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[Xmca-l] Re: The Stuff of Words



One of the things I do regularly, is look at sound waves. That is, I look
at a representation, on a graph, of minute changes in air pressure, as they
affect a diaphragm in a microphone. The diaphragm then converts these
changes in air pressure to electric signals, and these signals are really
what I'm looking at on the graph. It's a little like watching waves on the
sea strike a bulkhead or a breakwater: you have the sense of something
quite natural colliding with something artificial and breaking up, but
leaving a mark you can use to reconstruct it.

When you look at the mark, you do not see vowels and consonants. In fact,
you don't even see the spaces between words. They are literally not there:
there is usually no break in the sound wave, any more than there is a
sudden parting of the waves when you are watching the waves on the sea come
in. I have gotten to the point where I can recognize certain patterns as
linguistic patterns, but they are not the sort of thing that you would
recognize (they aren't, for example, high sounds for "ee" and low sounds
for "oooh" or anything like that (it's a quartet rather than a single
flute--there are four "formants" of sound energy to keep track of, and
there's quite a bit of counterpoint). The first thing you tend to notice is
whether a whole utterance goes UP (like a yes/no question) or DOWN (like a
statement or a wh-question). But it's really like watching waves until your
feet get wet, and then you realize that you are also looking at tides.

This is the stuff of words. I suppose you could argue that this is
really very far from the real action; that the real action some current
of meaning somewhere in people's minds. That's where the vowels and
consonants arise, and where you get spaces between words and so on. I am
sure that somewhere there is a linguist looking at brain signals in the
cerebral cortex with much the same emotion I have looking at sound waves
and much the same conviction that I have, that she or he is actually
witnessing a current of meaning streaming through time. But to me this is a
little like trying to say that the internet exists somewhere without actual
computers. As far as I can see, if my sea of sound waves dried up, language
would simply cease to exist.  Of course, we can have sound waves without
language, just as we can have computers without the internet. But as far as
I can tell, we cannot have language without sound waves (or hand waves, if
you are talking sign languages), just as we cannot have the internet
without computers.

Now think of a table. That's it. You did it. You now have everything you
need to park your coffee cup and lay out your book. If there isn't anything
with four legs and a flat surface around, you can just turn the wastebasket
upside down, use the windowsill, and when guests arrive you take the door
off the hinges and put it on the wastebasket and the windowsill or you just
go outside and use a stump or a rock or a log. I think you can see that the
material of which the table is made is quite accidental. If one material
ceases to exist, you just get another one, and if you live in a culture
where a few feet of elevation above floor level is less important (like
Korea, or any other place where you don't wear your shoes indoors) you
just do without a table. Your life is a little different, but not as
different as life without word stuff.

D.H. Lawrence, in "Why the Novel Matters"), goes through this long and (to
me and to women) quite coy and annoying meditation on why we imagine that
"man alive" lives in the head and not some other body part. He goes on and
on about how his hand, and his fingers holding his pen are just as much a
part of "the whole man" as the head. And then, forgetting for just a moment
that he is really talking about some other appendage that he feels very
attached to, he muses a moment about whether his fingernails are really
part of "the whole man" and decides that they are somewhere in between,
because he cuts them off. He doesn't really need to get that far--if you
have to choose between losing a finger and losing a hand, you choose the
former and not the latter, and the same thing is true if you have to choose
between losing a hand and losing your head.

It's tempting to see in this crude, coarse, unmanly (and unwomanly) essay
something like Bateson's ruminations on the blind man and the stick. But I
see them as being exactly the opposite. If you see the essence of humanity
as out there, amongst your fellow humans, in their livings and lives and
voices, then it makes perfect sense to see the absence of tables as
accidental and irrelevant, an absence of fingernails and not the absence of
a finger, a hand, or a head. But the absence of word stuff is an absence
indeed; the loss of word stuff is the loss of  human wholeness, if that is
what Lawrence really meant by "man alive".

David Kellogg
Macquarie University



On Wed, May 3, 2017 at 7:06 AM, Alfredo Jornet Gil <a.j.gil@iped.uio.no>
wrote:

> David (and or Mike, Andy, anyone else), could you give a bit more on that
> distinction between words and tables?
>
> And could you say how (and whether) (human, hand) nails are different from
> tables; and then how nails are different from words?
>
> Alfredo
> ________________________________________
> From: xmca-l-bounces@mailman.ucsd.edu <xmca-l-bounces@mailman.ucsd.edu>
> on behalf of David Kellogg <dkellogg60@gmail.com>
> Sent: 01 May 2017 08:43
> To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
> Subject: [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
>