Hoptellectual: Tonal Recall

I was walking down Bascom Hill in Madison, hustling to make it to my next class, when I found myself stuck behind two men speaking a foreign language I had never heard before. I, not understanding a word of what was being said, was fascinated—in fact enthralled by the sound of the language. The uvular-rolling syllables connected together with seamless “liasons” washed over me with a sonic beauty I could only liken to music.

I finished with class for the day and crossed the street to sit on the terrace and think about the two men and the language they were speaking. I couldn’t put my finger on why I was so intrigued by their conversation; it’s not like I overheard some secret about where the Stiftskellar keeps the key to the room of kegs for the Union. I hadn’t understood a word. But as I reflected more on that brief minute I spent drafting behind them like a race car driver trying to make the final pass, I realized that my total disconnect with their language and its vocabulary allowed me to experience it aesthetically.

In our everyday lives, we use language as a means to communicate, a utilitarian tool to explain why we hate Toby Keith’s music (no offense Toby Keith Fan Appreciation Club) or to let our roommates know that we’re biking to the farmer’s market to buy and devour an entire loaf of cheese bread. Most of the time language is cold and efficient (you can see it in my last sentence when I said we’re instead of we are). We rarely think about the tonal quality of our words, nor do we test them out in our heads before we unleash them on the world. No, we just say whatever gets the point across. But what happens if you take away the communicative function of language? You are left with sound. You are forced to consider language aesthetically. Had I understood what was being said by those two men, I would have been bogged down in syntactical meaning and unable to experience the beautiful sounds.

Poetry in particular attempts to crack the cold efficiency of everyday language in order for us to view language aesthetically. In this way, poetry functions to both communicate and capture sonic beauty. The same can be said of music, as a pure extension of poetry (in fact, music and poetry were inseparable in Greek civilization) and since it centers on auditory experience. Absurdist poetry on the other hand says to hell with any logic or communication, totally relishing in tonal combinations created by illogical phrases. Poetry and music then are reminders to us that language is something more than simply a way to converse.

But I argue that this can even be taken one step further and applied to mathematics as well. For me, an English major who hasn’t taken a true mathematics course since junior year of high school, higher math is baffling. While I understand the logic of algebra, geometry, and some trigonometry and therefore can see a meaning behind it, calculus, physics and thermodynamics is almost entirely incomprehensible. Nevertheless, when I see a problem laid out step by step on a blackboard it grips me with a certain captivation, which clearly doesn’t come from the logical implications of the problem. Instead, there is something about the visualization of the problem that attracts me. If I were Matt Damon, I would see the problem as a language communicating a message and would be able to understand the syntax of it. But instead, it is like the foreign language those two men were speaking on Bascom Hill that day in college and as such warrants an aesthetic appreciation.

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