[xmca] Elements and Units

From: David Kellogg (vaughndogblack@yahoo.com)
Date: Mon Jan 29 2007 - 11:10:08 PST

Dear Eric:
  For what I do (and I think also for what you do) the word “word” is a little troublesome. Compare:
  a) “An electron moves in an orbit.”
  b) “the orbital motion of the electron”
  c) “the electron’s orbital motion”
  It seems to me that a) is primary school English, while b) and c) is closer to the secondary school scientific English outcome that you are looking for.
  The problem is that b) has exactly the same number of words as a), and c) has fifty percent less. If “word” is the essential unit of meaning, it is rather hard to explain why a) and b) are significantly different, much less how b) and c) can belong to exactly the same scientific speech genre.
  Now, you may, very properly, complain that this kind of word counting is a trivial exercise, not an analysis. Right you are. But let’s consider the possible outcomes anyway.
  I guess you know that race and genetics and even eugenics forms the unspoken basis of an awful lot of the explanations for school failure in the USA (see, for example, recent “work”, if one may call it that, by Charles Murray).
  In England they have always had a bit more trouble selling this explanation, because until fairly recently the lower classes were all white. In reality, the same problem exists in America; thanks to the stern moral code of the slave-holding south, 70% of Americans have enough black blood to be legally black under the old Jim Crow laws. But since of course we live in a classless society, we all have to pretend that race exists.
  Unfortunately for the Murrays of the world, what DNA research clearly demonstrates is that race doesn’t exist: genetic variation within races is greater than that between races. In circumstances like these, racists everywhere (the Balkans, the former Soviet Union, India, and even Los Angeles) fall back on language; when the eyes deceive you, you can always rely on your ears to reify differences in a way that flatters your own particular in-group.
  And sure enough, linguistics appears, at first glance, to help the racist case a bit more than the chimera of race. You probably read about the studies reported in the New York Times magazine that seemed to show that middle-class kids get exposed to TWICE as “much” vocabulary as working class kids. What this means is that they get vocabulary with a much higher type-to-token ratio (more word families for the same number of words).
  Last week, among the American “heroes” that graced the first lady’s box during Bush’s miserable “State of the Union” message was the lady who founded “Baby Einstein”, a company that markets videos for two-year-olds. The idea, of course, is to expose them to those middle-class magic words at a tender age so that they have a “head start” by the time they get to school (not, of course, to get them hooked on television and advertising before they develop a taste for human interaction, though she did manage to flog the company to Walt Disney for a tidy sum).
  Despite my respect for the work of Basil Bernstein, the linguistic explanation for school failure has always rankled. Bernstein argues that high school curricula are “strongly classified” and high school teacher talk is “strongly framed” (that is, the difference between topics is quite clear, and within each topic there are definite speech genres).
  Strangely enough, when we look at MIDDLE CLASS home language, we find that middle class parents tend to weakly classify the topics in conversations they have with their kids. For example, they are very open to imaginative narratives that their children insert into every day activities, and they are also very apt to use, e.g. statements as directives, as in “I don’t think Nana wants you chewing on her tail, darling….”
  My desk (and my field) is littered with an apparently endless supply of first language acquisition studies by grad students in linguistics studying the acquisition of middle class English by their middle class kids. A very few people, such as Gordon Wells, have gone out and tried to study how working class kids from working class homes try to make the transition to school language and fail.
  But Gordon doesn’t think that the language parents address to kids fixes their destiny. Instead, he suggests that in the long run reading vs. television is as important as the kind of language you get from Mom and Dad. This makes a LOT more sense to me, particularly if we give vocabulary a key role in school achievement.
  Just walk into a library and look at a copy of Jane Eyre. Then access the on-line script of a TV adaptation of Jane Eyre. Just in purely quantitative terms, the former has ten or twenty times as many words as the latter, and when we look at the type-token ratios, they are even more different.
  Of course, there has to be more to it than the magic words. For one thing, by the time they get to high school kids have stopped talking like their parents and started talking like their peers. For another, when you work in primary education, as I do, you have to think a lot about what kids do before they have the words to do what they want to do. For a third thing, the word “word” means something quite different in Korean, either a whole phrase or a mere syllable. And then there’s the problem we started with; a single thought like “an electron moves in an orbit” doesn’t seem to have a fixed number of words.
  The word “word” is an abstraction; it doesn’t really exist. “A” and “the” are words, “apple” and “of” are words, “dribble” is two words (at least!) As Bakhtin pointed out, though, “utterance”, understood as the stretch of language that occurs between two changes of speakers, is a real, concrete, social unit. It’s certainly the unit of meaning that we use here on XMCA!
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education

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