[xmca] When an Ant is a Steamship

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at yahoo.com>
Date: Sat Apr 14 2007 - 02:23:34 PDT

Dear Mike and David (Preiss):
  We certainly need a proper text. I think Dr. R. F. Hingley, who did the translation of Belyayev's "Psychology of Teaching Foreign Languages" for Oxford, got "meaning" and "sense" thoroughly mixed up. Look:
  p. 145: "In the semantics of a word it is necessary to distinguish sense from meaning. By meaning we usually understand the way in which a word can be related to the object or phenomenon which it denotes, whereas sense is conditioned by the direct (???) link of the word with the concept corresponding to it as a generalized reflection (??) of reality."
  I don't like the word "direct" at all, I'm not too sure about the word "reflection", and in fact I'll go along with this ONLY on condition that by "meaning" we mean what Vygotsky means by "sense" (that is, "smysl") and by "sense" we mean what Vygotsky means by "meaning" (that is, "znachenie").
  For the next few pages, Belyayev draws heavily on "Thinking and Speech" Chapters Five and Six, imagining a grid of concepts (which unfortunately appear to all be NOUNS) running (North and South, as Ana and I used to say) from object-oriented things to abstract phenomena.
  He sees only FOUR possible "specific" relations between concepts on the East-West dimension: subordination, coincidence/identity, intersection, and mutual exclusiveness. You can see the problems you get into when you think of concepts purely as nouns. The number of thematic relations is basically limited to what you can show with a Venn diagram!
  p. 153: "Under no circumstances may one term an ant a 'steamship'."
  Actually, Mike, I agree with you about using extreme caution in the e-mail (though as with you 'tis oft honored in the breach). So I HATE it when linguists talk like this.
  Take the current thread on "totalitarianism". (The other) David began by referring to Vygotsky's time as a "totalitarian" one, drawing on a fairly well established conventional "sense" (that is, znachenie, not smysl--as we know from David's subsequent writings, his own use of the term is much broader than that.)
  This sense was first established, as Paul points out, in the context of fascism, where it was used with approbation by fascist supporters. It was then appropriated by opponents of fascism, and acquired a purely negative content. It also acquired conventional meaning.
  The malleability of this conventional meaning (which Dr. Hingley would call "sense") meant that the term could outlive fascism itself. With the demise of fascism (at least by that name) the meaning has become imbued with a rather different (and once again pro-capitalist) "sense", first by anti-communists and then by post-communists.
  But today it seems to me that "totalitarianism" is in a situation quite similar to the one that followed the demise of fascism. That is why I played with it a little, suggesting we use it:
  a) as a description of the tendency of the private sector to exercise totalitarian control over the public sector (David disagrees with this, but as he quite rightly says, so be it.)
  b) as a description of the tendency of North Americans to refer to their own nation states as the totality of transcontinental "America" (here David and I are in full agreement, I think).
  c) as a description of the tendency in the Western media to portray the West as the totality of the "international community" (ditto).
  I do understand that the relationship between idiosyncratic "smysl" and socio-historically established "znachenie" is not a matter of making words do what you pay them to do; you need LOTS of anti-fascists and LOTS of anti-communists and a fair amount of time to make their "smysl" of "totalitarianism" into stable "znachenie", and I have no great faith that any of my suggestions will be taken up by anyone any time soon (though I'm very glad that David shares two out of three!).
  Let me go back to Belyayev's example, then. Consider the following invented examples:
  "In Krylov's fable, the ant is a steamship, and the dragonfly is a Venetian gondola."
  For non-Russians, that would be something like:
  "If Aesop's ant is laying in coals for the hold of the steamship, then his grasshopper is strumming a guitar on the gunnal of a rowboat, wearing a panama hat and not bothering overmuch with the oars."
  Those familiar with Vygotsky's discussion of Krylov and Aesop will recognize that this corruption is not simply a farfetched metaphor designed to give the lie to Belyayev, it is based on Vygotsky's belief that children tend to bring their own smysl to the znachenie offered in children's literature, and that they tend to lionize the carefree grasshopper and denigrate the dull drudge of an ant (Educational Psychology, p. 243).
  So there ARE circumstances under which one can and does term an ant a steamship. And I think Belyayev is wrong about something even more fundamental. Even if the translation has translated the word "smysl" as "meaning" and "znachenie" as "sense" (instead of vice versa, as in the Vygotsky Complete Works), Belyayev still has the basic relationship between the two components of word meaning wrong.
  Belyayev is convinced that conceptual "znachenie" (Vygotsky's "meaning" and Hingley's "sense") is fundamental, and contextualized "smysl" (Vygotsky's "sense" and Hingley's "meaning") is something rather unimportant and idiosyncratic. So he argues that foreign language words must be taught as tokens for concepts.
  He claims that because of the "direct method", they are too often taught as labels for objects directly in the environment, or as labels for Russian word senses. This leads him to the rather incredible (and very anti-Vygotskyan) claim that there isn't enough defining of words going on in foreign language classes!
  Part of the problem is that Belyayev really does believe that the phono-graphological, SENSORY aspect of language (pronunciation, visualiszation) can be explained on behaviorist principles (first and second signal system, the stimulation of specific areas of the cortex).
  True, he recognizes that the concept meaning, IDEOLOGICAL aspect of language cannot be so treated. But conceptual znachenie (which Hingley maddeningly translates as "sense") is intellectual; the social aspect of acts of communication have completely disappeared, because it is only contexualized smysl (which Hingley calls "meaning") that has a concrete role for it.
  Another part of the problem is that he is confusing the classroom with the totality of the world. In the classroom, it is certainly true that concept "znachenie" (Hingley's "senses") are primary and the senses of actual contextualized "smysl" (Hingley's "meanings") are highly secondary.
  But step outside the classroom and we find things are very much the other way around; that is why I CAN call an ant a steamship and be understood by most readers on XCMA, and why I can use "totalitarian" as a term to describe the economic policy designed by Milton Friedman for General Pinochet and not fear any very strong contradiction from (t'other) David.
  The semantics of "David" on this list is another interesting example of how contextualized "smysl" is primary and in the long run determining. But that's enough from this particular David
  Seoul National University of Education

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Received on Sat Apr 14 04:24 PDT 2007

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