Phonetic alchemy

The metaphor of dying and living languages is based on a dated romantic conception about languages being organic in structure. Thus there is a need to revisit the dialectic of the death and life of languages to view the language-image from a fresh angle. The philosopher Walter Benjamin writes in the introduction to his essay on Goethe’s Elective Affinities:

– The history of works prepares for their critique, and thus historical distance increases their power. If, to use a simile, one views the growing work as a burning funeral pyre, then the commentator stands before it like a chemist, the critic like an alchemist. Whereas, for the former, wood and ash remain the sole objects of his analysis, for the latter only the flame itself preserves an enigma: that of what is alive. Thus, the critic inquires into the truth, whose living flame continues to burn over the heavy logs of what is past and the light ashes of what has been experienced.

Replacing the concept of “work” with “language” in this quote one can perhaps glimpse a more complex dialectic at play. According to Benjamin’s idea of a critique and the work of the critic it would follow that the critic does the exact same historic and linguistic analysis as the history scientist, or “commentator”. But still their aim and result is vastly different. The critic use the detailed analysis as a means to destroy and dismember the wholeness of the work. This is made more potent by the history that has gone before. The more obscure and forgotten the work, the better suited it is for a philosophical and artistic critique. The resulting destruction-through-analysis is comparable to an archive of language: a dictionary or database of language samples, each analysed into every last miniscule phoneme. The archive kills the living language in order to preserve it, but at the same moment creates its potential alchemical transformation into new life.