An Essay on Language

In his book Jenseits von Gut und Böse, Friedrich Nietzsche claims that “the people native to the Ural-Altaic language region (where the concept of the subject is the most rudimentary) are very likely to look at the world differently and discover different modes and manners for themselves than those of the Indo-Germans or the Muslims.” Nietzsche’s ideas pose a kind of challenge for us, Estonians, Finns, Hungarians, Turks and Mongols. In fact, Nietzsche inquired about the possibility or even necessity of diverging philosophies dwelling in our languages. In Greek the word “philosophy” means “a love of wisdom.” Could Finno-Ugric wisdom be different from the wisdom of the Indo-Europeans? Does wisdom depend on language? Does the Hungarian word “bölcs,” or “wise” mean something other than the Greek word “sofia”? The notion of the word “philosophy” did not exist in China before the 20th century, despite the fact that many Chinese thinkers have explored topics similar to those of Western philosophers. In this regard, perhaps it would be better to discuss Finno-Ugric (Turkish or Mongol) thinking and communication instead of Finno-Ugric philosophy. An even more debatable issue is whether language is itself a means of thinking. Is there thinking without language, and if so, what is such thinking like? The highly debated question of linguistic psychology (whether language is prior to thinking or thinking is prior to language) is a correlated topic bearing the subject at hand. Does a Finn or a French person think in a different way? But what is thinking? In this respect Nietzsche might have been the first thinker to suggest that instead of “I’m thinking” (ich denke) we should perhaps say, “it makes me think,” or in German, “es dünkt mich.”

Thinking is not an activity like running or eating. We think without resolving to do so, and we would actually find it hard not to think of anything. However, I do not believe that we could draw a clear boundary between thought and imagination, or all the other things existing in and flowing through our minds. To put it in another way, there is no concept of thinking that could be defined with precision. Obviously the Finnish and Hungarian languages do exist. Nevertheless, the question as to whether there is a specific Finn or Hungarian form of thinking (or any other specific form of thinking) remains unanswered.

If we wish to venture answers to these questions, we need to seek more definable phenomena and notions. As a linguist, I consider communication and the text such notions. Is the novel, the philosophical essay, the poem, or a sentence a text in people’s daily conversations? If so, then we can pose the question: do for example, the Estonians, the Finnish or the Hungarians behave differently in the course of a dialogue or conversation than the French, the Swedish, or the Russians? And is there anything similar in our Finno-Ugric communication and composition of text that connects us to one another, and do these similarities distinguish us from other peoples or other nations? Unfortunately we have not yet arrived at satisfactory response to innumerable important questions.

Although Hungarian is considered a Finno-Ugric language, one has to be a linguist in order to identify the words that have common roots with words in Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian, such as basic words like fazék (pot in English, pata in Finnish, pada in Estonian), kéz (hand, käsi, käsi), vér (blood, veri, veri), víz (water, vesi, vesi), hónalj (armpit, kainalo, kaenal), nyel (swallow, niellä, neelata), nyal (lick, nuolla, noolida), váll (shoulder, olka, olka), varjú (crow, varies, vares), fél (half, puoli, pool), etc. The structure of the Hungarian language is substantially different in many respects from the structures of the languages of the Baltic East Finnish or the eastern Finno-Ugric languages. However, there are some common traits that have been neglected by linguists and dictionaries. One such feature, for example, is onomatopoeia, the plethora of idiophones and mimetic words. The mimetic words often appear in pairs, such as the Estonian kila-kola (waste) or the Hungarian csireg-csörög (jingle-jangle), lim-lom (odds and ends, riffraff), szedett-vedett (trashy, scrappy) or dimbes-dombos (hilly). There are some word pairs in which one of the words is an echo-word, as in Dravidian languages, for example, the Estonian tühi-tähi, which means teeny-tiny, or simmel-sammel, which means missy-mossy. More importantly, however, in earlier times the Finno-Ugric languages used many such words pairs to designate general notions, such as the Estonian kopsud-maksad (lungs-livers, meaning in this case intestines), käed-jalad (hands or feet, meaning body parts), and even käejalajuures (which means besides), or the Hungarian jöttment (a word meaning vagrant derived from the past tense forms of the verbs come and go), árkon-bokron (which literally means over valley and shrub and in English would be over hill and dale), fű-fa (which means grass-tree and is used in sayings like “fűhöz-fához kapkod,” meaning he grabs at grass and tree, or more idiomatically he grabs at every straw), or the Erza Mordvin seidet-maksot (hearts-livers, again meaning intestines), ojt’-vel’kst (milks-creams, referring to dairy products in general).

One might ask what the relationship is between the general terms expressed by twin words and the wealth of mimesis. I believe that both are manifestations of the distinctive features of our culture in contrast with other cultures. In the speech of Finno-Ugric peoples, the urge to seek better and more accurate terms to express our thoughts is clearly visible. We live and communicate in a world in which objects, phenomena, events and activities are not specifically defined in advance, or to put it more simply have not been named in advance. If one wishes to speak of these things, one must first name them. This seems to be the difference between Finno-Ugric languages and those used by some other, mainly Western European peoples. For Western Europeans, the world is predictable, everything has its own name, and there is no need to search for further definitions. Western Europeans live more in a world defined by language than we do.

Traditionally, there were few words in Finno-Ugric languages that represented general concepts. Instead, they used two words that were close to each other in their meanings and that belonged to the same “family,” for example the Estonian kopsud-maksad, which as noted above refers to lungs and livers and means intestines, tassid-taldrikud, which refers to cups and plates and means vessels, hundid-karud, which refers to wolves and bears and means a large forest, or the Hungarian word testvér, which refers to body and blood means sibling. The meanings of these word pairs is more obscure and uncertain than that of a single word, but at the same time they are more general and even more abstract. Instead of some abstract expression, for instance, the Ezra Mordvin language still contains word pairs, like the aforementioned term “milks-creams.” In fact the Estonian tassid-taldrikud refers to all tabletop objects that contain food. In order to express general concepts, Western-European languages apply a single word. In Estonian one finds new and slightly artificial words that are equivalents. They include pagaritooted for “Baker’s wares,” taevakehad, literally meaning “sky arch” (the sky as a whole), veekogud  or “water collector” (i.e. reservoir), puittaimed, meaning “sapling,’” and siseelundid meaning “internal organs,” as previously mentioned. If the Estonian language had developed without the strong influence of the Indo-European languages, then today instead of these terms we would use word pairs like leivad-saiad (pastry, breads, white breads), kuud-tähed (moons-stars, i.e. celestial bodies), jöed-järved (rivers-lakes), puud-püüsad (trees-bushes), kopsud-maksad kliinik (lungs and liver medical centre, i.e. clinic for diseases of the internal organs), similar to some terms Hungarians use, such as the aforementioned word for sibling. Thus in Finno-Ugric languages, instead of using single words to express notions, we often use concepts defined by prototypes. Formally this means that instead of one word, we use more. These words represent objects typical of certain word groups. For example, for vessels, in other words dishes, cups, and plates, we simply say in Estonian tassid-taldrikud, despite the fact that a separate word, lau anöud, also exists which literally means dishes. When referring to general concepts, we use one word or a pair of words, much as in mathematics one uses one item in a set to denominate the set. (Mathematical sets are marked by capital letters, for example A, or some of the items belonging to the cluster in curly brackets, i.e. {a, b, … i}.)

In Western European languages, mimesis (the use of idiophones) is relatively rare, despite the fact that mimetic word pairs like fuddy-duddy, flip-flop, helter-skelter and hanky-panky occur quite frequently in the English language of today. These terms are often slang expressions. However, there is one Western European language that is extremely rich in mimesis and mimetic word pairs, Basque. For example, for long-lasting rain they say tzirimiri; while plisti-plasta represents wading in water, and mirku-zirku refers to walking from one location to another.

Since language does not always offer appropriate or precise words to describe reality and we live in a world in which language itself seems to be in decline, the various peoples have found different opportunities on the periphery of language use, such as mimesis, that allow a wide range of expressions for ideas and objects in Finno-Ugric languages. Ironically, for example Estonian has an onomatopoeic word for speech itself: rääkima meaning to speak. Presumably it originally referred to the shriek of the corn crake (a bird, Lat.: crex crex). Thus, Heidegger’s sentence: “Die Sprache spricht,” that is, “language speaks,” has a different meaning in Estonian. Sound and sounding may be more important than the actual content of speech.

Thus we can state that one finds a different attitude to language and the opportunities a language offers to describe reality in Finno-Ugric languages, and the attitude to reality is also significantly different. Thus, Nietzsche’s presupposition that Finno-Ugric peoples have a different view of reality has found some justification. In Western Europe from the time of Socrates and Aristotle there has been a widespread belief in the close relationship between words and their referents. Aristotle’s writings reveal that in his view objects and the words with which we refer to them are virtually the same. For Plato, the world of ideals was more real than the world of the senses. Therefore, in order to describe reality one had to identify the underlying ideas, signs and meanings. As a delusion, they even project the possibilities provided by the senses. This world view naturally avoids and scorns phenomena such as onomatopoeia or idiophones in a broader sense, i.e. the imitative, mimetic representation of things. According to the Aristotelian and Platonic approach, the general and abstract are more important than the concrete. The Estonian speaker has to find the common aspect of the sounds that recur in onomatopoeic words in Estonian, such as sahin (the rustling of leaves or hay), sabin (an often silent movement or gesture, for example the fast movement of small animals), solin (the gurgle of a loud voice or the movement of an object in the water), sorin (the sound of flowing water or liquid), sulin (the sound of the running water), surin (the sound of a small electrical gadget or engine), sädin (the sound of small birds or children’s chattering), sidin (the sound of small birds but not of children), särin (the sound of food being fried in a pan), and sirin (usually the quiet, monotonous sound of a grasshopper or other insect). For Aristotelian thinkers, Estonian, Finnish, Hungarian and Basque are primitive languages with a very low level of abstraction. Indeed, missionaries and other Europeans thought of the Estonian language, its speakers, and their intellectual capacities according to this logic. Consequently, Estonians attempted to develop their language into a so-called “civilized” European language. Of course, the Estonian language reform was essential from a certain point of view, as in order to transform Estonian into a language of European culture it was necessary to introduce thousands of new words to refer to concepts unknown to the Estonian peasantry. But in the course of the language reform often many of the distinctive features of Estonian, such as mimetic expressions and the representation of general concepts with the help of word pairs, were lost.

We can therefore conclude that Estonian, like most of the Finno-Ugric languages, prefers nominalism over the realism of Western European languages. We no longer trust language as much as most Europeans have done for ages. We do not believe that language could be a perfectly appropriate way to represent reality and that the world at some level is of a linguistic nature. If it were, our world view would not harmonize at all with the Pythagorean-Cabalistic view, according to which the world is a text constructed from letters (for instance of Hebrew or Arabic), words, or numbers. According to our archaic view, which is shaped and sustained in our language and communication, reality can often be better depicted as a drama than as an epic narrative, since onomatopoeia and idiophone are actually gestures. One could even claim that it is a certain mini-drama or mini-pantomime in which, instead of hands and fingers, we use speech organs to hold small presentations. In that sense, the cultures in which mimesis plays a prominent role, like the Finno-Ugric, Turkish, Dravidian, Basque, Chinese and Japanese cultures, are more dramatic, for in these languages the act of presentation plays a larger role in the spoken language than the narrative. These cultures are more nominal. One thinks of China, where nominal thinking has always been prominently represented than thinking in ideals. “One who knows does not speak, one who speaks does not know,” as Laozi claims. Chuang-che argues that words are like the net for the fisher: when the fish is caught, the net is forgotten. Once the meaning is clear, the word becomes forgettable.

In Chinese poetry, there are far fewer abstract words and far more concrete ideas than in European poetry. China had a major impact on Imagist English and American poetry of the early 20th century. In Chinese language, word pairs are used to express general concepts, for instance shan-shui, meaning mountain-water (in other words landscape), or feng-shui, i.e. wind-water (the energetic features of a site according to the tradition). In my view, to this day the Chinese mentality remains closer to the Finno-Ugric than Western European thinking, which was often translated through considerable effort into Finno-Ugric languages, despite the fact that even in translation it continued to appear strange to us.

Motivated in part by a perennial inferiority complex, the Estonians, Finns and Hungarians tried to conceal their Otherness and attempted to become “more European” than any European. This resulted in a phenomenon that Arnold Spengler refers to pseudo-morphosis. We partly live in a culture that is not entirely our own and to which we are not able to adapt fully. It is quite possible that alcoholism in Finland and Estonia and the high suicide rate in Finland, Estonia, and Hungary are both due to those difficulties that derive from our inability to properly cope with newly acquired cultural affiliations. We have been alienated somewhat from ourselves. Nowadays, an interest in the Chinese culture and language, as well as Japanese and Korean, is spreading in Finland, Estonia and Hungary. It is possible that we may be better able to understand our relationships with the Far East and South-India than those with Western Europe. I wonder if this could prompt a new approach to philosophy. Could we not more easily understand our own culture with the help of the Chinese and the Japanese, perhaps even entailing a transformation of our language as well? I don’t know. In my opinion, both in philosophy and science we should seek invariable truths that are less dependent on a given language and culture. However, before doing so, it is useful and essential to explore how our thinking and philosophy are related to our language and culture. This would also imply the recognition of the fact that Western philosophy is only one of many possible world views, as relevant as Chinese or the yet unborn Finno-Ugric philosophy. Once we appreciate the general, the invariable, it is important to be aware of our own distinctiveness, rather than simply to accept the foreign culture that happens to be popular today. We can approach the general only through the specific. There are numerous, so far missed opportunities in our languages and cultures that are important to examine from the human and humanist perspective. This is one of our most important tasks.

(Preface to the abridged Finnish language publication of György Kádár’s Introduction to Uralic Philosophy.)

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