The World of Silence

The Ancient Languages

   In the fables of the Golden Age we are told that
men understood the language of all animals, trees,
flowers, and grasses. That is a reminder of the fact 
that in the first language that had just come from the fullness
of silence, there was still the all-containing fullness.
   This language climbed upwards toward the vault of
heaven at the same time.
   It formed an arch over all the sounds of the earth, and
all the sounds of the whole of nature met together. As
everything that rises from the earth is taken up into the
vault of heaven, so all the voices of the earth were taken
up by the one heaven of language. Every single voice
entered in and became a part of it, and therefore every
voice was understood. This heaven of the languages was
the homeland of all voices; they all came to themselves
and to each other in this heaven. This language was
unobtrusive despite its powerfulness, as unobtrusive as
silence itself.

   The ancient languages are constructed radially, always
beginning from and returning to the centre that is silence,
like a fountain with its jets all starting in an arc from the
centre, returning to it and disappearing in it.

            In modern writings the idea seems to rise from the 
            movements of a man walking straight forward. In the
            writings of the ancients on the other hand it seems to
            arise from that of a bird hovering and advancing in
            circles. (Joubert)

   In the early languages there was a mixture of reticence
and power: reticence and shyness because language had
only just emerged from silence, and power because it had
to make sure of its position, to establish itself so that it
could not be swept back into silence.

           A quiver full of steel arrows, a firmly secured anchor 
           rope, a brazen trumpet splitting the air with its few
           piercing tones: that is the Hebrew language—it can say
           but little, but what it says is like the beating of hammers
           on the anvil. (Renan, Israel)
   Almost unchangeable, like a piece of the Cyclopean
wall, the ancient words stand as if waiting, as if they might
be called back into silence just as they were sent out of
silence. It is as though they felt themselves still under the 
control of silence, as if they were still glancing backwards
to the silence whence they came. It was also always
possible that another, higher word, a corrective, might
come out of the silence.
   The early languages had to secure a firm position for
themselves—and they were therefore static. The indi-
vidual words were like stakes set in the ground, each one
on its own, with hardly any connection between one stake
and the next. The architecture of the language was
vertical. Each word sank down vertically, column-wise,
into the sentence.

          In our old laws the language usually sounds grave, and 
          strong; less abrupt, less curt, rather slow and yet without
          dragging. (Jacob Grimm)

   In language today we have lost the static quality of the
ancient tongues. The sentence has become dynamic;
every word and every sentence speeds on to the next. The
architecture of language is different: the vertical
columns have been laid low and the sentence is deter-
mined by the impulse of the horizontal onward drive.
"The vertical columns would hold up the universal
flight like a barrier—but everything now moves horizon-
tally, in the line of flight." (Picard, The Flight from God) The
sentence becomes fluid and dynamic. The words jostle
each other in their violent onward drive. Language today
is sharp and aggressive and there is often more aggressive-
ness in the very form of the language than in the content
it is expressing. Language is too self-conscious: each
word comes more from the preceding word than from the
silence and moves on more to the next word in front than
to the silence.

   In the ancient languages one notices that the birth of
words from silence was not taken for granted but was
considered an event of sufficient importance to require a
pause in the flow of language before the arrival of the next
word. Words were constantly being interrupted by silence.
As a river being born receives at every moment waters
from different springs, in like manner after every word a
new spring of silence flowed into the stream of the sentence.
   In the ancient languages the word was merely an inter-
ruption of the silence. Every word was rimmed around
with silence. It was this surrounding rim of silence that
gave it its individual shape, and kept it separate and dis-
tinct from all other words, fenced off from them with its
individuality guarded by the silence. If there is no silence
between words they lose their individual shape and person-
ality. Instead of being persons they become an undiffer-
entiated mass.
   In the ancient languages there was a silence in the 
interval between two words. The language breathed
silence, spoke silence, into the great silence from which
it came.

            In the classical style silence usually occupies an import- 
           ant space. Silence predominates in the style of Tacitus.
           Vulgar anger breaks out, the lower kind of anger chatters,
           but there is an indignation which feels the need of silence
           in order to leave the word to the things that are done in
           expectation of future justice. (Ernest Hello)
   It is important that the ancient languages should be
taught in schools because they reveal the origin of language
in silence, the power of silence over language, and the
healing influence of silence on language so much more
clearly than these things are revealed today in our own
   It is also important that through the ancient languages
that are "useless", man should be redeemed from the
world of mere profit and utility. We cannot "do much"
with the ancient languages, but they bring us into touch
with something that takes us beyond the world of pure

    It is also important that dialects should be preserved.
For a man who is in the habit of speaking dialect finds it
impossible to move unchecked from word to word when
he is writing or speaking the standard language. He
always has to start out from the dialect to reach the
standard written language at all. The standard language is
not something ready-made that he takes for granted.
When a man who usually speaks dialect speaks the standard
language he drags the dialect underneath him like a brake-
shoe under a cart. Dialect words are less easily maneuv-
erable. Like the silence that interrupts the flow of words
and prevents language from becoming a mechanical
routine, dialect, though to a lesser degree, protects the
separate individuality of words.
   Probably it is against the whole nature of language and
therefore against the whole nature of man that dialects
should be absorbed by the uniform standard language and
that this should expand too far beyond its proper limits.
In all human concerns there is a definite relationship
between the quantity and the quality of a phenomenon.
A human phenomenon cannot expand beyond a certain
measure without destroying itself, and apparently this
applies to language as to everything else.

            The finest truth of the English language is injured by 
           its all-too-universal expansion...Any bird lover
           must admit that the sparrow has many virtues but it must
           give him a nasty jerk to think of the powers of propaga-
           tion of this small bird. If he thinks too hard he will
           become obsessed by the idea of a world from which all
           the more fastidious species have disappeared and only a
           universal sparrowdom remains. (Basil de Sélincourt)