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Language as an Aesthetic Object

Apart from poetry and art prose, language serves a purely utilitarian purpose, and its users rarely have occasion to comment on its form, although an apt turn of phrase or memorable formulation may call forth condign praise from an interlocutor.

One was reminded of the ability of language to elicit admiration for its aesthetic force by the following vignette on a Manhattan street. The parents of a two-year-old daughter were perambulating restaurant-wards in the company of an adult friend, a native speaker of a pre-Revolutionary variety of Russian.  The father, an Italian, and the mother, a Russian, both in their forties, were discussing the question, which of them their daughter resembled, when their companion offered the following rhymed paroemic comment in Russian: Ни в мать, ни в отца, а в проезжего молодца. Literally, this phrase––a well-known cliché––amounts to saying that the child takes after neither the mother nor the father but “a passing swain.”

Upon hearing this utterance, the mother immediately expressed pleasurable amazement, not at the content or purport of the proverb, but at the fact that their walking companion had summoned it up (in what amounts to an alien, non-autochthonous environment), and at its poetic form. It should be added for clarity that the mother, an art historian with a keen linguistic sense but little opportunity to speak her mother tongue, was expressing an aesthetic appreciation that is so characteristic of Russians when they hear their native language spoken with élan in even the most humble contexts.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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