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Re: [xmca] Vygotsky, Saussure, and Wolves with different dreams
Thanks for your letter, and let me first of all excuse myself for the pedantic quality (bordering on the downright patronizing) of this posting. The relentless didacticism is not for a moment directed towards you personally, but rather towards my pitiable (and as yet unknown) graduate students. Classes start in about a week, and I am trying to make my ideas as clear as possible in order to write them down in an in-house textbook I am finishing up.
As I said, Greg, Chapter Six of Thinking and Speech, is all about non-noun concepts: “because” and “although”. Vygotsky, and Mandelstam before him, clearly says that a word meaning is not a thing; it’s a process. I’m afraid there isn’t any other way to interpret Paula and Carol’s work. The concept is not in the blocks (that was Ach’s mistake); it’s in the process of sorting them. This is every bit as true of concepts as it is of heaps and complexes.
The categories I gave earlier (“relator”, “circumstance”, “process”, “entity”, and “qualifier”) are semantic categories and not grammatical ones. Not even an “entity” is necessarily a noun; it’s perfectly possible to describe an apple with a clause, and that is in fact what we do when we define it (“the apple is a delicious fruit which appears in late summer on the boughs of Malus pumila, the name of a species of Rosaceae”).
It’s just that in English the end state of most logogenesis about apples is nominal. So the canonical, default realization of an entity like an apple is a noun. If English were a language spoken entirely by apple farmers who for some reason exported their entire crop, we would probably consider the root concept of “apple” a verb, since we would spend our days talking of how to apple or perhaps going appling or sitting around applizing.
I have read and I heartily approve your reading list (Klein, Karmiloff-Smith, etc.) Perhaps I might add to the list Halliday, who gave me the categories of “relator”, “circumstance”, “process”, “entity”, etc.) and of course Wallace Chafe (“Discourse in Time”). There is also my own work, especially Lim and Kellogg 2009, in Language and Education.
I don’t insist on the statement that articles inflect for time; the notions of “inflection” and “time” imply a formalist approach to language that is quite alien to the way I really think. I was trying to make a point about your taxonomy, which I find rather formalistic for my own use. In the classroom, where I work, articles are important for conveying (or, if you like, indexing) concepts. I don’t think that they “create” concepts any more than I think that tense creates time.
I think that everything you have said about articles can be used to demonstrate that verbs do not inflect for time either (e.g. “It is high time you did your homework.”) Here too I am agreeable; we can say that verbs changes are called tense and not time and that tense is a purely formal category with only a passing acquaintance (a notional relationship) with the semantic category of time. Chinese works very well without tense, and so, for that matter, does English (e.g. when you have to tell a story backwards, from effect to cause, you do not use tense to do this).
As I said, I think most languages are superior to English for the purpose of conveying concepts outside a very narrow range of peculiarly English ones (e.g. “Mister”). But in general that is true of all languages; a language gets good at the range of activities that its speakers indulge in, and no language community indulges in the whole range of human experience. The difference is that English has apparently been “chosen” as our world language. As I said, I think it has been so because of its anti-egalitarian and ultimately anti-educational qualities; languages of prestige and power are invariable impractical in obvious ways.
Let me talk a moment about why I think it’s important to distinguish between the formal properties of language, which are expressed in linear ways, and the semantic ones, which I think are not so (paradoxically, time is not expressed in language through time; only tense is expressed through time).
The Vygotskyan position is that thinking and speech are linked, but distinct. One way to put this (Vygotsky’s way) is to say that thinking is not expressed in speech but realized in speech. As Richard Strauss wrote:
Flamand: The infant’s cry of pain came before language!
Olivier: But only words can explain what pain means.
In some ways, then, speech is more differentiated, more developed than thinking, even though, microgenetically, it is more recent (in the same way cultural functions are more developed and differentiated than natural functions, and science concepts and more developed and more precisely differentiated than everyday ones even though they are more recently developed). This by itself is evidence that their development is one process, and not two (because if it were two distinct processes without any links then we would expect that the older process would more differentiated and developed).
But another way to put it (that is, another way of formulating the idea thinking and speaking are linked but distinct) is more structural and less genetic. It is to say that not everything we find in thinking is present in speaking, and not everything to be found in speaking is present in thinking. As soon as we put it this way, it becomes clear that we need to distinguish between the properties of language reified as a formal system for producing actual utterances(what Vygotsky calls its “phasal” properties, which is incorrectly translated as “phonological”) on the one hand, and the properties of the interface with thinking (what Vygotsky calls its “semantic” properties, which includes the volitional-affective substratum of speech).
The semantic properties are not entirely present in speaking, for some of them have evaporated (“volatilization” is the term Vygotsky uses) in the process of speaking them. The former, phasal, properties are not entirely present in thinking, which often appears to come over us “all at once” rather than in a linear, left to right, progression governed by the rules of syntax. Thoughts occur to us, while utterances must be articulated.
But as Goldwin-Meadow says, language is resilient stuff. Almost everything in the human experience (and then some) can make it into language as one way or another, and so it is possible to semanticize its phasal properties just as it is possible to render more phasal its semantic properties. When we do this, however, we often find ourselves s This was (I think) the great discovery of Jane Austen and other women English novelists (e.g. George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell) at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Virginia Woolf notes somewhere in “A Room of Her Own” that the typical sentence at the end of the eighteenth century was something like:
"The grandeur of their works was an argument with them, not to stop short, but to proceed. They could have no higher excitement or satisfaction than in the exercise of their art and endless generation of truth and beauty. Success prompts to exertion; and habit facilitates success".
You can see that the phasal structure of these sentences is actually quite simple: “A was B (not to C but to D). They had no E but F. G leads to H and H leads to more G.”
You can also see that it is noun-filled (A through G) and static, and that it literally winds up in a circle (from G back to more G, which is really A, B, D, and F in disguise).
Woolf compares this with what she calls Jane Austen’s “shapely sentences”. She doesn’t actually tell us what is shapely about an Austenian sentence, but most Austen fans (and I am one) can tell you anyway: Austen’s sentences unfold a character’s feelings as thoughts, and thoughts as words, often in the form of a long, undulating relative clause or series of relative clauses. Thinking is a form of feeling in Austen, and both are realized in speech.
>From this alone we can see that a single text has several different semantic layers: mental, verbal, material. The organization of these layers is linked but it is also distinct, and when we penetrate the bottom layer the top layer may disappear from view. For example, if we read the Arabian Nights as a single utterance, we are left with a story about a lady who for some mysterious reason is worried about having her head cut off: Aladdin, Sinbad, and Ali Baba appear only as delaying tactics or bad jokes told on the scaffold. When we decompose it into its component tales (as it must have been composed), it is Scheherazade who virtually disappears.
Mike is quite right to say that xmca threads are complexive and sometimes even syncretic in their structure. But when we decompose them into their components, we discover that the things that are being grouped together complexively and syncretically are not objects at all, but rather concepts (“influence”, for example, which Vygotsky reminds us means “in flowing”).
Hemingway, a writer whose psychology is almost entirely behaviorist, liked to begin stories in the way you describe, e.g.
“He came back into the room. The body was still on the floor.”
The writer pretends to treat the reader as an insider, privy to direct, unmediated, visual-graphic information.
The reader, excruciatingly conscious of his outsider status, has to read forward in order to catch up on what he has been missing. But Hemingway is a small boy playing with words; his technique is only a clumsy grammaticization of the semantic trope of Homer known as “in res media”. He only succeeds in conveying the rather phoney and characteristically macho idea that somehow unmediated experience is truer, and if you gotta ask you ain’t never gonna know.
Why did Hemingway, who so admired Tolstoy, learn so little from him? Hemingway apparently thought that he was rejuvenating writing by bringing it back to the simplest experiences, e.g. death. But of course death is NOT simple to write about and of course it is one of the few experiences about which we write that we CANNOT undergo first hand. One of the few writers who tried to do this was Marcel Proust, who apparently directed that his jottings from his own deathbed struggles should be incorporated into “A la recherche du temps perdu”. (Years later, another French writer, whose name escapes me, tried to repeat the experiment while he was dying of AIDS, and the only sentence I can remember from it is “J’ai retrouve mes muscles d’enfant.”)
Unlike Hemingway, Proust really does rejuvenate writing by bringing it back to the simplest experiences, but they are the most readily experiential experiences, like trying to fall asleep and eating a morsel of cake dipped in tea and then trying to remember something that you have forgotten but not forgotten about.
And here, with the distinction between remembering and remembering about, we really are quite close to the distinction Vygotsky makes in Chapter Six between the “phasal” (phonological but also grammatical) properties of language and the semantic (volitional-affective, but also pragmatic). Articles are clearly of the former, but concepts partake of the latter.
Seoul National University of Education
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