Saturday, October 11, 2008

Linguistics, Kubler and a Tyranny of Form

The first time I read George Kubler's "The Shape of Time" I didn't like it. The idea that objects had a life of their own, fully independent of the their creator was interesting but somehow not acceptable to a 5th year architectural student. Furthermore the questions which I used to eviscerate Kubler's argument came easily:

  • Did not the artist/creator have control over the ideas and objects that he/she produces?

  • Kubler's formalism which suggests that I am bound to the past, implicitly states that I can only create based on what has come before. Does not the wide expanse of my imagination have complete freedom over the things I create? Which objects or persons 'tell' me what I think about or imagine?

  • Maybe Kubler's theory was correct for art before the Avant Guarde, perhaps before the Impressionist abstractions, but not now? If anything contemporary art is existentially about the new, the different.

Kubler was interesting in understanding art history, Kubler was after all a Mesoamerican scholar, but modern art, not so much.

Then while studying linguistics, I discovered that language changes in a fairly predictable way and that it too has a 'life of its own' relatively independent of the culture or people that use it.

Outside of linguists there is a myth that language reflects the culture of its speakers. It does to a certain extent but for the most part why a culture speaks its language is arbitrary. For example, languages are affected more by which languages surround it and how many people have to learn it as adults than any forced cultural manipulation. Sure new words are created or existing semantics broaden to express culturally important ideas, but the structure, grammar and sounds of a language have little reflection on the culture which uses it. Language morphology (or form based change patterns) is so consistent, perpetual and culturally irrelevant, that through the study of related languages one can determine their age and the migration patterns of its speakers. To some extent one can even recreate the original dead language in which it evolved from.

Somehow, the idea that form might follow parallel tendencies might not be so far fetched; so much for being in control.

Thursday, October 2, 2008


Architecture has many parallels with linguists- the Pattern Language's architecture-by-numbers not included One of the most interesting, I think, is how linguistics's existential question (what is language) has played upon the very scholarly field which asks it. Consumed by what Freud called a "Narcissism of Little differences", the experience of language and the study of it are two different things.

Before I go further, let me stress that I am in no way advocating the advantages of being 'dumb' about language (and by extension Architecture). I strongly believe that the study of a subject enriches our understanding and experience of it. By understanding the variety in languages we develop a new perspective on our own language(s). The preconceptions of expression and communication that are inherent to the language we use can be exposed, confronted, explored with fresh eyes. The question: "How does the language I use predetermine how I view the world?" can be asked.

For example, there are 'click' languages, spoken in Southern Africa, (

that use clicks to change a word's meaning just like vowels or consonants do in English. There are languages in Australia that only have 3 verbs and there are languages, like Yupik Eskimo, that combine an entire sentence into one word. ("The Story of Human Language", John McWhorter, The Teaching Company. 2004) To understand how tonal languages developed (Chinese) or where grammar words evolved from is akin to taking a trip to a new country and learning for the first time, that life can be lived in another way, totally foreign from your own.