[xmca] Tables, Fiddles, and Chukovsky's Fiddlesticks

From: ERIC.RAMBERG@spps.org
Date: Tue Nov 14 2006 - 07:34:58 PST

 David was unable to post and asked that i forward this along.
 Interesting post and clearly an example of how difficult a subject
 language, psychology and semiotics certainly is.
 Dear eric and David (Kirshner):
 Well, I think what is clear is that we disagree. I don't see that there is
 any difference between the level of abstract processing required to call a
 fiddle-shaped table a "fiddle" and the level of abstract processing
 required to decode someone else calling a table a "fiddle".
 More! I disagree with David Kirshner that there is any fundamental
 difference between metonymy and metaphor, or, for that matter, between
 metaphor and non-figurative use of language. This is an extreme position
 today, because we are still recovering from a century of Saussurean
 structuralism, but I think it represents the anti-Saussurean position
 taken by Vygotsky and the linguists of his day, especially Volosinov and
 All language use is contextualized. This means that words have meaning
 only is so far as they can be concretely associated with context. But
 there are contexts and contexts. The child's world is one of real, visual,
 perceptual contexts, not the ideal, intellectual, conceptual contexts that
 are thrown up by almost any bit of text in an adult imagination.
 (I can't remember who wrote it, but there was a wonderful piece on how
 "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously", designed as a piece of
 unintelligible gibberish, inevitably defeats the author's purpose by
 creating a context around itself: The Labor Party goes green, Tiger Woods
 hits a double-bogey, etc.)
 The disagreement we have is that I think that this link between context
 and text, or between text and context, is always provisional and to be
 negotiated; it is never fixed and non-negotiable. This means that almost
 every use of language can be seen as metaphorical ("What does THAT old
 word mean in THIS new context?").
 What we take away from our negotiations is never a fixed dictionary
 meaning, but always a set of procedures for renegotiation of new senses in
 new contexts (and this is ESPECIALLY true of children, for whom the whole
 idea of language is pretty new). In other words, we do not walk away from
 a fiddle-shaped table with the idea that a table is called a "fiddle". We
 walk away with the idea that the next drum shaped table could easily be
 referred to as a "drum".
 So there is no difference in principle between metaphorical language and
 non-metaphorical language. (This is not my idea; it's the idea of the
 "integrationalists" around Roy Harris at Oxford and Mike Toolan at
 Birmingham, but I believe that it is also what Volosinov means by "theme"
 and what Vygotsky meant by "sense".)
 I'm afraid it gets worse! I also think I disagree with Mike and even with
 Jaan Valsiner about mediation. To me, it is actually possible for language
 itself to be unmediated. Words like "er" and "erm" and "um" and "oh" and
 "ah" and even "aha", tears, laughter, the purely iconic use of "get ready,
 get set, go!" (where ANY three noises would do as well, because it
 actually not the words, but the silences between words that provide the
 timing for the child)...all of these are simply sounds and have only
 iconic meaning (to use Peirce's term). So I think they are basically
 unmediated (and that is why they never need to be taught).
 This is consistent with the integrationist position, which holds that we
 can never draw a firm boundary between language (or text) and non-language
 (context), and that deictics ("the", "that", "this" and "you know" as well
 as less obvious deictics like tense and person) are constantly drawing
 attention to the non-language in language. If that is true, there must be
 large areas of language which are purely iconic (not indexical, and not
 These are the areas of language that form the unmediated substrate of our
 human communication system (coughing, throat clearing, perhaps even more
 indexical forms of communication such as smiles, tears and laughter).
 These are not only universal among humans , these layers of iconic and
 even indexical meaning are actually shared with animals(though Wierzibicka
 is right when she says that the symbolic strata of language is never
 Think of how language looks to someone who not only doesn't know language,
 but doesn't even know that language exists (say, think how it looks to
 Frankenstein's monster, at first, or to Helen Keller before her moment at
 the pump, or to any animal or newborn babe). That is the iconic,
 unmediated substrate of language; what Vygotsky calls the independent root
 of speech (as opposed to thought).
 This iconic substrate never goes away; it's always there. I believe that
 it is this iconic-to-indexical element that makes language learnable for
 children; it's part of the "set up wizard" of child language, with its
 rich onomatopoiea, that Chukovsky was trying to describe when he dabbled
 in nonsense.
 As I said, I think that the main antipathy between Vygotsky and Chukovsky
 was racial and political (the Vygotsky book which Chukovsky attacks
 approvingly quoted Trotsky's "Literature and Revolution"). But I also
 think that Chukovsky was, in developmental terms, something of a
 reactionary too, encouraging children to look back fondly to the iconic
 and indexical substrata of language rather than forward to its symbolic
 I think that is what Vygotsky (and also Krupskaya, who was Vygotsky’s boss
 at the time) were objecting to, and I think that their objection, while
 perhaps overstated in the revolutionary heat of the moment, was basically
 David Kellogg
 Seoul National University of Education

xmca mailing list

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Wed Jan 03 2007 - 07:14:21 PST