[xmca] Etymology and Comprehension

From: David Kellogg (vaughndogblack@yahoo.com)
Date: Sun Mar 11 2007 - 16:04:08 PST

Some discussions in this space really do have immediate and very full "surrender value" (as they say when you try to cash in your life insurance policy) and others are much slower to mature. This morning, for example, in combative mood after crossing swords with Martin and Andy, I was re-reading A.A.Leontiev's "Linguistic Meaning" in Wertsch's edited volume on (now not so) "Recent Trends in Soviet Psycholinguistics" instead of reading the lingerie ads on the Seoul subway.
  Well, at first I was appalled. Leontiev simply takes over a lot of Marx's discussion of money and applies it to linguistic signs. This seems to me to be a terrible mistake, similar to all the phrasemongering about "cultural capital" and "the political economy of the sign" which ignores the obvious fact that as far as language is concerned every man is his own mint (not, alas, true of money).
  Leontiev abandons the analogy precisely where it would do some good. On p. 25 Leontiev claims that "meaning cannot exist outside of language". Of course, linguistic meaning cannot exist outside of language; that's a tautology. But if meaning cannot exist outside of language, out of what does language develop? Marx was careful to point out that there were two very different kinds of value, and one develops out of the other.
  So too with etymology and comprehension, but paradoxically I think it is the former which develops out of the latter. When Volosinov and Mrs. Volosinov are sitting by the window reading in late May, and Volosinov notices it starting to snow, the meaning of the snowfall (another six weeks of winter) exists utterly outside language, and even when he chooses to "mint" the meaning as linguistic coin and pass it to Mrs. Volosinov ("Sigh! Oh, well...") language is quite peripheral to the exchange. Once coined however, "sigh" and "oh, well" may go on to develop an etymology. (No--comprehended, not coined--let's retire ALL these 18th century money-language metaphors from circulation!)
  Halliday has an odd formulation that I still haven't quite made sense of. He argues that phylogenesis, ontogenesis, and microgenesis (which he calls "logogenesis") all have basically the SAME relationship. Phylogenesis provides the environment for ontogenesis, but ontogenesis provides the raw material for (the next stage of) phylogenesis. Similarly, ontogenesis provides an environment for logogenesis (the unfolding of a text) but logogenesis provides the raw stuff of the next phase of ontogenesis.
  My first reaction to this was that it was utterly un-Vygotskyan, because Vygotsky clearly denies this kind of recapitulation and indeed argues for INVERSION at some level (which is why I was banging on and on about the inversion of volition and automaticity in more microgenetic foreign language learning compared with more ontogenetic first language learning).
  Now I am not so sure! There are some things that are inverted (viz, the relationship of elements within a unit of analysis, for example volition and action in the example of first and second language learning). But what Halliday is talking about is not the precise configuration of the elements: it's the social environment of learning in which this inversion takes place and the provision of the actual stuff that gets inverted.
  At school there are posters about "pedagogy", transliterated from the English into Korean characters. This has a distinctly more modern and political feeling than the word for what I teach, English "kyoyukhak" or "education", which comes from Chinese, and is correspondingly more stately, scientific, and objective.
  So Mike is right, etymology and even historical linguistics, are part of the way we understand words. But what part are they? Perhaps they are more part of smysl than they are part of znachenie.
  Take, for example, the Korean word for "lingerie" which is simply translated from the French. It has a gorgeous, voluptuous texture utterly unlike the word "panty" borrowed from the English (and in Korean is used to mean MEN'S underwear). Part of this is undoubtedly etymological; in much the same way words with French stress are more effeminate in English than words with Germanic stress (compare a word like "balloon" with a word like "table").
  Both Korean "lingerie" and Korean "panty" are different from Korean "nei ot" (literally, "underwear") which just means anything you are wearing inside of something else. "Nei ot" is a delightful hybrid etymologically; half Chinese and half pure Korean, just as the word "homosexual" is half Greek and half Latin. But because languages are miscegenistic magpies, etymology is sometimes misleading (misreading?). The further away we stand from Volosinov's window and his snow, the more unreliable a guide etymology is to smysl.
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education

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