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[Xmca-l] Taxis and Embedding in Conversation


Bear with me for a linguistic excursus. It will involve taking the scenic
route. But after all, that's what whales do.

So one of the first linguistics professors I ever had at the University of
Chicago was James McCawley. He was a right wing nut job: when he wasn't
professsoring, he was running for governor of Illinois on the LIbertarian
ticket. Because he was a libertarian, and because he was a bit of a nut, he
would lecture on why we freshmen like to say "Fan-fucking-tastic!" instead
of, say, "Fantas-fucking-tic!" In "My Fair Lady", Audrey Hepburn sings:

Oh, so lover-ly singing abso-blooming-lutely still
Ah would never budge till spring crept over me window sill!"

Why not "ab-blooming-solutely" (which has the advantage of alliteration) or
"absolute-bloomingly" (which would make more morphological sense)? or "

The answer has to do with embedding, which is a phenomenon that occurs on
virtually every level of language: sounding, wording, and of course
meaning. So for example, at the level of wording, imagine that I receive a
letter from a elementary school crush, and it is discovered by my wife.

a) She tore up the letter, which upset me.

Now imagine that this long-lost elementary school crush turns out to be a
loathsome right winger soliciting funds for "Blue Lives Matter":

b) She tore up the letter which upset me.

Oh, what a difference a little comma can make! In b) "which upset me" is
embedded in the nominal group (the "noun phrase", for you Chomskyans). It
plays no part in the structure of the clause-complex (the "sentence" for
Chomskyans). So it has no effect on the tearing or on the "she", and it is
confined to "the letter", just as "fucking" intensifies the SOUND STRESS on
"TAST-ic" rather than the lexical meaning of "fantasy" or the more
grammatical meaning of "ic", and "blooming" intensifies the prosodic
emphasis of "LUTE-ly" rather than the lexical meaning of "absolute" or the
grammatical meaning of  "~ly". But in a) "which upset me" is a all about
her tearing up the letter and it impacts "she" and "tore up" and not just
 the letter: it is abso-bloomingly-lutely part of the story of the
clause-complex as a whole.

You can see that both McCawley's example and my own are about meaning, but
they are about different kinds of meaning. McCawley is talking about
prosodic meaning: the kind of meaning we get from rhymes, jingles, hip hop
and Homeric hexameters. I am giving you an example of lexicogrammatical
meaning, the kind of meaning we get when semantics (thinking) is realized
as lexicogrammar (wordings, which may be in turn realized as soundings, but
they may also be inner speech).

But, as the poet says, if you would see the Yangzi River, you must ascend
another storey of the Yellow Crane Tower. In the latest volume of her
Collected Works, Ruqaiya Hasan is talking about a conversation between her
graduate student, Carmel Cloran, and Carmel's preschool son, Stephen.

It's the kind of rangey conversation we all have with preschoolers: she
asks him what he wants for lunch, and he decides on peanut butter
sandwiches and passionfruit. The passionfruit is not in the fruit bowl and
it has to be retrieved from under the kitchen table, Stephen wants to know
why there are no passionfruit in Sydney at this time of year (it's winter)
and Carmel wants him to sit at his designated place at the table and not
the place where his Grandma usually sits, Stephen wants to know why Grandma
sits there and not elsewhere, and why he can't sit there when she's not
around, and then as Carmel brings the sandwiches and prepared fruit to the
table she talks about taking him shopping to Chatswood.

One way to see this conversation is as a kind of Monty Python show--a
sequence of texts separated by "and now for something completely
different". This is, actually, the way they see things at the University of
Sydney, where each "text" in the conversation is attributed to a different
"genre" and even a different "register". In some of the texts the context
is present, in others it is present but under the table, and in others it
is in distant Chatswood and far in the future.

But another way is to see some of the texts as embedded in others: looking
for the passionfruit is a kind of qualifier of Stephen's request for
passionfruit, and the explanation of seating has the function of a
"because..." or "since..." hypotactic. clause attached to Stephen's sitting
in the wrong place at the kitchen table.

The trip to Chatswood? On the face of it, this is really "and now for
something completely different". And yet, from the Macquarie point of view,
it too is linked, but "paratactically". What is being kept up is the
interpersonal flow of meaning--the intimate, loving, but asymmetrical
relationship between care-giver and cared-for. This is not much related to
the social reproduction of the material conditions of life (and from
Stephen's view not at all): if they do not go to Chatswood they will not go
hungry tonight. But it is part of the flow of semiosis that forms the great
ocean current that carries humans and other warm-blooded animals on their

Yes, of course: semiogenesis and sociogenesis are linked, just as
phylogenesis and sociogenesis are not simply stacked the one upon the
other, and learning is not simply the "domestication" of development for
purpose of  Aktualgenese or microgenesis: there is an inner link in both
cases. But as soon as we say that the social reproduction of the material
conditions of life and the flow of semiosis have this inner link and are
not simply stacked like geological layers, we find ourselves admitting that
they can also be distinct, that eddies of semiosis sometimes carry us
backwards in sociogenesis and sometimes fling us far into our own futures.

David Kellogg
Macquarie University

"The Great Globe and All Who It Inherit:
Narrative and Dialogue in Story-telling with
Vygotsky, Halliday, and Shakespeare"

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Recent Article: Thinking of feeling: Hasan, Vygotsky, and Some Ruminations
on the Development of Narrative in Korean Children

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