The (Ir)relevance of Language

The incredible weakness of language on its own as a force for cultural or political unity is exhaustively documented. Throughout history, ideology, religious authority, religious schism, secular power, imperial interests, or simple geography have had a far greater power to unite and divide ethnic groups and polities. At most, language can help to cement pre-existing cleavages and groupings, as in the manner of a regional lingua franca, but barring extremely unusual circumstances it cannot by itself create cultural or political links where they are not already felt for other reasons. Yet strangely, language remains a point of unsubstantiated primordialist fascination, and has been the locus of a great deal of nationalist (and anti-nationalist) polemic and experimentation. We like to talk about a language as "the bedrock of a culture" and a thousand other such things, despite the mountain of empirical evidence that it is, in many ways, no such thing. Language often feels to people like far more than it really is. It often reflects culture, but the relationship does not go both ways.

It has too rarely occurred to sociolinguists, and to other scholars accustomed to understanding and evaluating culture through linguistic material, to properly assess just how staggeringly irrelevant the fascinating phenomenon of language can often be.

One need only look at the Middle Ages for an abundance of examples.

Too Many Sufi Schemes

Too many Sufi schemes I have digested,
And in the end found neither them nor me.
Leave mystics in their mystery-science theater.
Think how much more of you you still can be.

Fun Fact

Historical linguists have managed to uncover two different Proto-Indo-European words for "to fart," the one meaning "to fart loudly" and the other meaning "to fart quietly." Meanwhile, Proto-Indo-European words for "eyelid" and "poetry" remain elusive.

If you're wondering,  it's */perd-/ "to fart loudly" (c.f. Eng. fart Avestan pərəδaiti, Sanskrit párdate, Greek πέρδομαι) vs. */pezd-/ "to fart softly" (c.f. Lithuanian bezdė́ti, Greek βδέω, Latin pēdere.)

To The Translator

Resurrect me
Find me
If only because I was a poet
Awaiting you in my own kind of Then,
Leaving both prose and nonsense far behind me
Resurrect me
I want to live it all again


To hold a smoldering cigarette
One evening in an old friend's house
And know though loved that you stand yet
In the universe anonymous,

The grand old twang of his guitar
Is not so different from a lyre.
It were no evil, but no good
To finish in a ball of fire.

San Francisco, 1987

He has become a different type of man
Now that the plague assaults him, friend by friend,
Finding resolve in each shake of a hand
To battle the immune cell to the end.

He does not like that statue's Greek physique
These days, its contours just lifelike enough
To be the man he visited last week,
Two years ago a swaggerer in love.

The moments dripping slowly from his life
In spinal taps and blood draws fill his bed
With sweat. Who will there be beside his wife
Alive to sit and talk with of the dead?

What He Said

That day you went the cracks of dawn
That fractured us like porcelain
Ran down your road. You called upon
All things but us to start again.

That day I stayed the autumn fell
Whose ancient, cyclical demise
Could not for worlds of red instill
October in my August eyes.

Your life, I'm sure, has come out well:
Your husband hauls the dollar home,
Your baby has my eyes and Hell
Is freezing over in your own.