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Daniel Heller-Roazen, Echolalias: On the Forgetting of Language (New York: Zone Books, $28.00, 288 pages, ISBN 1890951498)—Graham Ranger, Université d'Avignon




Daniel Heller-Roazen's Echolalias comprises twenty-one short chapters on, as the cover notes tell us, "the many forms of linguistic forgetfulness." The book is handsomely presented and runs to nearly three hundred pages, the last fifty of which are devoted to chapter notes and a comprehensive index. Heller-Roazen is evidently a person of considerable erudition, the arguments of Echolalias are often formulated with vigour while the questions it deals with are ones which preoccupy me in my own research and yet, for reasons which I shall endeavour to explain, I found Echolalias profoundly disappointing, as it fell well short of the expectations I had formed of it.


Echolalias is organised in twenty-one chapters each focusing on different types and examples of language forgetting. The title of the work is teasingly enigmatic and this feature is maintained in the individual chapter titles. We might, in particular mention, "The Apex of Babble," "Aleph" or, remarkably, "Aglossostomography." It is possible to group the chapters into broader sections according to the interpretation placed upon "forgetting" and "language" and this is how we will proceed.


Chapters 1-5 deal with phonetic and graphematic aspects. The initial chapter, "The Apex of Babble," is a translation of a term coined in German by Roman Jakobson, who observed that "a babbling child can accumulate articulations which are never found within a single language or even a group of languages: consonants with the most varied points of articulation, palatalized and rounded consonants, sibilants, affricates, clicks, complex vowels, diphthongs, and so forth" [quoted 9]. Such a range of phonetic production contrasts with the limited array of phonemes to be found in any one language, "as if the acquisition of language were possible only through an act of oblivion, a kind of linguistic infantile amnesia […]. Perhaps the infant must forget the infinite series of sounds he once produced at the 'apex of babble' to obtain mastery of the finite system of consonants and vowels that characterises a single language" [11]. If the adult retains anything of the limitless phonetic possibilities of the child, then, concludes Heller-Roazen "It would be only an echo, of another speech and of something other than speech: an echolalia, which guarded the memory of the indistinct and immemorial babble that, in being lost, allowed all languages to be." [12] The conclusion of this initial chapter gives a good idea of the sort of argument Heller-Roazen will call upon in the remainder of the book. I am not, however, sure that, from the point of view of contemporary phonetic theory, the idea that a babbling child possesses limitless phonetic possibilities is entirely defensible. Chapter 2, "Exclamations," considers the manner in which exclamations, or rather interjections in a given language (Heller-Roazen appears to consider exclamatory utterances, interjections and onomatopoeias indifferently), often incorporate elements which stand outside the phonetic system (harking back to the 'apex of babble' of Chapter 1). It is the Hebrew letter aleph, א, which forms the object of Chapter 3. Heller-Roazen comments at length upon a midrash praising aleph for remaining silent while the other letters vaunt their respective merits in order to be allowed to begin the Bible. The letter bet, ב, is in fact chosen to begin the Bible, but aleph is rewarded for her humility by being the letter of the Ten Commandments. "Could God have shown himself to human beings in anything other than a letter that they had always already forgotten?," concludes Heller-Roazen in the paradoxical mode he favours: "The sole material of divine speech, the silent letter marks the forgetting from which all language emerges. Aleph guards the place of oblivion at the inception of every alphabet." [25] The two following chapters, "Endangered Phonemes" and "H & Co.", look at the disappearance of sounds and written letters respectively. The first focuses on the fate of the vowel sounds illustrated by the words tâche, brun and je in contemporary French. The second traces the disappearance of graphemes, and in particular, the <h> in Romance. The historical quotes from Latin and Renaissance authors, who discuss the arguments for and against maintaining <h>, are fascinating enough. The absence of any theoretical discussion of the process known as lenition is disappointing, [1] however, as is the author's frequently erratic use of conventions of phonetic or graphematic transcription. [2]


Chapters 6-10 look at the disappearance, or forgetting, of languages. "Exiles" evokes the loss of biblical Hebrew and its consequences for tenth-century Jews attempting to retrieve the language and to decide upon the appropriate system of versification. "Dead Ends" focuses on the death of languages. The metaphor is a relatively recent one, according to Heller-Roazen, and the linguists who deal in it are glibly satirized: "There is today an entire field of linguistic studies dedicated to a phenomenon that bears the technical name 'language death,' in which scholars have distinguished a range of degrees of linguistic obsolescence far more baroque than any imagined by the scholars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries" [57]. The author goes on to quote Crystal, who writes, in Language Death [3] , "To say that a language is dead is like saying that a person is dead. It could be no other way—for languages have no existence without people" [quoted 59]. Heller-Roazen comments: "It is not difficult to see the limitation of such reasoning. If it were sound, one would be logically obliged to maintain a number of claims to which one doubts the experts in language death would immediately subscribe, such as that pirouettes, time zones, taboos, and arpeggios must also be said to be born and to die, just like human beings, since they, too, 'have no existence without people.'" [59] It is in this kind of passage that Heller-Roazen reveals his own palpable limits, since rhetorical flippancy has never been a substitute for genuine research. The eighth chapter, "Thresholds" explores the problem of when a language can be said to die, or to transmute into another. The author recommends abandoning the life-death metaphor in favour of a recognition of the "intrinsic mutability of language" [72]. This leads him in turn to criticise "all attempts to slow or stop the fleeting course of languages. Whether they are nationalist or international, philological or ecological, such projects are united in the belief that speech is an object in which linguists can, and must, intervene to recall and conserve the identity from which it seems to be departing. In their aim to hold on to the forms of speech a tongue has already cast off, such efforts are futile at best." [75] While one might agree that language is essentially mutable, I personally would hesitate before suggesting that attempts to maintain a disappearing idiom are futile: given that linguistic engineering can precipitate the disappearance of a language why should the same style of engineering not enjoy some success in the opposite direction? The chapter entitled "Strata" turns to the survival of features of linguistic substrates with particular attention to the French [y] sound which, it has been claimed, owes its existence to a Celtic substrate. Interestingly, the transformation of the Latin [u] into a French [y] postdates the disappearance of Celtic on French soil by some ten centuries. "The archeological remainder, a limine, could lie concealed beneath any linguistic element at any point in the duration of a single tongue," suggests Heller-Roazen, to conclude mysteriously, "it may be that more of a language than its speakers would like to think is the forgetting of another, which continues to resound, albeit in oblivion, in the sounds of its successor." [86] Chapter 10, "Shifts" looks at Creoles, Pidgins and mixtures of language, with an interesting discussion on the problematical linguistic identity of modern Hebrew, as spoken in Israel, relative to Yiddish and to biblical Hebrew.


The next two chapters stand a little outside the others. They both deal with the conventional uses linguists make of the initial asterisk. Chapter 11 "Little Stars" traces the development of the asterisk used in historical linguistics from the late nineteenth century to mark a unattested reconstructed form: "Schleicher's first example was *fathār, presumed root of the Old Indic pitā(rs), Greek πατήρ, and Gothic fadar [sic]" [107]. "The Glimmer Returns" looks at the use of the asterisk in Chomskyan grammar to mark an ungrammatical sentence. The conclusion which closes these two chapters is insightful: "in the end, one must turn to an inexistent form of speech if one wishes to explain idioms that do exist. The glimmer returns: it seems that if one wishes to view a language with precision, one must do so in the light of another, whose forms—whether immemorial or inconceivable—one can only invent oneself." [119]


The second half of Echolalias is more anecdotal than the first, evoking various case studies of the forgetting of language (now construed as the faculty of language) in individual subjects. The first of these is Io, who in Book One of Ovid's Metamorphoses is transformed into a cow to prevent her from revealing to Juno that Jupiter had ravished her. She escapes from Juno's custody and makes her identity known to her father Inachus by tracing the letters of her name in the sand. The point of the story for Heller-Roazen is that "if the transformation is to be perceptible as such, something must indicate that it has taken place, something in the new form must mark the occurrence of the change […] I and O, the two letters drawn in the sand by the banks of the river, at once bear witness to the change and belie it." [124]


Chapters 14 and 15 focus on individual loss. The first, "The Lesser Animal," considers linguistic aphasia, drawing on a little known article by Freud arguing against Broca that "Aphasias simply reproduce a state which existed in the course of the normal process of learning to speak" [136]. This opinion appears to receive the approval of Heller-Roazen, and yet it is hard to believe that the huge variety of types of aphasia may simply be retraced back to earlier stages of language acquisition and harder still to believe that one should cite Freud as an authority without even mentioning the considerable subsequent developments in neurolinguistics! The intriguingly titled "Aglossostomography" relates two historical cases of individuals who had literally lost their tongues and were yet able to speak. In the same movement the author goes on to consider an Edgar Allen Poe short story, "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar", in which the tongue goes on speaking after the death of its host. Drawing on Barthes's analysis of the same story Heller-Roazen links this story to the paradox of ancient tomb inscriptions such as "I am the kylix of Korakos" [160]. He concludes that what we call a language may also be described in the same terms, as "a being which outlasts itself." [161]


Moving onto second-language learning, Chapter 16, "Hudba," considers the autobiography of the polyglot Elias Canetti. The linguistic education of Canetti is complex, but what interests Heller-Roazen is essentially that, after living in Bulgaria till the age of six, Canetti has no contact with Slavic languages until a trip to Prague when in his thirties. In his memoirs he reflects upon his reaction at learning that the word for music in Czech is "hudba." This is enough for Heller-Roazen to affirm that "in Prague, Canetti heard not a language but an echo: the sound within one tongue of another that had been forgotten." [176] "Schizophonetics" deals with Louis Wolfson, the author of Le Schizo et les langues, whose painful and complex relationship with his mother / tongue appears to be something of a cas célèbre of psychoanalysis as he deliberately sets out to forget his own language: [4] "since it was hardly possible not to listen to his mother tongue at all, he tried to develop ways to convert words almost instantly (especially those he found most troublesome) into foreign words each time, after they had penetrated his consciousness despite his efforts not to perceive them. So that he could somehow imagine that he was not being spoken to in that damned tongue, his mother tongue, English" [Le Schizo et les langues quoted 181]. The point, for Heller-Roazen, is that for Wolfson forcibly to forget his own language, "he obliged himself always to remember to remember it" [186].


Chapters 18-20 move on to Poetics with the loss or acquisition of language in the sense of forms of poetic expression. The discussion in all three chapters is based on literary productions the relevance of which he extends by analogy to language. The two pages of Chapter 18 tell the story of a classical Arab poet, Abū Nuwās. His medieval biographer relates that before Abū Nuwās can become a poet he is advised by Khalaf al-Ahmar, firstly to memorize entirely, and then to forget, a thousand passages of ancient poetry, "as if for him the sole place of poetry were in an indistinct region of speech in which memory and oblivion, writing and its effacement, could not clearly be told apart" [193]. The following chapter, "Persian," develops on a short story by Tommaso Landolfi, in which a character composes beautiful poetry in a language which he believes to be Persian but which in fact turns out to be an entirely personal idiom. "Poets in Paradise" recounts a tale drawn from The Epistle of Forgiveness written by Al-Ma'arrī in the eleventh century. The allegory imagines its protagonist and poet Ibn al-Qārih after death asking the dead poets of Heaven and Hell questions on their art. While the poets of Hell are able to answer and remember their poetry perfectly, "the poets the protagonist encounters in Paradise seem, in one way or another, to have left their poetry behind; and although they respond to the sound of the names they bore on earth, the saved poets appear to have little, if any, remembrance of the literary works for which they were once well known." [210] This legend brings us naturally enough to "Babel," the final chapter of Echolalias. In a rereading of a remark in Dante's De vulgari eloquentia, Heller-Roazen suggests that "the great 'confounding' [or 'confusion'] of Babel involved neither addition nor subtraction, neither creation nor destruction, but, instead, a loss of memory, which destined speaking beings to forget their 'one language, and […] one speech' and, in their oblivion, to develop the many idioms in which they would henceforth be scattered. […] As the element from which all language departed and by means of which they ceaselessly multiplied both temporally and geographically, 'confusion' would remain inseparable from the idioms to which it gave rise. It would constitute the invariable core of the variable being we call a tongue, the inalterable kernel of every alteration of speech." [225]


To sum up, Echolalias explores an extremely promising collection of strong intuitions regarding the mutability of language, but it does so without any attempt at theorisation. Even the terms of the subtitle, "forgetting" and "language," are construed in a number of very different ways. These different construals are on no occasion signalled as such to the reader. The absence of theorisation means that there can be no progression from chapter to chapter and no real exploration of terms of convergence or divergence between chapters. Indeed the book includes no internal, chapter-to-chapter references at all. These remarks mean that there is little that qualifies as genuine research in Echolalias. When previous research is quoted it is in the form of standard but largely outdated references (Freud, Trubetskoy or Jakobson). More contemporary research is all too often dismissed as "scholarly", a term which I learnt to recognise in Heller-Roazen's prose as curiously synonymous with "insignificant" or "pusillanimous." The book, I feel, has trouble defining its readership. It is not research but neither can it enter into the category of popular culture, with its forty pages of endnotes. There is a certain pleasure to be had from dipping into odd chapters, in particular when Heller-Roazen is writing on the fields of Classical Arabic or Jewish literature. Echolalias does not, however, bear criticism as an extended argument and all too often rhetorical flourishes (generally in the form of the paradox and the rhetorical question) replace the careful research and scientific demonstration one would like to expect.

[1]  Cf. R.L. Trask, Historical Linguistics. London: Edward Arnold, 1996. [55-60]

[2]  The phonetic transcription of "Ce lac dur oublié que hante sous le
givre" given on page 30 for example, is incorrect in two respects and
does not respect the conventions of presentation.

[3]  D. Crystal, Language Death. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

[4]  Wolfson's autobiographical Le Schizo et les langues  is of course written in the third person.

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