Inspirational Inflections

These, in my opinion are the most general physical causes of the characteristic differences of the primitive tongues. Those of the south are bound to be sonorous, accented, eloquent, and frequently obscure because of their power. Those of the north are bound to be dull, harsh, articulated, shrill, monotonous, and to have a clarity due more to vocabulary than to good construction. The modern tongues, with all their intermingling and recasting, still retain something of these differences. French, English, German: each is a language private to a group of men who help each other, or who become angry. But the ministers of god proclaim sacred mysteries, sages giving laws to their people, leaders swaying the multitude, have to speak Arabic or Persian. Our tongues are better suited to writing than speaking, and there is more pleasure in reading us than in listening to us. Oriental tongues, on the other hand, lose their life and warmth when they are written. The words do not convey half the meaning; all the effectiveness is in the tone of voice. Judging the Orientals from their books is like painting a man’s portrait from his corpse.

For a proper appreciation of their actions, men must be considered in all their relationships: which we simply are not capable of doing. When we put ourselves in the position of the others, we do not become what they must be, but remain ourselves, modified. And, when we think we are judging them rationally, we merely compare their prejudices to ours. Thus, if one who read a little Arabic and enjoyed leafing through the Koran were to hear Mohammed personally proclaim in that eloquent, rhythmic tongue, with that sonorous and persuasive voice, seducing first the ears, then the heart, every sentence alive with enthusiasm, he would prostrate himself, crying: Great prophet, messenger of God, lead us to glory, to martyrdom. We will conquer or die for you. Fanaticism always seems ridiculous to us, because there is no voice among us to make it understood. Our own fanatics are not authentic fanatics. They are merely rogues or fools. Instead of inspirational inflections, our tongues allow only for cries of diabolic possessions.

Rousseau, Essay on the Origin of Languages

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