Monday 28 April 2003

The cafe universe

Stavros’s Linguistic Relativism and Korean essay continues to resonate, giving rise to some terrific comments on my previous entry, including a pointer from the Dynamic Driveler to a rather skeptical view of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis by Mick Underwood which, nevertheless, contains a couple of fascinating references to Wittgenstein’s views on language. The first made me laugh out loud:

Wittgenstein said that he was once asked by one of his colleagues whether Germans think in the order they speak in or think normally first and then mix it all up afterwards.

Though I’ve never studied German, I do know that the verb comes at the end of the sentence, as in Japanese. I’m not sure, however, what other characteristics Japanese shares with German.

For example, Japanese uses post-positional particles to indicate grammatical and interpersonal relationships and these particles follow the element (e.g. Tokyo ni, “Tokyo to”, meaning to Tokyo). Similarly, the basic word order in Japanese is reversed in that modifying clauses precede the element being modified; as in the Japanese sentence, Tokyo de katta hon o yonde iru.

Tokyo de katta hon o yonde iru
Tokyo in bought book object marker reading am
(Someone) is reading (a) book (they) bought in Tokyo.

The weird thing is that—as long as I don’t think about it too much—there’s no need to “think normally first then mix it all up afterwards” into Japanese. Somehow the “mixed up” order seems perfectly logical.

The other interesting reference is a quotation from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico Philosophicus:

The limits of my language indicate the limits of my world.

Mick Underwood comments:

This is often advanced in support of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. (Actually, given the context in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, I’m not at all sure that that’s what he was saying, but it’s a good quote, anyway!)

Although I recognized this quotation immediately as coming from a voiceover commentary in Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her (mentioned in my previous entry), what struck me was an observation that Language Hat had made about Godard’s films:

The funny thing is that as I read your post I had my video of Comment ça va? on the tv. I find it helps with Godard to not always watch intently but also to just have the movie going, picking up bits here and there that I might not notice watching in a more connected way. You’re never going to get everything in a Godard movie, after all. And the more I see the movies, the more I realize that a huge percentage of the dialog is a quotation of or reference to something else, poetry or philosophy or other movies. Tout se tient.

Of course you’ll need to understand French in order to “not always watch intently but… just have the movie going, picking up bits here and there that [one] might not notice watching in a more connected way.” I certainly can’t do that with Japanese movies though, now that I think about it, that sounds like something worth trying.

But Language Hat is absolutely correct about Godard’s movies being packed densely with quotations or references to poetry, philosophy, linguistics, and—of course—other movies.

Coffee cup still frame from Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her

The Wittgenstein quotation occurs in one of the most arresting sequences in any Godard movie, the one that James Monaco calls in his book, The New Wave, “the café universe,” in which shots of Juliette watching a young couple alternate with close-ups of a cup of coffee, as a male voice (Godard himself?) speaks:

Perhaps an object like this will make it possible to link up… to move from one subject to another, from living in society, to being together. But then, since social relationships are always ambiguous, since my thought is only a unit, since my thoughts create rifts as much as they unite, since my words establish contacts by being spoken and create isolation by remaining unspoken, since an immense moat separates the subjective certitude that I have for myself from the objective reality that I represent to others, since I never stop finding myself guilty even though I feel I am innocent.

A spoon is stirring up the cup of coffee. It is withdrawn. A small circle of foam is left swirling round on the surface.

Given the fact that every event transforms my daily existence and that I invariably fail to communicate… I mean to understand, to love, to be loved, and as each failure makes me feel my loneliness more keenly, as… as… as I can’t tear myself away from the objectivity that is crushing me nor from the subjectivity which is driving me into exile, as I can neither raise myself into Being nor allow myself to sink back into Nothingness… I must go on listening. I must go on looking about me even more attentively than before… the world… my fellow creatures… my brothers.

…the world today, alone, where revolutions are impossible, where bloody wars haunt me, where capitalism isn’t even sure of its rights… and the working class is in retreat… where progress… the thundering progress of science gives to future centuries an obsessive, haunting presence… where the future is more present than the present, where distant galaxies are at my door. My fellow creatures… my brothers.

A lump of sugar tumbles into the coffee and breaks into crystals. The dark circle of the cup glistens with bubbles, like galaxies.

But where to begin? But where to begin with what? God created the heavens and the earth. Of course, but that’s an easy way out. There must be a better way of explaining it all… We could say that the limits of language are the limits of the world… that the limits of my language are the limits of my world. And in that respect, whatever I say must limit the world, must make it finite. And when logical, mysterious death finally abolishes these limits, and when there are, then, neither questions nor answers, everything will be blurred. But if, by chance, things become clear again, they would only become so through the phantom of conscience. Then, everything will fall into place.

It’s impossible to do justice to the spectacular beauty of this sequence, particularly in a cinema, where the coffee cup fills the gigantic TechniScope screen, acting as a counterpoint to the intimate tone of the narration. “This is not a film talking, it is a man,” writes James Monaco. “It is the most personal—and most painful—moment in all of Godard.”

I was surprised to learn from Language Hat’s comment that he loved Godard’s films, that he’d “wanted the video [of Two or Three Things] for years, and finally got it.” And yet I shouldn’t have been, since I cannot think of another filmmaker who cares as much about language—and, by extension, the ethics of film language—as Godard.

The limits of my language are the limits of my world.

Language is the house in which we dwell.

I bought the video of Two or Three Things I Know About Her ages ago and must have watched it a half dozen times. Might be time to watch it again.

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Actually, German verbs do not normally come at the end of sentences. This occurs only in dependent clauses. Otherwise, the conjugated verb comes directly after the subject.

Posted by Richard Buchholz on 29 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Domo arigato gozaimashita! -- Thank you for that extended quotation of one of my favorite scenes in all of cinema. It's funny, someone who isn't a Godard fan would look at that picture and think "a coffee cup -- what's that about?" whereas we few (we happy few) Godard nuts take one look and think "ah, the cafe scene!" I remember the first time I saw the movie I was mystified, fascinated, and irritated in varying measures (the Godard mix) by much of what was going on, but that scene riveted me, and as soon as the movie ended I wanted to see it again right away. (I went to every showing at the MOMA retrospective and then at the Film Forum, and boy am I glad I did, since it may not be possible to see it properly for years. Seeing the cafe scene in faded 16 mm. at AMMI almost made me weep and/or flee the theater: instead of that luminous black with the galaxies of swirling cream, a sort of brownish-gray crud with scratchy unintelligible voiceover...) Incidentally, the French translation of the Wittgenstein quote that Godard uses is on this page of language quotes:

Oddly enough, one of my other cinematic deities is Stan Brakhage, whose films are almost all silent. But perhaps a clue to my enthusiasm is in your phrase "the ethics of film language"; certainly, if I wanted to show someone what I meant by film language I would show them Brakhage long before Eisenstein.

Posted by language hat on 29 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Just so you know, you're the #3 Google hit for:
godard annotated "two or three things"

Posted by language hat on 29 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)


Richard is right, normally the verb comes in the second "position" in the sentence. So if you have a time or place, indicator it will be that, followed by the verb, then the subject. Otherwise it's subject then verb then rest of sentence. So the verb is second.

Ich bin kalt.
I am cold

Heute, bin ich kalt.
Today, am I cold.

In both sentences in the verb is second. And it gets weirder with more verbs in the sentence as they kind of get jammed in a row at the end. This is all coming from my very limited knowledge of German. Linguistics is an interesting field, because you can really only ever be a native speaker in one language. So it's impossible to tell what goes on inside the heads of native speakers. Interesting stuff.

Posted by gord on 29 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Hi Jonathan,
I laughed when I read this post because it reminded me of working in Germany about a decade ago. My German accent is fine, having grown up listening to native speakers, but I never formally learnt the language so I just translate everything very literally from English. My German colleagues had a lot of laughs at my expense...Like when I'd walk around going "Ich bin heiss!" ("I'm hot"; but of course this means "I am sexy" to Germans).
Another thing that I used to get woefully wrong was "Du" and "Sie". I had only ever used "Du", having grown up using German just with family. So when I was introduced as "Frau H." to my new female boss in Munich, I said airily, "Oh, Du kannst mich einfach Gianna nennen", thereby committing two faux pas in one go - calling her "Du" and trying to get on first name terms! She was most unimpressed, as I recall, and never did call me by my first name.
Actually I used to be amazed at how people who had worked together for decades would address each other as "Frau" and "Herr". But later I saw a kind of utility in it too - working with two people who clearly despised each other and were able to use the respectful formality with great sarcasm.

PS I love Godard films too, but only watch them for the pictures, haha...

Posted by Gianna on 29 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Ich bin halb heiss auch

Posted by meika on 2 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

"whether Germans think in the order they speak in or think normally first and then mix it all up afterwards"

As a speaker of several languages and a researcher on these topics, here is some of my introspection :
when i speak, i form a concept first in my head, independently of what language it might come out in. when you have to make a speech, the thoughts gather, and you assemble them in some order, taking into account the audience, adding tone and humour as you go along, but basically formatting and streamlining your thought into a spoken language as you talk. so you always think ahead before you talk. so the answer is :
no, the germans do not think differently, they simply keep the verb in their head and put them at the appropriate place, opening subclauses like you call recursive functions when you program.
and only in literary german do you make this effort.

If anyone has philosphical articles about this, i would be delighted.


Posted by michael on 31 October 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour