A Language of One’s Own




Reg was pleased that, finally, he was now retired from his job in the
Royal Mail Central Delivery Office in Birmingham. He didn’t miss the
repetitive work, nor his colleagues in the office, with whom he’d never
been friends. His pension, while modest, was sufficient for his
purposes. His needs, like his life as a whole, were simple and
relatively inexpensive. Two weeks a year in an inconspicuous hotel on
the Solway Firth were, for instance, holiday enough for him. He enjoyed
a quiet bachelor existence at home, uninterrupted except for occasional
visits by his older sister, Lilian, who lived in Newcastle.

If Reg had one slight extravagance, it was the amount he spent on books
about language. Maybe it was the years spent deciphering the addresses
sent to or from far-flung countries that had sparked his interest in the
great variety of languages spoken in the world. He’d never tried to
learn any of these languages himself and, over time, it was no longer
this or that language – Danish, Urdu or whatever – that interested
him, but language itself. On his bookshelves there now stood a
respectable number of works – mainly basic introductions – on the
psychology, sociology and philosophy of language.

It was after reading one introduction to the philosophy of language that
Reg decided what he would devote himself to in retirement. This book
contained a short chapter on the Austrian philosopher, Ludwig
Wittgenstein’s, ‘private language argument’. Reg was not confident, he
had to admit, that he understood exactly what the philosopher was
arguing. But the conclusion seemed to be that there couldn’t be a
language that only one person was able to understand – a private
language of his or her own.

At first, Reg thought this sounded silly. What about the secret code
that, as a 5-year old boy, he’d devised so that his mother and sister
wouldn’t understand the diary he was keeping? But then Reg realised that
this wasn’t a language that no one else could decipher, since this is
precisely what his mother actually did by the time she’d got to page 3
of the diary. She’d worked out that Reg had replaced ‘a’ by ‘b’, ‘b’ by
‘c’, ‘c’ by ‘d’ … and so on. Still, Reg reflected, surely someone
might invent a language that no one else could possibly decipher – a
bit like Linear B, but much more difficult.

So this was the task Reg set himself: to invent just such a ‘private
language’. He called it ‘Vlungpo’. To guarantee that no one would
understand it, Reg created a whole series of obstacles. For one thing,
the sounds of Vlungpo would, like that very name, be unattractive, so
that few people would be drawn to learn it. It was not, certainly, going
to be, like Italian, a bella lingua. Next, Vlungpo would contain far
more independent words than any other language. This was achieved, for
example, by dispensing with prefixes, suffixes and other devices used to
form longer words from stems. So, in Vlungpo, the terms for pleasure, …

Originally appeared on Daily Philosophy Read More