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Friday, April 16, 2010

Structural Linguistics 101 bis

On the suggestion/provocation of Edwardo, I am forging ahead in structural linguistics.
I want to do a brief recap on what we've already seen, to emphasize the fundamental points.

We saw last time that language is a complex system which is made up of overlapping subsystems. The organizing principle is distinctive opposition of individual elements. Meaning emerges because we oppose the PRESENT occurrence of an individual element to the ABSENT elements that are possible IN THAT CONTEXT. Seeing/hearing differences is the name of the game.
What is LESS evident is that seeing/hearing difference takes place against the PERCEPTION of similarity. In other words, in order to identify the DIFFERENCE between elements (i.e. phonemes, see previous post..) we must FIRST ascertain that we are dealing with two phonemes, THE ELEMENTS ARE OF THE SAME NATURE.
This means that meaning emerges for us from the dialectic tension between observing differences, and observing similarities. We are CONSTANTLY observing and comparing our world.
We are doing this without even realizing that we are doing it.
Look at how many words (elements..) I used to talk about something so elemental that you don't even THINK about what you're doing.
This should ring... alarm bells in your head. To make you realize how incredibly complex your thinking is UNBEKNOWNST to you. You are NOT doing this consciously. Not at all.
You learned how to do this... WITHOUT a book (for your mother language). Without a teacher sitting down and telling you HOW to do it. No formal education to learn this.

Once we start... directing our consciousness on the nature of language.. THE MEDIUM which we are employing to talk about.. the OBJECT, language (comment, Thai ?), it becomes miraculous (in my book..). (We did not ALWAYS direct our consciousness on the nature of LANGUAGE. The ancient Greeks were not CONSCIOUS of language AS OBJECT.)
Cut to an incident involving my 2 1/2 year old son, many years ago now.
One night around midnight, my husband was rocking our insomniac toddler in front of the TV, to try to get him sleepy.
All at once, Mark got really excited, and insisted on being put down.
He ran to the TV, pointed his finger at the screen where a horse race was going on, and said "o-a". He then ran to his room, found one of his favorite cardboard books, "Petit Poney", and brought it out to the living room. He pointed at the cover drawing of petit poney, and once again said "o-a".
The whole incident lasted maybe... 5 minutes ?
Whew.... what an INTELLIGENT 2 1/2 year old ! (No more intelligent than.. YOU, or your wife, or your children, or me, or your cleaning lady too, while we're at it... in this domain, at least...)
Let's decrypt what's going on...
Marc saw... a fleeting image on the screen. He... compared it to the image on the cover of his cardboard book. And he said... "o-a". I maintain that "o-a" is a word. I'll tell you why in a minute.
Now... what do... a two dimensional fleeting image on a screen, a stylized drawing in a book, and a three dimensional animal standing in a field to whom he fed carrots from his stroller, an animal he was afraid to get bitten by..., have in common ? In the absolute all that looks pretty DIFFERENT, doesn't it ? (I should specify that Mark was hearing the word "cheval" all the time, he was hearing the word spoken while reading his story, on the TV, etc.)
What Mark grasped in that instant in front of the TV is that the WORD (element) "o-a" brings together all those different "objects". The word "o-a" represents, takes the place of those objects IN ORDER FOR US TO BE ABLE TO TALK ABOUT THEM TOGETHER.
The word "o-a" is an ENORMOUS generalization. Lots of.. detail disappears in that generalization. And when we string together all those representations OF, we are NOT EVEN THINKING OF what they represent (in many, many cases). We are firmly entrenched IN THE SYSTEM OF LANGUAGE ITSELF.
The last part is the best.
I love playing Sherlock. Where did "o-a" come from ?
There is a comptine in French, a little game called "mon petit cheval". (Cheval means horse, you must know by now...) Like "itsy bitsy spider".
It goes.. "mon petit cheval va AU PAS AU PAS, au trot au trot, au galop, au galop."
When you do it with a child, he is sitting on your knees, and you bounce him very gently for" au pas", then faster for "au trot", then you let it all hang out for "au galop", and everybody, (you too...) gets all excited at going fast.
"O-a" comes from "au pas". It is hard for a littl'un to do the initial consonants at first.
So... Mark was connecting.... the image on the screen, the drawing in his book AND... the comptine itself where THE ONLY COMPARABLE ELEMENT is the word "cheval" itself. The comptine is ONLY LANGUAGE (with the body too, of course. It is incarnated language.)
He was connecting all of this to the word "cheval".
Amazing, huh ?
If you want to see this, find William Gibson's "The Miracle Worker" with Patty Duke and Anne Bankroft. You will see this scene, in the life of Helen Keller. It is an unmistakable, and very moving scene.
One last thing : this corresponds to what Lacanian psychoanalysis calls "le stade du miroir", the mirror stage. The moment when we realize that... OUR NAME represents US in the language system, like all the other words do.
And... of course, there is JUBILATION in this scene. Of course.
Because, in our minds.. language represents power. It gives us POWER over our world.
The power to name is one that we are VERY VERY attached to.
We will get back to this. It is very very important.
Please tell me if there is stuff you don't understand.


Debra said...

My husband refreshed my memory at lunch.
Our son got all excited, and in addition to what I recounted, he pointed to his hobby horse, and went to the window and gesticulated in the direction of the horse-animal in the field...
A busy toddler.

Edwardo said...

Vedy interesting. I am going to have more to say later, but for now, I need to get on my pedant pony and let you know that Arthur Penn was the director of The Miracle Worker. Arthur Miller was probably busy corralling Marilyn Monroe on (and off) the set of The Misfits.

Edwardo said...

As they relate to the study of "the medium of language", what are your thoughts-in five hundred words or less- on the findings, such as they are, of McLuhan and Wittgenstein.

Also, in your view, does it (or does it not) stand to reason that where there is a paucity of available (rich) language, there is, likewise, an impoverishment of potential meaning making?

Debra said...

Mea culpa, Edwardo.
I try to avoid reading philosophy when I can.
The only knowledge I have of McLuhan is from... Annie Hall. Loved that scene..
Wittgenstein... I cracked the book this winter and gave up after about twenty pages..
Why don't YOU give me the low down on McLuhan and Wittgenstein and i'll tell you what I think.
I said I was a lazy lout.
I would much rather be reading James Joyce on language than Wittgenstein...
Also, our mutual friend Doctor John must have something to tell us about the topic.
Dring... Doctor John... wake up, please. Your knowledge is being sollicited.
As far as paucity of vocabulary equating paucity of meaning, yeah, you got it, that's EXACTLY what I mean.
It may not sound very democratic of me, but, yeah, that's EXACTLY what I mean.
Zero vocabulary=... you fill in the blanks.
That's an alarm bell for our public school system...

Debra said...

Arthur Miller wrote the play then, I'm pretty sure...
The film was based on his play.
Thanks for correcting me, though.

Edwardo said...

Well, old Wittgenstein is something of controversial figure but suffice it to say that (and you probably already know this) he spent a lot of his time as a philosopher pondering the limits of language.

As for McLuhan, well he was best known for the quote "The medium is the message" which I have always taken as essentially a commentary on technology, and how it shapes who we are, what we do, and how we understand ourselves and our existence.

With respect to our own age, we have morphed from a literary culture to a visual culture. McLuhan was, of course, very concerned with that transformation.

Dr John said...

I do love Ludwig indeed Debra. I love him most for his contempt of psychiatry/psychology "scientific methods but conceptual confusion" and what he taught me about the limits of what I can know and how we use language. We have no idea what a headache is, just how people behave when they get one and how we have a shared meaning unspoken of what it must be.

I think your description of your dear son is very much in line with how he saw language being used and how it develops as part of what he called "the language game".The meanings are not drawn by sharp lines but rather blur and blend. they are exactly like games. The same game you play with your son bouncing him on your knee!

Thanks for the French lesson. When I was able to drink wine I had some fine vintages of Ch. Cheval Blanc. Know I know it means white horse. John

Edwardo said...

William Gibson wrote the play. Arthur Miller had nothing to do with it.

Thai said...

I'm totally confused by this post.

Debra said...

I stand doubly corrected then, Edwardo.
Remember I keep telling you NOT to take my "wisdom" on faith alone...
Are you as confused by this post as I am about fractals, Thai ??
What don't you understand ?

Debra said...

I corrected the piece, Edwardo, based on your observation. Thanks.

The Most Fabulous Objects In The World

  • Hitchhiker's Guide To The Universe trilogy
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  • Flight of the Conchords
  • Time Bandits

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