The Blogora: The Rhetoric Society of America
Submitted by cate morrison on February 21, 2010 - 3:46pm.

I picked up "In the Land of Invented Languages" by Arika Okrent a few months ago, and it presents the theoretical counterpoint for these radical Amazonian empiricists--for logical languages, the question is how to construct an opposing system of meaning that can make sense of the world transparently, without bias. Logical languages then attempt to create a sort of portability from situation to situation (and speaker to speaker), but it does so by subordinating needs that arise throughout the course of human interaction--the day to day--to a logical system of categorization and predication. But the inflexibility of the system means that one must either begin to take liberties with our description of things, usually through reduction and abstraction to a handful of predicable categories and substances, or we have to add so many rules that the syntax and grammar becomes impossible to master. If the Piraha are all presence, logical languages become all absence (or perhaps more charitably, all transcendence).

Though Okrent doesn't phrase it this way, my uptake was that languages that do not allow for the rhetoric's capacity for flexibility to borrow or invent--in short, to say how something is not--tend to founder quickly, while those that do (notably Esperanto or Klingon) build communities of users that both invent new words and establish familiar patterns of use.

I guess I'm left with the question, then, if the Piraha can be said to have a rhetoric--if they are the particular extreme and counterpart to logical languages' general extreme.

Submitted by cate morrison on February 21, 2010 - 5:14pm.

Communication/sound-studies specialist (and significant other) Ian Reyes chimes in with an answer re: Piraha rhetoric. As Keren Everett points out in the end, the rhetoric is prosodic. It's the engine of variation, normalization and invention. Ian's fascinated by the possibility that the Piraha are an example of a unity of ethics, aesthetics and reason that Jacques Attali suggests is the primary ground of language.

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