A dialogue between an English scientist (ES) and a German linguist (GL)

ES: As you predicted, I didn’t understand your first paragraph, so I can’t respond to it directly.

GL: I have to admit to a perennial problem, it’s linguistic and cultural. If I don’t manage to put my explanation here, I’ll try again when I see you. I’ll stop trying the minute I see it’ll bore you!

In German we string words together to make one long word. It’s not common in English, but I’ve noticed there’s a tendency now, but on a minor scale.  When I first saw the word ‘fairytale’, it was still two words, then I noticed a hyphen creeping in and now I mainly see one word. But that’s where it ends.

In German any number of words can be strung together. And here’s the rub, when this happens two things are possible: The meaning of the new word can be the sum total of its parts or the new compound word can create a unique meaning over and above the component parts. In the first case, it’s relatively easy to translate the word into English, in the second it’s diabolical.

You only have to look at Rilke’s poetry to see what I mean or read some Heidegger in German and try to put some of his words into English. You are forced to use ‘of’ or ‘on’ or ‘at’ or hyphenated word groups, even breaking down and re-arranging the whole into different word groups or clauses.

The first two lines of a poem by Rilke are a typical example: Du im Voraus verlorne Geliebte, NimmergekommeneYou who never arrived in my arms, Beloved, who were lost from the start… Nimmergekommene is translated as Who Never Arrived (translated by Stephen Mitchell, 1913-1914)

The word Nimmergekommene in Rilke’s poem is the sum total of its individual parts nimmer (‘never’) and gekommene (past participle of ‘to come’, ‘to arrive’), with both parts retaining their basic lexical meaning.

Heidegger uses words that create a new meaning over and above the component parts, e.g. Lebenswelt or ‘life-world’ in English, a word that ‘stresses the solidness of the human encapsulation within reality.’ (Roy Hornsby, Internet) We can see that the two words ‘life’ and ‘world’ lose their basic lexical meanings to create a new concept.

There are words with many more composite parts in everyday usage, e.g. Haushaltskontrollausschuss, literally ‘budget-control-committee’, the official term is ‘committee on budgetary control.’ (Der Spiegel, 15/7/2017, p. 65)

Here’s a slightly longer one: Scheidungskreidekreisprobe, literally ‘divorce-chalk-circle-trial’ or ‘the distribution of friends after a divorce.’ One of the composite parts, the ‘chalk circle’, hints at ‘magic’, ‘protection’ and ‘witchcraft’, lifting the whole word into another dimension. (Ben Schott in Schottenfreude)

Finally, one where each composite part integrates into a new entity of meaning: Dreikäsehochregression, literally ‘three-cheeses-high-regression’, as sometimes a little child may be endearingly called a ‘threecheeseshigh’, the best description in English would be ‘small-child-regression’. (ibid.)

So, when I use one long word with its own unique inherent meaning, I am forced to write down all the separate parts and thereby destroy the core meaning of the whole. This makes German sometimes appear quite impenetrable and even nonsensical. It’s possible that Lewis Carroll made use of some of these seemingly gobbledegook elements in Alice in Wonderland, e.g. the poem ‘Jabberwocky’ in Through the Looking-Glass.

I could say more but no, only that in the heat of an argument, I forget I mustn’t use the second category of word formations for conveying complex thoughts or ideas in English, that’s when it sounds like galumping, frabjous, borogroves and bandersnatch.

ES: Any attempt to share the contents of our inner self, or consciousness, often seems to end in ambiguity and vagueness. The phenomenologists Husserl, Hegel, Brentano and others tried to make it scientific and precise, but the terminology they introduced is difficult to understand. Perhaps other languages such as German are clearer in this respect in spite of or perhaps because of long words?

GL: Takaaki Kajita and Arthur McDonald received the Nobel Prize for having discovered that ‘the mass of neutrinos is not nil but only as good as nil.’ That doesn’t sound very clear to me, let alone scientific and precise, but fascinating stuff all the same. It just shows us the questionability of ‘clarity’ and ‘scientific precision’. This is relatively new territory science is trying to grapple with and any translation from German to English in this area may well fall under the second category of long word formations in German, but no examples to date.

Within the framework of the traditional Newtonian physics, ‘clarity’ seems to be less of a problem. Just look at the stuff Karl is involved with. It all makes perfect sense, although some of the gadgets do not seem to display an immediately obvious useful function, but their mechanics can be understood by everybody, they can be demonstrated, replicated, measured, weighed, precisely calculated, the lot. Ergo, it fits perfectly into the ‘clarity’ box. And there would be no problem in translating the detailed processes involved here from German to English or vice versa, as it would fit beautifully into the first category of long word formations.  

ES: Perhaps we should consider applying Wittgenstein’s dictum: ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’ Maybe minds come in different types, and a mind of type A can never understand some of the utterances made by a mind of type B. It would be wonderful to discover that there is a ‘Periodic Table’ of The Self or Mind. 

GL: Yes, wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing!  I agree, minds are different types, like our unique ‘fingerprints’, we all have fingers, we all have minds, but that’s where it ends. I suspect though that a ‘Periodic Table’ of The Self or Mind would amount to us all being clones, ‘mass-re-produce-able’ machines, vaguely reminiscent of Huxley’s Brave New World. Don’t know whether I would like that.

As for Wittgenstein’s dictum, I always assumed it was about something like ‘God’, the human mind can only engage subjectively with an abstract concept so it can only be intuitively grasped. Realising the futility of philosophising about ‘God’, it would be logical to conclude as above.

But could there be a danger? For example, what to the contemporaries of Galileo and Giordano Bruno appeared to be contrary to the science and common sense then is now common knowledge and the basis of modern thinking. So, unless we try to look behind the veil of our ‘status quo’ ignorance, we won’t advance.

Can’t language in combination with our thinking be instrumental in directing us towards new horizons? I wonder could it be that Quantum Physics is such a new horizon, like an unexplored dark continent, where the Stanleys and the Livingstones of this world will one day shake hands in the middle of ‘nowhere’? Or will Wittgenstein wag his finger at me again?

ES: Some people say that art is the vehicle that allows us to share the contents of our consciousness: ‘art is the communication of that which cannot be told.’

GL: Yes, painting, music and poetry could be seen as such transcendent vehicles. When I read Rilke or Blake, I see other-worldly pictures and landscapes rise up in my mind’s eye like paintings, as if the poet was casting spells on my inner canvas, communicating with my soul, you might say, or fathoming the depths of my unconscious.

ES: What is refreshing for me about science is that it restricts itself to a more limited domain of phenomena where we can have more than one reason for believing what we believe, for example, a theoretical reason combined with a practical demonstration; and this makes it more precise, and less ambiguous. So we can achieve a greater measure of agreement.

GL: Yes, it is refreshing and so important, because what you describe in this paragraph is what society is based upon, what makes it function. The operative words are ‘restricts itself to a more limited domain…’ Here theory and practice go hand in hand towards the only goal: ‘more precise, and less ambiguous’.  It gives us more certainty in an uncertain world. The ‘greater measure of agreement’ has a twofold dimension, practical and existential.  Practical: a greater measure of agreement gives us a more reliable basis for practical cooperation to run our lives, to manage our world. Existential: a greater measure of agreement makes us feel less alone, makes us feel connected.

ES: Although babies have more ‘potentiality’ than adults, they can do less. Perhaps we can only interact with the world in meaningful ways by limiting our potentiality. Is this not what education does: it ‘brainwashes’ us, i.e. restricts our potentiality, but also frees us from the box we are in.

GL: Now I have to be careful if I don’t want to have Wittgenstein to answer to. What I mean by potentiality with regard to language rests on personal experience. My basic state of mind is neutral. I call this the potential state. When I rise up from the potential state and enter into the words, I am my words. When the words are shed, I drop back into my potential state.

When I’m in my words, my thinking mind is fully engaged in dialogue.  I never want to stay in this state, as I feel restricted by it. I want to drop back into the potential state, as there I feel everything is possible.  In the potentiality state nothing is formed yet, my words have to be born into the next dialogue. 

When I speak with you, for example, my words grow as I speak, helped along by your words. I’m drawing a simple picture here, because there are thoughts and feelings involved as well and many other factors that influence the relational dynamic. Again, more could be said, it’s a big field to plough.

ES: I would like to offer these few points, which you might find apposite.

Perhaps babies are an example of your intuitive simplicity, I mean where your mind is in the state of potentiality? After all, every human baby contains the potential to speak any language. The gurgling sounds of young babies include every phoneme of every language, so they say, I’ve never checked.

However there is research that shows that even babies are ‘pre-programmed’ in certain ways: they respond to certain facial expressions, tones of voice, etc; and they also come into the world with some understanding or, if you prefer, expectations of how the physical world works, this is called naive physics. And nobody has to teach a baby how to cry, suck, pee, defecate, open and close its eyes or breathe.

Other research shows that after about six months a baby’s gurgling noises start to show the influence of the language it has been hearing.

GL: I agree with what you say, though I would add this. As a baby, I am in a baby-like state of potentiality. As a grown-up, I have the use of thoughts and words. But when my breath has blown the thoughts and words away, I drop back into a baby-like state of potentiality.