Re: Transmission, Inheritance, Emulation 12
Hi Peter. Was delighted to find myself quoted as a source in your recent column--in the company of the likes of Plato and Wittgenstein no less! Am curious to know how/where you came across my book?
Reification: Your critique of the paragraph concerning word-sounds is well taken. In context, the paragraph in question was not meant to summarize Odano's work so much as to partially describe what it was about her work that had caught my interest many years a go when I first encountered it.
That said, by focusing on who is doing the speaking, aren't you also introducing a reification? Of course we can't talk about language as a phenomenon separate from humanity, but that was also part of my point: Does language communicate because humans are doing the speaking, or do humans communicate because they are endowed with the capacity for language?
Uniqueness of Japanese: Odano-sensei used to cite the phrase, 言霊の幸わう国 kotodama no satiwau kuni "the country (Japan) blessed by kotodama" as the epitome of elitist rubbish. (The inference of the phrase of course is that kotodama is uniquely Japanese and that other countries are inferior because they lack it. Rubbish indeed.) On the other hand, R. A. Miller, in my opinion, is suffering from a gaijin-complex: Somewhere along the line he was slighted by the sort of cultural chauvinism the above phrase demonstrates and decided that he would fight back with a vengeance. In so doing he misses the important point, what is it inherent to the Japanese language that suggested to some Japanese in pre-modern times the existence of a spiritual essence speaking behind the words?
Japanese has several unique features. Just as ALL languages have unique features; by saying it is unique we are not in any way elevating it above other languages. In the case of Japanese, the first of these is the table of fifty sounds (or more accurately, 76 sounds) that describes its phonetic composition. Leaving aside the question of how this table came into existence, it is an extraordinary feature. I know of no other language that comes equipped with such a complete and consciously arranged phonological map. As you well know, no language has changed more over the centuries than Japanese--first with the introduction of kango from the continent and now with the introduction of a plethora of katakana terminology. Yet phonologically, the language remains virtually unchanged--no morphing of vowels, no drifting of consonants. Really quite extraordinary. And begging of the question, why?
The second unique feature is its writing system that combines the use of both ideographic and phonetic characters. The only other language I am aware of that does this Korean; but in modern Korean most of the ideographs have been eliminated. This feature, overlooked entirely by kotodama traditionalists, is important because it enters into the spoken language by constantly referring speakers and listeners back to the characters with which words are written in order to understand their meanings--a juxtaposition of visual recognition on audial recognition. This is quite remarkable and has far-reaching cultural implications and consequences.
Words and things: Glad to see you pointing out the fallacy of the notion that words correspond to things: They don't. Words are abstractions. Things are objects of experience and are specific to time and place. The word "dog" includes everything from St. Bernards to Chihuahuas--a distinction not entirely obvious to experience. By connecting words grammatically, as in the phrase "my dog Spot", we are able to successfully communicate what element of our experience we wish to refer our listeners to. But the words are not the experience. Words only communicate because they are part of greater system of language; and language in this sense is entirely self-contained: It is always referring back to itself. What Odano-sensei is saying, and what I believe even the traditional kotodama-ists were trying to get at, even if with less clarity, is that this system itself hints at mirroring the intelligence, creativity, and design of the universe at large and is therefore deserving of our attention!
As a note in passing: Odano met Ueshiba Morihei on one occasion. It's a funny story to be told another time. Suffice it to say that they did not exactly hit it off!