José Ortega y Gasset on Talking and Not Talking

This time I’m only quoting, sharing with you some food for thought. See how communist of me?

“Let us say, then, that Man, when he begins to speak, does so because he thinks that he is going to be able to say what he thinks. Well, this is illusory. Language doesn’t offer that much. It says, a little more or less, a portion of what we think, while it sets an insurmountable obstacle in place, blocking a transmission of the rest. As soon as conversation begins to revolve around themes that are more important, more human, more ‘real’ than the latter [i.e., than mathematics], its imprecision, its awkwardness and its convolutedness increase. Infected by the entrenched prejudice that through speech we understand each other, we make our remarks and listen in such good faith that we inevitably misunderstand each other much more than if we had remained silent and had guessed. Furthermore, since our thought is in great measure attributable to the tongue […] it turns out that thinking is talking to oneself and, consequently, misunderstanding oneself and running a great risk of becoming completely muddled […].

“Because if, in fact, we are cured of believing that speech succeeds in expressing all that we think, we will recognize what, in fact, is obviously constantly happening to us: that when speaking or writing we refrain constantly from saying many things because language doesn’t allow them to be said. The effectiveness of speech does not simply lie in speaking, in making statements, but, at the same time and of necessity, in a relinquishing of speech, a keeping quiet, a being silent! […] Remember what happens to you when you have to speak in a foreign language. Very distressing! It is what I am feeling now when I speak in French: the distress of having to quiet four-fifths of what occurs to me, because those four-fifths of my Spanish thoughts can’t be said well in French, in spite of the fact that the two languages are so closely related. Well, don’t believe that it is not the same, of course to a lesser extent, when we think in our own language; only our contrary preconception prevents our noticing it. […] The fact is that the stupendous reality, which is language, will not be understood at its root if one doesn’t begin by noticing that speech is composed above all of silences. A person incapable of quieting many things would not be capable of talking”.

[from José Ortega y Gasset, The Misery and the Splendor of Translation. For the whole text, go e.g. here.]

Have a good week,


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I'm an unprofessional writer, reader and translator. I'm also a walking, breathing and listening addict. And I love being all that.

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