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[Xmca-l] The Stuff of Words



Gordon Wells quotes this from an article Mike wrote in a Festschrift for
George Miller. Mike is talking about artefacts:

"They are ideal in that they contain in coded form the interactions of
which they
were previously a part and which they mediate in the present (e.g., the
structure of
a pencil carries within it the history of certain forms of writing). They
are material
in that they are embodied in material artifacts. This principle applies
with equal
force whether one is considering language/speech or the more usually noted
forms
of artifacts such as tables and knives which constitute material culture.
What
differentiates a word, such as “language” from, say, a table. is the
relative prominence
of their material and ideal aspects. No word exists apart from its material
instantiation (as a configuration of sound waves, or hand movements, or as
writing,
or as neuronal activity), whereas every table embodies an order imposed by
thinking
human beings."

This is the kind of thing that regularly gets me thrown out of journals by
the ear. Mike says that the difference between a word and a table is the
relative salience of the ideal and the material. Sure--words are full of
the ideal, and tables are full of material. Right?

Nope. Mike says it's the other way around. Why? Well, because a word
without some word-stuff (sound or graphite) just isn't a word. In a
word, meaning is solidary with material sounding: change one, and you
change the other. But with a table, what you start with is the idea of the
table; as soon as you've got that idea, you've got a table. You could
change the material to anything and you'd still have a table.

Wells doesn't throw Mike out by the ear. But he does ignore the delightful
perversity in what Mike is saying, and what he gets out of the quote is
just that words are really just like tools. When in fact Mike is saying
just the opposite.

(The part I don't get is Mike's notion that the structure of a pencil
carries within it the history of certain forms of writing. Does he mean
that the length of the pencil reflects how often it's been used? Or is he
making a more archaeological point about graphite, wood, rubber and their
relationship to a certain point in the history of writing and erasing?
Actually, pencils are more like tables than like words--the idea has to
come first.)

David Kellogg
Macquarie University