Writing and Death – Mummified Language

The articulate sound [phoneme] issues from the breast to awaken in another individual an accord through aural perception. Simultaneously, the human being thereby discovers that there exist about him beings with identical inner needs. He becomes additionally aware that such individuals are capable of appreciating sympathetically the multitudinous longings lodged in his mental reaction patterns.

Language is the structural organ of ideas. Intellectual activity – completely intellectual, completely innate, and to a certain extent passing without a trace – becomes externalized in speech and perceptible to the sense. . . . Intellectual activity is inherently tied to the necessity of entering into a combination with the phoneme. Otherwise thought cannot attain distinctness, the image cannot become the concept. The indissoluble bond connecting, thought, vocal apparatus, and hearing to language reposes invariable in the original arrangement of human nature, a factor that defies further clarification. The coincidence of the sound with the idea becomes clear. Just as the idea, comparable to a flash of lightning, collects the total power of imagination into a single point and excluded everything that is simultaneous, the phonetic sound resounds in abrupt sharpness and unity. Just as the thought engages the entire disposition, the phonetic sound is endowed with a penetrating power that arouses the whole nervous system.

To the phoneme, finally, is appropriate the erect posture of humans, which is denied to animals and by which man is, so to speak, called upright. For speech does not want to resound dully along the ground; it desires to pour forth freely from the lips toward the person to whom it is directed, accompanied by the facial expression of the speaker, as well as by the gestures of the hand; speech thus wants to be associated with everything that designates the humanity of man.

Properly conceived of, language is something persistent and in every instant transitory. Even its maintenance by writing is only an incomplete, mummified preservation, necessary if one is again to render perceptible the living speech concerned.

–Wilhelm von Humboldt, Linguistic Variability and Intellectual Development


The mysteries of the Egyptians are mysteries to the Egyptians.

–G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on The Philosophy of Religion



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