SpecGram Vol CLXXV, No 4 Contents Letters to the Editor

The Universal Language Forsooth!

A Letter from Associate Editor Mikael Thompson

One of the more facile, uplifting bromides of our times is “Music is the universal language.” Everybody likes to say it when hearing music he or she likes, which has the unintended effect of reading anyone who doesn’t like it out of humanity.* Indeed, this bromide seems to have reached its pinnacle of success with Leonard Bernstein’s Norton Lectures, in which he tried to equate the universal principles of music with the principles of Universal Grammar, a striking failure as embarrassing as his 3rd Symphony and almost as shameful as his Mass.

The organisers of the conference, MwALT 2015, Writing Assess­ments and Assess­ing Writing: Research and Practice, October 2015, in Iowa City, Iowa.

Chiasmus of the Month
April 2016

What would it mean to say something is a universal language? Clearly that everyone shares it. This is not true of music. There are far more tone-deaf people than there are aphasics. There are very few people who are not fluent speakers of their native language, but the number of musicians is a small percentage of the number of listeners, and karaoke night at the local beer hall on Friday night suffices to demonstrate that if music is the universal language, then the overwhelming majority of humanity suffers serious neurological deficiencies (not even counting the neurological deficiencies inflicted on those venturing in to check this assertion).

Instead, we should look at the socio-political situation of music in the modern world. There’s a small group of supremely successful musicians raking in the dough, bastardizing the public taste, and engaging in nasty public spats over each other’s fashion sense, romantic proclivities, and tastes in body odor and skin desecration. Beneath them are a multitude of not-yet-sell-outs bashing their superiors (though rarely their betters) for doing precisely what they themselves would do were they in the spotlight. In short, the music world is to music like the political world is to language: A bunch of incumbent big names lacking all native speaker competence riding roughshod over a mass of time-serving, back-biting political animals.

Linguists are well aware of the musical qualities of language, even those linguists so mathematically incompetent they can’t handle something as simple as wave equations for air-filled connected tubes and end up working in something silly like pragmatics. The vocal cords are physically much the same as bowed violin strings, the throat is like a horn, and the lips are, well, like the embouchureand despite the utter incompetence of 99% of humanity in doing anything musically valid with violins, horns, or vocal cords, well over 99.9% of non-politician humanity is able to produce language fluently and effectively. In short, language is the universal music.

* This, actually, I have no problem with. Most people have abysmal tastes in music.

Letters to the Editor
SpecGram Vol CLXXV, No 4 Contents