apropos: Not written by Duchamp, rather by David Antin in the book, Marcel Duchamp. It is presented without any punctuation nor capitalization, so I will try to adhere for continuity.
everybody knows what a word is except a linguist it is very hard for a linguist to define a word but its not at all hard for persons a word is the result of a kind of human analysis of the language they speak into its smallest reasonable part so to speak and you stack them up those words in the dictionary and you stack the into people that havent been brought up right or dont know what certain words mean in the 17th century when they were very busy teaching manners to people who hadnt been fortunate enough to have been born into families exercising them dictionaries became very important particularly latin dictionaries or dictionaries of “hard words” so that people who were ignorant of latin or greek could learn certain prestigious words that were either latin or greek or manufactured from them and there were also other problems also of manners people thought or began to think that words should be spelled in one particular way the correct way but the people who thought that words should be spelled in one particular way were seldom certain what particular way that was and it was handy to have an authority to go to to tell them the particular way what youll find in a dictionary is a certain kind of tradition a social tradition of the language and a certain series of entries intended to codify that tradition these entries usually in the same language will be limited in number and theyll be specific to certain approved types of language use and the kinds of definition that take place in dictionaries which is really very haphazard but useful for certain limited purposes¹
I started reading this a few nights ago and, really, more than the text itself, I love the way this guy writes! He gets much further into the content, and includes a little bit of Duchamp’s business with language, but this passage (and a couple others I may note in the future) feel extremely pertinent at this point in time I am describing as “now.”
A couple years ago, I took an introductory class in linguistics. It was incredibly interesting for word nerds like me. Anyway, we talked a lot about “prescribed” English vs. Street English. I don’t fluently speak any other languages to allow me to observe directly, but at least in English I can say whole-heartedly that the language we speak and the language we write are, in fact, two different codes.
Prescribed English is the kind of language we use when we write. It dots the i’s; it uses semicolons and capitalizes Proper Nouns. But it does much more than that: It sets up social hierarchies and boundaries that are extremely subtle. Subtle negation is a dangerous form of social boundary. I’m not suggesting we all abandon Prescribed English; I’m simply addressing its existence. It is only the ignoramus who doesn’t recognize the cycle he fulfills.
In almost every e-mail I write, I rarely capitalize; however, I almost always use punctuation (I’m not sure what causes me to make that distinction over capitalization, except maybe sheer laziness). The language I use in e-mail is an abbreviated form of Prescribed English. It allows me to type really, really fast and get all my thoughts down as if I were speaking. In this way, it’s a hybrid, really, and in some other ways can be considered a Pidgin language in its own right – although, definitively speaking, I think Pidgin is a completely oral/aural endeavor.
The point is that nobody really controls language, no matter how much we prescribe it. Language is directly connected to cultural identity, and in many cases, personal identity. The language we use describes us without us having to. Certainly hundreds of wars have started from the idea that the cultural identity of one group was being usurped by an Other group; and in many cases, language is the first noticeable change. It groups us. And from these signals we create judgments about our surroundings. And it’s also something we must use to make our way in the world. It brings into consideration the vow of silence monks take in order to find their paths.
¹ Antin, David. “Duchamp and Language.” Marcel Duchamp. Anne d’Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine, eds., (Museum of Modern Art and Philadelpha Museum of Art, 1973), p 102.