Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Philology in Utopia

Dystopia has its philologists, such as Winston Smith’s friend Syme in 1984: ‘Syme was a philologist, a specialist in Newspeak. Indeed, he was one of the enormous team of experts now engaged in compiling the Eleventh Edition of the Newspeak Dictionary’. And it makes sense that dystopia should value the science of philology. For if you can remake language – warp it and simplify it – to the point where no one can even any longer think a dissident thought in the first place, then you will be saved a great and costly apparatus of repressive monitoring and control. Not that dystopia shows any gratitude to the individual linguists who are engaged upon this project; for 100 pages later we learn that ‘Syme had vanished. A morning came and he was missing from work’.

Does utopia need philologists too? If all the customs and structures of a bad old society have mutated into those of a good new one, will not language, as the very underlying medium of culture and politics, necessarily mutate too? And could this be a willed, conscious mutation, not just an incrementally slow organic one?

Sometimes philologists arrive in utopia, as guests or visitors. The narrator of Bulwer Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871) makes detailed use of the philology of Max Müller, with its isolating, agglutinative and inflectional strata of language, to analyse the discourse of his utopian hosts, the Vril-ya; and it seems to me that this philological model might with benefit be carried over into Morris’s News from Nowhere.

Language is certainly mutating in Nowhere, as what Old Hammond terms ‘long-tailed words’ such as administration and organisation are giving way to more physically immediate Anglo-Saxon monosyllables, such as carle, sele and mote. Hammond’s ‘long-tailed words’ are clearly those of Max Müller’s agglutinative stratum, ‘polysynthetical or polysyllabic monsters ... devouring invaders of the aboriginal forms’. And in Nowhere with its emergent Anglo-Saxonisms, as among the Vril-ya, ‘as the inflectional stage prevailed over the agglutinative, it is surprising to see how much more boldly the original roots of the language project from the surface that conceals them’.

But is this a conscious or unconscious process in Nowhere? Is the young man engaged on literary work up the Thames at Bisham in chapter XXIV a philologist, like Syme in 1984, though working to benign rather than totalitarian ends? We know that Morris as a young man had a strong interest in the philology of Richard Trench and we still await a fullscale study of Morris’s writings in relation to the rich field of Victorian philology.


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