that we actively perform language: its dynamic resides within ourselves rather than as a tool ‘somewhere out there.’

This isn’t restricted to poetry. Language is embedded within an intricate network of modifying cultural and other behaviours which operate on its semantic or lexical contents. As a student I found a vacation job working as a general labourer in a brewery – oh, happy days! I quickly discovered that hearing someone called “bastard” was not an inevitable indicator of rancour but could be expressive of familiarity, friendship or even affection. Indeed, in the final weeks of my time there I was relaxed about being greeted with such terms as “Right, you bastard, let’s get these barrels sorted” because it granted me some limited form of acceptance – even though it was a little tiresome to have to keep explaining that “working towards my Doctorate” did not mean that I could cure bad backs or deal with odd rashes in odder places.

Perhaps Benjamin’s point is more clearly illustrated where music and language interact – in song. There can be no doubt, for example, that Mahler’s settings of Rückert’s Kindertotenlieder create a more powerful and qualitatively different experience from the one the poems alone generate. Or to take a more modern and less tragic example – given that both Rückert’s children died within sixteen days of each other, causing him to write some four hundred and twenty five poems over the next year or so (of which Mahler, of course, selected only five) – Bob Seger’s rock classic Turn the Page has been recorded on numerous occasions by many performers (perhaps most memorably by himself and by the heavy-metal group Metallica). Although the tune and lyrics remain the same across the range of interpretations (including from my own small collection Kentucky blue grass complete with banjos; acoustic guitar; cabaret performance with piano; and so on) each rendition is quite different in terms of vocalisation, intonation, rhythm, tempo and overall sensory experience, so much so that the listener can extract a range of extra meanings from them.

Another perspective is found in Winston Churchill’s famous speech of 4 June1940, during the Battle of France. The portion which echoes down the years – and is often misquoted as “We shall fight them on the beaches” – comes at the end of his report to Parliament on Operation Dynamo, or the retreat from Dunkirk:

“Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

Clearly, although we can quickly identify the technical rhetorical reason why the words (which actually form less than 3% of the total speech) have impact – the anaphora or repetitio of the repeated phrase “we shall” – this is not the reason why these words continue to resonate today as an iconic statement of obdurate defiance in the face of apparently overwhelming odds. That has to do with Churchill’s performance: his timbre, intonation, modulation, rhythm and breathing – Benjamin’s “form of articulation more fundamental for language than the communicable nature of semantic contents or their referentiality.” Indeed, so strongly imprinted on the memory has his performance become that it is almost impossible for those of us of a certain age to try to say the words out loud without falling into pale imitation of an ersatz Churchill, cigar and all.

This is almost certainly because we have heard the same performance over and over again, on the somewhat crackly BBC recording made later the same day. It is highly unlikely that it was exactly the same as the sounds he made in the House of Commons some time earlier, just as if I delivered this essay as a lecture every day for a week it would never be exactly the same. Chris Dobrian offers a nice description of the variables facing a violinist:

“In playing a single brief note, a violinist combines bow angle, bow speed, bow pressure, bow placement, bow attack, finger placement, finger movement, finger pressure, in addition to whatever totally involuntary muscular movements may be caused by nervousness, coffee consumption, humidity, unknown electrical discharges in the brain, etc.–and all of these factors are changing from millisecond to millisecond (more correctly, probably much, much faster than that), modified by the brain in interactive response to the sound being produced, the sound others are producing, the acoustics of the room, etc.”

And this would apply to any player performing any piece, of course.

It might be argued, nonetheless, that all this is all very well, but that the examples given are outside the ordinary everyday experience of the way in which we use language because they were presented in formal contexts, written down, rehearsed – whereas most language use is likely to be informal, spontaneous and improvised. To which my reply would be twofold: firstly, many – even most – occasions on which we use language are repetitions of previous similar experiences out of which we fashion a body of expectation and assumption – remember Bertrand Russell’s observation that understanding language is a matter of habits acquired in oneself and rightly assumed in others; and secondly, our awareness of the differences in performance and the effects of those differences noted above emerge from our ability to use the developing technologies of the day, which in turn modify our language behaviour.

In the first instance, that is, although the immediate context will generate new language that language will be shaped by our past experiences of similar contexts – as we move forward through time and space we equip ourselves with a range of appropriate scripts with which to help us deal with life’s contingency and in that sense our language is always rehearsed to some degree because we are simultaneously the composer, the performer and the instrument of what we say as well as the interpreter of what we think others say. The constant need to refine our scripts against our interactions with the world and other people is the abiding theme of literature.

In the second instance, technology has impact because it alters our sensory experience of the outside world and therefore our interactions with it. To stay with music a moment longer, the world is a different place for a person who can store the whole of Beethoven’s output on a fraction of the space in his or her iPod or other MP3 player than it was for previous generations as recent as grandparents, who had to go to the concert hall to hear an hour or so of live music. The experience of listening to that music has also changed, from a shared experience in a neutral venue to the intimacy of personal ear bud headphones. So technology too requires us to constantly learn to accommodate ourselves to the changes it imposes – and as B F Skinner reminds us in The Origins of Cognitive Thought:

“Learning is not doing; it is changing what we do.”

© 2019 Mike Liddell
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