Language

I recently read the following passage: “Shakespearean English is an excellent vehicle for discussing the sport of falconry but not of football. The fact that Shakespeare’s plays contain fluent and complex treatments of falconry is due as much to the resources of Elizabethan English as to Shakespeare’s interest in the topic.” in “Michel Foucault: A Very Short Introduction”

 

This is built on the assumption that after a language is “ready to be used” we can look at it and measure its competence to discuss this or that. Shakespearean English is there, waiting to be used, and we see in it the possibility of discussing falconry well. But it isn’t like that: when a language comes to be competent to discuss a certain practice it is because the practice has already grown within the language, over time, creating the means for its discussion. We have not witnessed the small evolutions that allowed for this discussion to be possible, but they form a continuum that results in the possibility of the discussion. It is no coincidence that all languages are suited to discuss practices pertaining to their cultures. The terms required for the discussion adapt and evolve through time, by means of small unnoticeable mutations that make words and expressions fit for the discussion. Shakespearean English would be suited for football if football were practiced and discussed at the time.  

 

Another passage: “If Shakespeare came back to life to attend a final in the World Cup between Germany and England, he would, great writer that he is, be severely handicapped in giving an accurate account of the game.”

 

Yes, but not if he lived through to that event, if he had never died. In that case his language would evolve to be able to discuss whatever came to be meaningful to him. This is an instance of Lamarckism in language. The leaves of high trees are not accidentally nutritious to the giraffe; rather, giraffes exist because there are leaves that nourish them.