Logos Multilingual Portal

2. Culture and civilization: original elements and foreign assimilations in the historical progress of languages



b) In search of roots

The latin roots of the Holy Roman Empire represent that uniformity of codes, in Mediaeval Europe, without which the emergence of Latin as the 'official' language of culture from the 15th Century to the 18th would be inconceivable. In like manner, the Troubadours' poetic image of the donna angelicata provides the pivot on which metaphors of the Soul would come to hinge in premodern cultures, with all their particular symbology of mirrors, ghostly doubles and wayfarers. Languages too have their place in this tradition.

In Europe there are diurnal languages and nocturnal languages. The former incline toward objectivity, the latter toward subjectivity. Diurnal languages are generated in federalistic milieux characterized by interaction between national cultures. They are languages of 'civilization'. Nocturnal languages are solidly nationalistic. They are languages of 'culture'. Diurnal languages have as their substratum the codes of legal and mercantile expression. Anyone engaged in decoding neo-latin languages should start from the Pandette di Giustiniano: the first organic collection of laws common to the latin world. It would then become clear how in diurnal languages the fundamental element is the nexus between subject and object, whilst the complement serves to 'set the scene' in which the interaction is placed. Quite the opposite applies in nocturnal languages, where the notion of 'complement' simply does not exist, unless as an indicator of 'manner'; in this sense, 'how' is more important than 'what' in nocturnal languages. In German, wenn suggests the outcome of an action, stemming from fulfilment of the conditions which determined the reasons or justifications for the action. So, wenn is neither 'when' nor 'whenever'. Neither temporal nor causal. If anything, it conveys the idea that time has a logic all its own, running its course outside of our control. By contrast, weil indicates a chronological succession of events unfolding inexorably to produce an inescapable result (a destiny? In German, the tragic hero is always begotten of a weil).

If, adopting a well-established metaphor, we understand the light of day as a symbol of enlightening Reason and the shadows of night as expressing the culture of the Other Self, it will be clear that the neo-latin languages are languages of the daytime, and the broad body of those originating from Saxon and Germanic stock are languages of the night-time. Or in short: the former are languages of denotation, the latter of connotation. Or again: the one type of language gives importance to the 'what', as defined by hierarchical reference, and the other to the 'how', as defined by the psychological oscillations of the Ego.

Underlying this divisive dichotomy there is a historical process. Neo-latin languages derive from the assimilation of Greek culture bedded in a legal and commercial language that had two characteristics: 1) it was a product of artificial synthesis, built on a system of academic rules; 2) it reflected the needs of coexistence and the emergence of a life involving relations between different cultures and languages. Ductility therefore, or what we might better refer to as anthropocentricity, was not the special feature of Latin. Greek on the other hand was the language used by a modest city of fourteen thousand inhabitants ¾ the Athens of the fourth century ¾ which grew from a dialectic structuring of attitudes particular to the various arts and professions (including Philosophy and the Theatre). In Greek, then, one has the aorist, precursor of the German preterit and the English present continuous, which before being English was Saxon. In aoristic expression, what matters is the result: that circumstance whereby if event A does not come about, then event B cannot even be contemplated (Aristotle's tertium non datur...). In Latin, by contrast, the organization of meaning is never logical, but always spatiotemporal and therefore hierarchical. In nocturnal languages, the concept of 'near' and 'remote' as denotative of tense, of chronological sequence, does not even exist.

In the broad sense, diurnal languages could be considered Copernican, and nocturnal languages Ptolemaic. In the first, it is meaning that gives voice to the universe of language; in the second it is sense: indistinct, subjective, not reducible to any linguistic hierarchy. In short: diurnal languages are centripetal, nocturnal languages centrifugal.