[xmca] The Myth of Arbitrariness

From: David Kellogg (vaughndogblack@yahoo.com)
Date: Thu Feb 15 2007 - 13:55:34 PST

Dear Martin, Elias, Cindy, et al:
  I think there are (at least) two reasons why people are unwilling to accept word-meaning (or utterance-sense) as a unit of consciousness.
  First of all, people still think of consciousness as primary, irreducible, and given rather than derivative (which is how Freud and Janet both see it, since they think that unconsciousness comes from consciousness rather thant the other way round). To westerners, the idea that we construct our selves from the words of others is just plain creepy.
  Secondly, people think of word meaning as basically arbitrary--because different languages have different words for the same thing. So the idea that something as apparently as fixed and immoveable as consciousness might have a basis that is as arbitrary and relative as word-meaning (let alone "utterance-sense"), is also kind of...gooey.
  But this arbitrariness is a myth. The higher up the tree of language you go, the more you realize that its structure is in no way arbitrary.
  A digression. When my stepfather died, he left my mother and I a big box of papers that was to be his single-volume history of India (later published as "A History of India", Burton Stein, Blackwell). In the introduction, he stated his intention of writing this history BACKWARDS--that is, accounting for the present by accounting for the recent past, and then accounting for the recent past by delving into the more distant past, etc.
  Why not? After all, history is not narrative. The main job of a historian is to organize, and the recent data has both quantitative and qualitative priority. Histories tend to put effects before causes, at least in terms of their prioritizing. Just like most spoken sentences using the word "because" (e.g. "I had lunch because I was hungry").
  Unfortunately, as the editor informed us, you can't do that for a book many tens of thousands of sentences long. It's not really possible to write history the way my stepfather wanted to; the language, which is built to integrate human activities (rather than, as Halliday claims, justify a particular theory of experience) simply does not work that way.
  The treatment of time in language is not arbitrary. There is a good reason why verbs take tense and nouns don't. And there is a good reason why, in any sustained narrative or meta-narrative, cause has to come before effect. Our minds tend to store things that way; to think backwards from effect to cause, the way we reflect on phenomeona, simply requires far more effort than to think forwards, from cause to effect, the way we experience them.
  But what about the lower branches of the tree? Here too, the arbitrariness of language is not what it seems.
  On a recent trip to America I managed to pick up a copy of Cole and Cole's venerable volume The Development of Children. Roundabout page 300, there's a lovely watercolor of a father at a window holding a child. Outside the window there is a cat on a wall, a helicopter on a building, a tree in a garden. The caption is:
  Smotri, sinochek. Tam sidit ptitsa!
  Cole and Cole remark that this utterance is one hell of a puzzle to lay before a pre-linguistic child. Even assuming that the child understood ALL the other words in the sentence, how is the child to know that "ptitsa" refers to a BIRD in the TREE (which I didn't even mention in my description)? How does the child know the father is not talking about the cat or the helicopter, or even the tree in the garden?
  Frankly, I didn't know that ptitsa referred to a bird either. But what REALLY amazed me was that I DID know what all the other words in the sentence meant. I KNEW, before I read any further than Smotri, sinochek. Tam sidit... that the father was saying:
  Look, my child. There is a ....
  Now, as I've said, I have NO Russian--none at all. Yet I DID know what all the other words meant. How is this possible?
  It is possible because language is NOT a fixed and arbitrary code. It's much more like a set of fluid, fluent, flexible gestures that arise in the process of fitting human activities (above all activities by different people) together. So a father standing at a window with a child in almost any country on earth is going to say more or less those things in more or less that order. There's absolutely nothing arbitrary about it...until we get to the very last word.
  And even here COMPLETE arbitrariness is a myth, or rather, a linguistic illusion. The bird is an object. An object can be viewed from many angles, and even in motion, and the eye and brain will know that it is still the same object.
  The word ptitsa is also an object. It is designed to be heard in many contexts (but more distinctly and clearly and separately when it appears at the end of the sentence) and still the ear and brain will know that it is the same object. That's why it doesn't take tense (though of course it does take number, and even more incongrously--though not arbitrarily--it can take gender).
  Brains did not evolve to do this with words--they evolved to do it with objects in the visual field. But just as mouths have been exapted--taken from the evolved use of breating and eating and adapted to the uses of communication--this particularly brain function comes in very handy with determining where a noun lies in a set of sentences. The nouny bit is the stuff that doesn't change, or when it does change you can see things like number and gender change too. There is nothing arbitrary about these facts either.
  Surely the PHONOLOGY is arbitrary then! Strangely, there is something about the word "ptitsa" that suggests a bird to my brain (I think it is because the word is used in "A clockwork orange" to describe a girl singing). But even if the sound did not suggest lithe chirpiness to me, there is something about it that suggests childish talk.
  The "set up wizards" of language, that is, the registers of language that we have evolved to make language learnable are rich in certain sounds, and not in others. Baby talk, nursery rhymes, counting out rhymes in games, etc. have non-arbitrary rules. For example, it seems to be the case that CLOSED vowels like "i" appear before more open ones like "a", which is why we always say "fiddle faddle" and "hip hop" and even "hickory dickory dock" and never "faddle fiddle" or "hop hip" or "dockery dickery hick". Even phonemes, then, are not completely arbitrary.
  Besides, I'm not sure phonemes are really language; I think they may part of the arbitrariness myth that is a state religion among linguists. If they are language, they are surely the hair and the toenails and not the body or the voice.
  I's quite possible, nay, easy to learn the language completely without them. Syllables, which are the actual voice of language, are not arbitrary at all in their construction; they always have a vowel in the middle. There simply isn't any other way to make one.
  So it appears, at least to me, that the "arbitrariness" of language is really a myth; there is are always very good reasons why things do what they do in languages. The problem is that those good reasons have to do with the human uses of the real world, not with the way things "are". But human uses of the real world are, after all, is what we are talking about when we say the word "consciousness".
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education
  PS: Mike--as you can see, I am thinking about what you said about etymology and rethinking what I said about it.
  On the one hand, I can't accept that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, or that comprehension is fast-forward etymology. But on the other hand, if ontogeny REVERSES phylogeny (which in some respects it undoubtedly does) and microgenesis REVERSES ontogeny (which in some respects it ALSO does), then in some respects, comprehension CAN recapitulate etymology.
  I DID say that I thought etymology is not IRRELEVANT. And of course I agree with you that it is an important way of unfreezing meaning, and imposing strangeness on familiar words--a very important bonne a penser.
   I (re)think!

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