Perfect Expression

by AnotherClioBeliever

It is always interesting to compare how other languages view ‘perfect’ expression. George Orwell, in his hallmark essay on language, Politics and the English Language, had a few stern things to say. It’s a disservice to attempt to reconstruct it, and thankfully it is in the public domain. I’d urge you, dear reader, to go read it now. This instant. Perhaps you can wait to the end of this identifiably weaker prose is complete, my blogpost, but don’t wait too long.

Here are some choice items for comparison:

“As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.”

“The keynote is the elimination of simple verbs. Instead of being a single word, such as break, stop, spoil, mend, kill, a verb becomes a phrase, made up of a noun or adjective tacked onto some general-purpose verb such as prove, serve, form, play, render.”

Compare that to the pictograms used among the Aztecs.

Now, a first disclaimer, the Aztec language is a realm mostly suited for people that have an intimate knowledge of the subject. Not aspiring linguists that have only read a few books and talked to an academic or two on the subject. But, I believe, there’s enough even amateurs like myself can pull from the agreed upon facts of the Aztec civilization.

The stylized drawings are not a lesser degree of writing because they aren’t writing. They denote an experience and not the language. What we’re comparing is, then, the actual language even though one is delivered physically on paper while the other orally. We must take note that in Orwell’s culture it is communicated by, chiefly, extended essays and in the Aztec Empire it is by dialogues or monologues. To avoid comparing apples to oranges we’re not comparing their pictograms to actual written English. We should compare how the style, assuming to a degree that there is a perfect medium out there that enables us to capture the full meaning of both types of communication.

What the pictograms represented was ritual speech that materialized social memory. This picture meant speech X, that event meant speech Y and so on. These speeches, called heuhuetlatolli, signified the ‘speech of the ancients.’ And it was considered the most inspiring, complicated and ‘learned’ expressions. The most influential and studied Aztecs were graded by how many of these discourses they knew and how well they could orally deliver them.

According to their sacred book of Popol Vuh, the word is the origin of the world. Language divides the absolute nothing from the world we know it today. If that does not address upon you the ceremonial and social importance of ‘words’ to the Aztecs then, simply, nothing will. There was nothing more important to the Aztecs than the centrality of their oral traditions. Even their leader was called tlatoani, which means “he who possesses speech.” If you can’t speak well when you wanted to become King, well, you didn’t become King.

What is most interesting is that, by and large, heuhuetlatolli is almost entirely made up out of the sort of language that Orwell despises. In the Aztec mind there cannot be ‘new’ events, because omens and prophecy has laid out everything in advance. A new day is greeted by the last hundred years or more of tireless efforts to create speeches for every new day that there can be. It is prefabricated, almost down to the letter. On account of their view of the world as cyclical, prophecy and history are interchangeable. Prophecy is memory and memory becomes prophecy. Large swaths of what Orwell would distinguish as ‘concrete,’ such as when or why events occur, is lost. To the Aztecs it matters but in a way that we would have a hard time identifying as ‘concrete.’

Even to this day archeologists, with nearly complete histories spanning decades or more, can’t place the events precisely. The Aztecs could not conceive of a linear progression of time and everything was cyclical (e.g. “so this event happened on the 13th year of the cycle, but which cycle?” No one knows.) Moreover, there’s oftentimes a difficulty in distinguishing historical actions in one cycle from the prophecy in a previous cycle. If your calender never changes from 1999, it builds up a lot of important dates. Since the Aztecs knew what they meant, anyhow, when one of their speeches or pictograms identified (for the sake of the example) March 8, 1999 as a bad day it is hard for researchers without that knowledge to concretely identify it as a prophecy alone, a bad event alone or both (taking place in two different cycles). Aztec historians saw no reason why they couldn’t compose omens for the coming of the conquistadors years after the fact.

Aztecs also had a way of writing that makes it difficult for later historians to identify those writings as describing one enemy group or the Spanish. Because again, since everything happens cyclically (i.e. over and over again) to write about the Spaniards as something completely new is impossible with the conception of language that they have. It’s as if they took Orwell’s word hackneyed and edified it.

So as we go about chattering today, let us remind ourselves that while we value certain things in our prose not everyone does. Who knows, perhaps there’s a linguistic Aztec out there.

Correction: My spellcheck wanted to create its own spelling for Aztec. It has been corrected.