The body of text, the corpse of meaning

Barrie Tullet’s Valley of Disease (Inferno Canto 29 of The Typographic Dante)

No matter how much you exercise, how healthy you eat and how carefully you plan, death comes to us all. Verrà la morte e avrà i tuoi occhi.

It’s the same with words. Language evolved every which way before the advent of Academies, and it continues to do so afterwards, despite the attempts to set it in stone. Words rise and fall like empires, no matter how well enshrined in use and status. Meaning shifts despite all our efforts to either arrest or channel it. Languages don’t have a soul, but they certainly look as though they had a mind of their own.

Language is adaptive, it helps negotiate the agent-arena relationship so language users are best fitted to their environment. Describe, analyse, communicate. Words are crafted, but we are in turn crafted by them.

The Latin alphabet hasn’t changed at all for over 2,000 years, but the languages which are written in it haven’t ceased to change. Even when the words didn’t change, the meaning has continued to shift. Morphological bodies standing triumphant over semantic corpses.

The excitement one experiences in the face of etymological insight, the wow moment as a word discloses its roots and its history is also the uncomfortable realisation that form outlives content. Language may facilitate our being in the world, but taken historically, it may hinder it. Perhaps that is why all languages and meaning decline, that we may be reminded that nothing really lasts, and the only hope is to recognise this and strive towards a constant sense of epistemological renewal.

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