What is really the nature of language? Traditional views would hold that language is a medium by which people express themselves, their thoughts and ideas, and apply ideas and concepts to events and objects. Martin Heidegger introduces a conception of language, expounded in his similarly titled essay, bound by notions of the tenuous relationship between the material nature of things and places and their meaning for humans. Heidegger grounds this view in Georg Trakl's poem Winter Evening. As he interprets the poem line by line, he gradually constructs his interpretation of language point by point.
His introductory point is that language calls things into the presence of a person by naming them. Like a magic spell, it bids these things to come into the nearness of that person. "Wandering ones, more than a few come to the door on darksome courses" because they are summoned and bidden there by the call of the vesper bell - "Long tolls the vesper bell, The house is provided well, The table is for many laid." Thus the poem's description of how men are drawn to a house with a table laid out with food metaphorically mirrors the way language draws people to what it names.
But what happens after language calls people to what it names? How much nearness can be produced to something merely named with words? Heidegger answers this question by interpreting the part of the poem where the wanderer reaches a threshold at the entry to the house: "Wanderer quietly steps within; Pain has turned the threshold to stone." It turns out that what is named by language - the house - is not brought into a full presence but into a limited one. Would it be reasonable to expect a full presence of whatever language happens to mention?
To answer that, it suffices to take the house itself as an example. (As is often the case, house here has the connotation of a home since the food and bread and wine in the poem establish it as a place of comfort to the wanderer who seeks to enter it.) As you open the door to a house or an apartment and look inside, you may utter the word home. But does that word really make it home? Heidegger would apply the duality of thing and world to answer this very question. His concept of the world is about the meaning and purpose of being. The word home does belong to that realm; a home is a sanctuary and a place of comfort. It is the site of all the nooks and crannies and things that sustain daily rituals and activities. The rituals and activities of a home are its world.
So when you stand on the threshold of a house or an apartment and look inside, with thoughts of the activities and rituals that take place there, despite using the word home, it is still just a house and an apartment. And if it happens to be sold or rented out to someone else the next day, it ceases to be home.
And this, in a very roundabout way, answers the question about the nearness a person can attain to what is named by language: it is limited because the unity of world and thing is limited. If you are miles away from the house or apartment where you live, your talk of how the world of your everyday activities is linked to that house makes it a home. This is the act of language calling certain things, whatever material they are constructed of, into a nearness by uniting them with your world and your life.
At its choice, language can do just the opposite: it can break the link and disconnect the world of your life from a place or object. After a party is over, a party balloon can become pieces of latex that need to be thrown away. A glass beer mug, after it falls and breaks into pieces, becomes just shards of glass.
Heidegger is emphasizing that the link between objects, places, and people and the meaningful purposeful words we give them is always contingent. In Heidegger's terms, our life and what we do with it are the the inside or the world and the material being of objects is the outside or things. Language or speaking "bids things to come to world and world to come to things... The calling.. entrusts world to things and simultaneously keeps things in the splendor of the world. Pain is the joining of the rift. The joining is the threshold. It settles the between, the middle of the two that are separated in it."
When a thing is joined to a world or disconnected from it, the drawing together and the tearing asunder produces pain, with Heidegger's clarification "that we should not imagine pain as a sensation that makes us feel afflicted." But why does he write that pain "turns the threshold to stone?" That can be illustrated in the context of the experience of foster children. Let's imagine the case of a foster child who has been adopted several times and yet dropped by her foster parents some time afterward. When her new mother began to refer to her as daughter in discussion with others, the child would have felt the word daughter penetrate every aspect of her experience, from meals to hugs to trips to school.
Standing on the threshold of not being a daughter and being one, she would certainly experience intense feelings because the difference between the two statuses is so overwhelming. (I would interpret Heidegger's word pain to mean intense feelings.) And once her foster mother decides to return her to the state, the girl's "threshold" between world and thing would harden yet again. From then on, she would be hyperaware of what Heidegger calls "the separateness of world and thing."
A child adopted in his first few months of life may not see how language has disconnected the mother role in his world from one person and connected it to another, and a person who lived in one house for most of his life will not ponder whether his house may not be his home. But the foster child who keeps switching households will always be standing on the threshold that separates a house from being a home and a woman from being a mother.
Heidegger, Martin. "Language." Poetry, Language and Thought. Trans. Albert Hofstadter. Ed. Albert Hofstadter. New York: Perennial Classics, 2001.
"Global Adoption: A New Look." On Point. WBUR, 15 Apr. 2010. Radio. (Program information at http://www.onpointradio.org/2010/04/a-new-look-at-global-adoption.)
“A Winter Evening,” written by Georg Trakl translated by Albert Hofstadter.
Window with falling snow is arrayed,
Long tolls the vesper bell,
The house is provided well,
The table is for many laid.
Wandering ones, more than a few,
Come to the door on darksome courses.
Golden blooms the tree of graces
Drawing up the earth’s cool dew.
Wanderer quietly steps within;
Pain has turned the threshold to stone.
There lie, in limpid brightness shown,
Upon the table bread and wine.