a speaker and a listener walk into a dialogue... ouch.

Language lives only in the dialogic interaction of those who make use of it. -- Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics
Our recent discussions of "like" have prompted some interesting ideas about what the function of such a word actually is.
Whenever a sentence contains words that are not attached to the grammatical structure in some functional way, those words generally serve as interjections. A "damn" or an "oh shit" doesn't change a sentence's meaning, but it certainly injects emphasis or feeling, giving us a clue to the emotional state of the speaker. Likewise, gratuitously used, "like" significantly modifies the tone, and perhaps the inferred context of the sentence (i.e., the audience's perception of the speaker). When I hear "like" used indiscriminately, the subjective impression is roughly equivalent to "duh."
Not to pick on Tangents any more than we already have; but the above quote and the entirety of his treatise on the non-standard use of "like" reveal some deeply-seated prejudices that we believe many (most?) people hold.

The lynch pin of Tangents' argument is found in the most seemingly innocuous part of the paragraph: the parenthetical. Perception is a one way process, but communication is not. The speaker also perceives the listener before he begins to speak, and the speaker's pattern of speaking can be altered by a perceived reaction from the listener. "Like" doesn't actually "modif[y] the tone," it marks the speaker's understanding of what the context of her speech should be. Listener and speaker are caught in a constant feedback loop. As Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson paraphrase Bakhtin, who relies on a dialogic model of speech, in Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics, "The process of active understainding is anticipated by the speaker; he counts on it at every point, and could not coninue to formulated his utterance without it."

In the dialogic model that Bahktin proposes, the idea that words can "attach to the grammatical structure in some functional way" or be "gratuitous" collapses, since all words must work together to create a functional whole that inhabits the space between speaker and listener.

In our previous posts, we have proposed the example of a college student speaking in a classroom. Our student frequently uses "like," and this usage establishes the relative authority of the speaker, the speech, and the listeners. In his previous post, Scott used the phrase "projected authority," to indicate the level of confidence a speaker, and it's important to note that the verbal tics that represent a lack of projected authority are as conventially defined as the meanings of any words. Tangents feels that the use of these tics (such as "like") betray the speaker's stupidity. In a dialogue, both speaker and listener understand them to mark a lack of confidence, which is appropriate in some settings and between some participants.

Blogging, for example, is founded in a community of people (not necessarily experts) wishing to share ideas quickly. Readers of this blog understand that the unrefinedness of our writing does not indicate lack of intelligence (we hope!), but a low level of projected authority, which we hope invites readers to join in a dialogue with us about our ideas.


New London, CT... oh my!

I had dinner at a nice little thai place in New London, CT tonight. When I was outside with my friend Adam, I caught sight of this strange sign. It was on a nylon banner (of which there were several) being displayed on and around some sort of church:

I ask you all: What's up with this? Anyone want to offer a reading here? Anyone in the know? The person with the most satisfactory answer shall be remembered long in the halls of Invented Usage. Cristi and I shall raise a toast to you. Comment away!


More, "like", usage, man.

At issue is this gem about like usage (scroll down). Cristi linked to this article and also made a comment on it that the author has responded to. What seems at issue is the use of "like" as marking the speaker as under-educated, less-worthy. The general public perception of aberrant "like" usage seems negative, but why is that?

Tangents starts with Cristi's Derrida example sentence from the previous post:
"Like, what I think Derrida is, like, meaning to say is that, like, because the tribe had naming or whatever, they had, like, differentiation, and thus, like, a type of, you know, writing, and so they weren't like, pure or whatever."
He goes on to replace the stray "likes" with "duh's" which he believes are roughly equivalent to one another in establishing a tone / context for the sentence. The results are pretty amusing:

"[Duh], what I think Derrida is, [duh], meaning to say is that, [duh], because the tribe had naming [maybe], they had, [duh], differentiation, and thus, [duh], a type of, [I dunno], writing, and so they weren't [duh], pure [maybe]."
Now, I don't think this really works. I'm reading the duhs as 'doys' like those spoken by cartoon rednecks (Cletus the slack-jawed Yokel). Now Cristi's example sentence was already a bit over the top, but this is just plain ridiculous. This doesn't even sound close to natural, so what's the point in even considering it? Well it's been considered. So consider it we will. He continues:
For curmudgeons like me, who refuse to buy into adolescent rationalizations justifying lousy habits picked up on the grade-school playground, the message has virtually the same meaning and impact before and after the "like - duh" switch.
The two sentences don't have the same impact at all. If read the way I read it, it sounds like the speaker is making a point to demonstrate how stupid they are. Reading them as pure "duhs" the sentence takes on an almost mocking tone. Because it is used so frequently and expected, "like" is also far more transparent than "duh".

What I want to call into question is this quest for false authority. Tangents takes out the stray words from the sentence (which I'll leave you to do yourself) and says:
You wouldn't believe it's the same person speaking the same words, would you? Instead of a drooling, shuckin' 'n' jivin' kid trying to bullshit his way through, suddenly we perceive a confident young adult--not eloquent, perhaps, but certainly with a functioning mind and something on it to say. (Even if he's wrong, he's stating the idea as something to be discussed, evaluated, and criticized, not dismissing it as worthless even as it leaves his lips.) Which one would you say deserves a better grade? Which one would you hire for a salaried position?
When have we determined that it is always necessary to express one's ideas with real or feigned confidence. This is absolutely related to the whole Brownworth article where the 'death of the essay' is lamented. In criticizing the blog for not being essay-like, for not possessing the same 'command of language' and 'attention to detail' of the essay, she is indirectly calling for the blog to assume these characteristics. In her view and also in Tangents', these are things that convey authority or confidence to the reader.

What both, to my mind, fail to acknowledge is that this confidence is not always there. Specifically in a classroom environment, where students are beginning to form their own opinions about complex ideas and topics (DERRIDA), there is room for a lack of confidence. The use of like creates an aura around the sentence which marks it as "tentative".

On some level, with the speaker using so many likes, they seem to be saying: "What I'm saying here is what I'm saying although it is only like what I'm thinking or could be thinking." The ability to speak in that sort of tone seems to add breathing room to class discussion. If students felt they would be immediately discredited as a "shuckin' 'n' jivin' kid trying to bullshit his way through" for using "like" they wouldn't be using it. They'd probably keep their mouths shut unless they were one-hundred percent about what they're saying.

Now, I'll agree with Tangents on one point. Speaking in this manner doesn't help with getting a job. You probably won't get the "salaried position" if you say "like" a trillion times. But the context of a job interview, a classroom, a pizza parlor etc. are all different. Different situations call for different levels of projected authority. Personally, I feel there's nothing wrong with not demonstrating complete authority in the classroom environment. Being able to speak your mind, when perhaps your ideas are not as formed as you'd like them to be opens up the learning process. It becomes much more collaborative, and the mark of a good professor is one who can guide this uneasy current of ideas down the right paths.

So, let's all lighten up. You're not an idiot for using "like" in its non-intended usage. You're just comfortable with the fact you don't have to be "in the know" all the time.


on like usage

Since "Clueless" and before that, since "Valley Girl", it has been "like," everywhere. It's "like"; it's taken over normal sentences and caused a lot of English teachers to have some conniption "like" fits. Like a lot of words, it's wandered away from its "like," original usage and "like" is now placed in any position in a sentence where people feel "like."

And, I guess herein lies "The 'like' Question": are there rules or something that govern these seemingly abberant uses of "like"? Just examining my own "like" usage in this post so far it, "like," seems able to modify either a Verb Phrase (VP) ("so, do you like, like like him?") or a Noun Phrase (NP), and I know that it can appear, ("like" seemingly independently) at the beginning of a sentence, as in "Like, I know you're busy, but do you want to like, go to the movies?" This example also shows it, "like", splitting an infinitive, a place usually reserved for adverbs.

"Like" is used in an informal speech style, and is often associated with the types of "Clueless" girls that don't take themselves very seriously. But, i've also heard very serious male philosophy students say things like, "Like, what I think Derrida is, like, meaning to say is that, like, because the tribe had naming or whatever, they had, like, differentiation, and thus, like, a type of, you know, writing, and so they weren't like, pure or whatever." Each instance of "like" in this sentence mitigates the impact of the following phrase or word. It is the stutter-step that indicates the speaker's insecurity in the use of a word, somewhat like scare quotes.

When "like" is used to introduce a quote, the way i did in the last paragraph, or as in "He was like, 'are you, like, busy?' And I was all like, 'no, why?'" It indicates a paraphrasing. The speaker may not remember exactly what was said, but something like it.

Though the meaning of a sentence might not change with the "like" addition, its tone certainly does. It often precedes the "big words" or important concepts in a sentence, and allows the speaker to, like, fudge their usage slightly.

Here are some links to theories on the subject:
Language Log: A psycholinguistic discussion
Everything2: Like as deponent verb
Agoraphilia: Like's generation gap
Tangent's Mailbag (under "Social Issues"): a misguided attempt at categorization, and juveniles abuse language

If anyone knows of anything else out there, please let us know!


The Big Bad Wolf

Here is the record of the formation of a brand new, accidental usage:

DrApathy1: I am + famished
Unsumupable: aww, you don't' have anything to eat in your room?
DrApathy1: just a bad of doritos
DrApathy1: bag
DrApathy1: and i def. don't feel like that
Unsumupable: haha... freudian, i think?
DrApathy1: peut etre
Unsumupable: just a bad of doritos... *sigh*
DrApathy1: what're you sighing about :-P
Unsumupable: i was trying to illustrate how sad your bag of doritos might make you
DrApathy1: hahaha
Unsumupable: :-( .. it's so BAD, this big bad bag of doritos i have. and it's ALL i have.
DrApathy1: rofl
DrApathy1: what is up with you? lol
Unsumupable: it's just one big BAD of doritos
DrApathy1: hahahaha

In an earlier post, Cristi wrote that with computers we articulate with our fingers. This sort of error "bad of doritos" couldn't be made accidentally speech-wise. Unless, perhaps a person was thinking to say "A Big Bad Bag of Doritios," and the words elided into one another. So maybe this could be a speech error too. Everyone skips over words and inserts words into sentences that are supposed to come later in the speech. The medium of communication determines the mistakes that are likely to be made. The switching of two letters is common in typing, while the switching of two phonemes is probably more common in speech. The "bad/bag" switch demonstrates both of these, but perhaps a mistake like "bad/back" would be more likely in speech than typing.

Whatever the reason for the original typo, it's interesting to note that "a big bad" is now a meaningful phrase, at least in a certain community. Since this conversation, we've begun to use the phrase to describe an overwhelming amount of a negative thing as in: "I've got a big bad of homework," or "well, this day is just a big bad." And the grammatical construction has taken on a life of it's own - now we can talk about "a big good" as well.


Google just doesn't understand...

Already our short career as blog authors has the potential to become lucrative. In our sidebar to your right, you'll notice that, as subscribers to Google's adsense, we're provided with both a search feature and ads for products and services that are supposed to relate to the content of our site, and thus interest you, the reader.

I don't know much about how this works, and I'd love some clarification, but it's my understanding that Google "crawls" our site to determine its content - probably by searching for keywords, or determining the most common words on the site, or something like that. So Scott and I have been interested in keeping tabs on what the ads display.

Here's what Google thinks this website is about:
1. Blogs. Not a big surprise, it is a new blog, and a lot of the discussion on the site has been about the nature of blogging, so we've gotten linked up with a lot of ads for blog hosting sites and so on.
2. English for foreign speakers. In particular, these ads tend to use phrases like "perfect pronunciation," "speak like a native," and "English without an accent." It's pretty clear how our posts generated those types of phrases, too, but we were both baffled by:
3. Help patenting your invention. Until we remembered that Scott's notes to an american post (which was on the front page when these ads ran) contained a prose poem about that very topic.

The key thing that Google's crawlers don't understand is context, and the way it changes language usage. I'm also reminded of a time that I tried to use Google's image search to find a picture of that symbol that means a picture didn't display on a website. It was the one time the image search disappointed me, because no matter how i phrased it: "broken jpg image" "missing file symbol" and so on, the search would return jpgs of broken things, or pictures of missing things, or so on. There's no way to tell Google to search for a word only as it's used in a certain context.

When humans read a poem, they think "this is a poem" and they interpret it accordingly. For Google, all language has the same weight. You could write an entire website about how English should be spoken with an accent, but you'd still get those ads for perfect pronunciation because Google doesn't know what your intention is, and for the most part, it doesn't need to. When we humans read, we build up a set of intentions, and an idea of what the author is trying to mean, but for Google, language is reducible to a set of statistics and a list of words.

...brief hiatus...

Things have been a little slower recently, but no worries. We've been very busy with all sorts of end of the school year business. Regular and prolific updating should begin again tomorrow.


tpyos rlue!2

I was really happy to see that my last post sparked such a discussion! 6 comments is a lot for our newly-formed blog. I'd like to continue the debate, respond to the comments, clarify the points, etc.

My first tenet is this: I don't believe there is any such thing as right and wrong where language is concerned. As several commentators pointed out, there is (only) understandability and ease of communication. In fact, i've heard linguists say that the development of language is a constant tug-of-war between ease of articulation and ease of comprehension. And I would argue that the internet, instant messaging, and blogging have provided, for the first time in history a medium in which people communicate in real time using written text - in which people articulate with their fingers. I'm not out to make my readers decipher a lot of gibberish, as i kind of did in that last post, but i did want to point out the fact that we have the ability to easily understand a lot more than just standard spellings. Typos, misspellings, internet slang, punctuation, smilies, are all examples of things we're getting used to processing at almost full reading speed.

ACW raised another interesting point besides reading speed. Non-standard spellings will not be easily found by search engines. The itneresting thing about google, though, and the reason it's used a lot to gather linguistic statistics is because it's based only on the actual language that people use on the internet. I just searched for the phrase "priviledged language," and, of course, Google suggested the "correct" spelling, but it also returned 28,700 hits. Now, there were 2 million for the non-D spelling, but there's still a certain community of thousands of people out there who think "priviledged" is a word. So maybe it is...

I'd also like to say that while my previous post was pretty indignant, this idea wasn't sparked by the original comment posted about my spelling. That provided a great catalyst, though. If the point of the comment was really to open discussion about the use of "ethnography" (which, i admit, may well need examination), why is spelling relevant? And though the critique was presented as a joke, it doesn't change the fact that it was worth posting. That's another important tenet: i don't believe people say or write things that don't make a difference.


Shortest post ever!

I found an interesting article regarding the Ms. Braunteuer article discussed below:


And for the french speakers out there (I'm not):




Happy blogging!


tpyos rlue!1

It took me half an hour to figure out with this comment meant:
At 10:41 AM, Nicholas Sanders said...

Do your peculiar understanding of "ethnography" and the "d" mysteriously added to what is otherwise privilege merit the description invented usage?


I kept thinking, is "priviledged" really that disconcerting a word? And finally, upon closer reading, I realized that Nick wasn't refering to the final d, but the one before the g, which most people say doesn't really exist.

Here's an interesting fact: on average, languages tend to have about 5 or 6 vowel sounds, but English has 13. Englsih ash one of the most diverse histories of any natural alnguage. We mix words with Germanic and Latin roots more or less indisccriminantly (although there are those who claim that Latin has been priviledged since the Norman invasion in 1066 as the language of the ruling class). "ough" at the end of a word has 5 different pronunciations that i can think of right this moment. The letter "g" has two different word-initial pronunciations depending on what type of vowel follows it. Most english speakers don't know that there are two separate sounds made by the spelling "th." (One is voiced, and the other isn't; think about the difference between "thigh" and "thy"). And so on, and so forth.

You know who sounded dumb back in the day? People who dropped the "b" in dumb and said "dum" instead of "dum-b." But I'm glad people started making that mistake, because i'd be jjust a little angrier if i had to go around saying "dumb" and "bomb" and "thumb" the way they're spelled. And who do we think sounds dumb now? The rappers who drop the "g" in earing to make it rhyme with parent? Southerners who say "an" when we think they should be saying "and"? Those two changes are happening as we speak, and people who don't like them should call them "dumB".

So why is privileDge a point of contention? Englsih spelling doesn't match pronunciation; everyone who read the post could tell what I meant; there is little chance that my error cause confusion between two possible words; and, raedres of eglinsh can decphier wrods in wihch all hte itenral ltetres are rearragned. so why do i flisnch every time i'm not sure how to spell a word? Why do i fear tha tmy ideas will be taken less seriously if they're perfectly understandable, but I don't spell them correctly?

This comment (and I don't mean to pick on Nick, there are untold millions who feel the same way he does) has taken away my priviledge-with-a-D block. And i'd like it bcak. From here on out, that arbitrary d will mark an arbitrary difference. Let's say that privilege is a noun and priviledge is a verb. Simple? "it's my privilege to meet you. i priviledge your company most highly..."

And why not? The porgress of language is built on "mis"understanding, "mis"pronunciation, and the people who decide what's right and wrong, what's priviledged or not, are those who have privilege. illiteracy, lack of knowledge of spelling, and so on, indicate a lack of privilege (read: education, social standing), and if someone doesn't have enough privilege, people are less likely to listen to their ideas.


Ain't nothing free anymore!?!

Well, it seems that Ms. Braunteuer's argument about the superiority of essayism to blogism gains further credibility by the minute. Her article has unfortunately entered the part of the web that requires registration. The "long-lived ... essay" indeed. If I were a betting man though, I would wager that someone might likely reply to this post with a copy of the article... Stay tuned.

I don't have much to add to what Cristi has already written, but I will say this. What Ms. Brownworth's article fails to realize is the community aspect of blogging. I don't believe that anyone would argue that blogs are as meticulously constructed as the holy essay. Why should they be? The essay comes from a different time of publishing, where it was more expensive and demanding to publish a piece of writing for popular consumption. If you were going to write something, it had to be exactly what you wanted it to be. With the internet, people can reach more easily reach a wider audience than ever before. Publishing one’s ideas is as simple as opening an account with www.blogger.com.

But this is bad she says, because the blogosphere isn't subject to the same checks and balances that essays, newspapers magazines etc are? The point of blogging has been missed. I conceive of our blog in this way: When you're thinking, reading, writing on your own, you have no idea how your thoughts square with the world at large. With a blog, your ideas can be turned loose to peer review. The checks and balances are the people that read your blog, the people that leave comments, the people that make reference to it in their blogs. Invented Usage is a collaborative learning environment. Certainly there is a modicum of authority placed upon Cristi and I as blogauthors, but the site must originate from somewhere. Beyond that, we don't assume the essay attitude of handing down knowledge from our ivory tower. We're entering the trenches of intellectual debate, and our blog is the fake ID we use to get past those who believe that you need "credentials" in order to think. That you need “credentials” in order to have ideas worth sharing.

the flog of blogs falls mainly on the clod.

Comments are great, and Scott's last post got one that directed us to this article (registration req'd -Scott) about how terrible blogs are as a literary form.

The article's subheading compares blogs to weeds in the well-kempt garden of literature, which is obviously English Formal in style. I prefer to think of them as wildflowers, opening up the publishing world to seeds of thought that were scattered to the wind and took root in harsh environments... but you know, potato/potato.

In her opening paragraph, Ms. Victoria A. Brownworth writes,
Unfortunately, for the Internet generation, the blog is fast replacing the essay. But blogs are pretenders to the throne of true essay writing. They mimic the essay much as Eliza Doolittle mimicked the Queen's English before Professor Higgins got his hands on her. Like Eliza, blogs are captivating in their earnest, rapid-fire approach. But they are rarely, even at their best, true essays.
Interesting comparison, Ms. Brownstone. Are we given to understand that Eliza's speech, even at its best, was rarely true English? Additionally, I was under the impression that Eliza was captivating for the truth, naturalness, and inappropriateness of what she uttered into corseted high society, not for how quickly she said it. Perhaps we bloggers are just in need of a victorian linguist to torture us until our language conforms to that of high society and then whisk us off the streets and away to a fancy ball where we'll be mistaken for exotic foreign princesses, and then falls for us in the end when we melt his rigid linguistic heart.

I can't be sure if Ms. Brownnose has seen "My Fair Lady," (or "Pygmalion") but if she has, she must know that Eliza's motivation to learn "proper" English is not a lofty admiration of the Queen, but a desire to bend her own language to the norm of a bourgeois capitalist society that required her to speak "better English" so she could work in a flower shop. I'm well aware that if I don't behave properly at the newspaper society ball, and comport myself like an essayist, I'll never get paid and published. But, I get the feeling that this is what scares people like Ms. Brownearth: an army of writers doing it for free. In a few years, who will pay for a mediocre essay (n a newspaper, how's that for an outdated mode of communication?) when there are thousands of writers scribbling away in blogs for the sheer pleasure of sharing their ideas with others? If I were Ms. Browniepoints, I'd be worried too.

Brace yourself, Ms. Butterworth. The blog is to the new century what the pamphlet was to early America. Anonymous writers have a long history of sharing with anyone who cared to read (and not forcing themselves on those who don't). Amateur writers and idea-havers are claiming a place on the patch of ground called "publishing" and soon, the only credential that matters will be how many people like to read your blog.


this and that... that or this...

Interesting how the medium of communication shapes the meaning and interpretation of the utterance. Garden State isn't a very cunning movie, but it'll sure bum you out if you were expecting a good movie. Seriously though, what's the deal with that movie? It's a romantic comedy with a bunch of bells and whistles pasted onto it. Look how disconnected Zack Braff (I don't know how to spell his name, and I'm not going to find out) is from reality when he makes a line of toilets flush simply by walking past without batting an eyelid. Or maybe when his shirt is the same pattern as the wall (ed-- right here I typed well instead of wall, strange.). Yawn. This is old news though. Garden State is so six months ago.

One more example: we often read "/" at the end of a sentence as "?" because the two share the same key, and to switch from the key's shifted option to the non-shifted option is a common typo on a standard qwerty keyboard.

And how about the error of hitting an adjacent key? Sole and Dole for example. Or hitting in the wrong order. I have a friend who cannot type "that" to save her life, it always comes out has "htat". The nature of the QWERTY keyboard and of the T-9 function on the phone seems to set up a curious gravitational relationship between the letters. Erroring between Sole and Dole is more likely it would seem than between Dole and Mole or Sole and Mole. The M is too far away on the keyboard for that type of error to made without a massive mental lapse.

The T-9 Word function on cellphones is just great fun. To see all these different words (sometimes hilariously different) brought into such close relationship with another by the functionings of the system. Good stuff. I'll have to keep an eye on things the next time I send a text message, I'm sure a funny error will pop up. Lately I've been learning how to build swear words out of fragments. For example, I would type 2, 7 to get "as" then space then 7 to get "s" then space and then 4, 6, 5, 3 for "hole". Then I go back and delete all the spaces and voila! I've spelt "asshole".

I really see this as all tying back to the block metaphor. One thing that it may not account for is how the system of use changes the blocks. For example, in the qwerty keyboard system the / and the ? blocks would be very similar to one another. However, for someone handwriting a letter this almost little to no chance the same error would be made. The blocks are thus easily distinquishable. Maybe this is where I interject color to the equation? Perhaps "?" and "/" have very similar shapes, but different colors. When you use the QWERTY sytem, you put on the QWERTY glasses which blend the colors of the "?" and "/" blocks. I'm beginning to sense a breaking down of the Block Metaphor as this seems a little flaccid. Glasses? What am I thinking? Although, maybe this can be reconciled. How do different systems of using the blocks become accounted for in a system where the blocks are assumed to be constant... WAIT! Maybe there's more than one block for the same thing... No, that doesn't work. What says you? What says you, Laquer?

eh, so so expectations.

I got a text message that said "i hope garden state isn't cunning you out," because "c" shares a phone button with "b" and "n" shares a button with "m." And I immediately knew that the person sending the message was using one of those T-9 Word things where you press each button once, and the phone displays the most likely word formed from each of those buttons. "if" also often reads "he" in this system.

Additionally, I was watching CNN with closed-captioning, and in a discussion that was obviously about "rumors," the closed-captions displayed the word "roomers." I don't know exactly how those systems for generating real-time captions work, but from this one example, we can assume that it's based in phonetics, like a stenographer's machine that's computer-translated into English orthography.

One more example: we often read "/" at the end of a sentence as "?" because the two share the same key, and to switch from the key's shifted option to the non-shifted option is a common typo on a standard qwerty keyboard.

Here's the basic pattern of these observations: the writer's intended meaning is known; the writer deviates from that meaning; the form of the error reveals the system of inputs the writer is using to create the message. The field of linguistics often uses this method. When a native Spanish speaker says "eschool" when we understand that he means to say "school," we can begin to infer patterns in his system of inputs, which should correspond to Spanish phonetics. And there's the problem with linguistics as an empirical study: the speaker (or writer)'s intended meaning has to be known when an observation is made.

This method seems to function fine for phonetics, but when we reach semantics, we can no longer use errors in meaning to predict the speaker's system for creating meaning, because our method is founded on the idea that we know what the speaker means, even if he doesn't say it. For example: I stayed with a German girl who kept telling me "you must not do this, you must not do that," and I thought she was being awfully harsh with me about these minor things. But come to find out, she meant "you don't HAVE to do this or that," because that's the way those modals translate into German. She was defying my expectations in a systematic way, but I had no way of knowing, because I didn't know her intended meaning separate from what she actually said.

There's always expectation involved in these types of studies. There's no way to begin at the beginning with language.


mental blocks

We've talked about The Block Metaphor before, and I agree that it's really useful for representing some of the ways language works. The things I like about it:

It accounts for the differences in interpretation that different readers obviously have. Each reader(listener) has a different set of blocks (given to them by education, imagination, experience, previous reading, etc.) that they use to approximate the writers'(speakers') blocks, which are, in turn, different from anyone else's.

It gives the reader a lot of credit. Instead of being a passive recipient, the reader has the freedom to interpret and build their own structure. Often, readers will create the same structure, but any semanticist will tell you that almost every sentence is ambiguous - one reading is usually just excluded for convenience, but we can choose it if we feel like being impractical.

It illustrates many different types of exclusions that might lead to misunderstanding. For instance, two people who speak different languages have completely different sets of blocks, and it's likely that they will never arrive at the same structure.

It allows an understanding of "mistakes" as a simple difference in blocks. A native speaker of Japanese, for example, has different phonetic blocks than an English speaker. When she learns English, the Japanese speaker maintains use of some Japanese phonetics, as in the classic L and R switch. Our metaphor allows us to say that L and R are viewed as the same block in Japanese, or that the rules Japanese speakers follow to choose between the two are different from those of English speakers.

It demonstrates how puns, misunderstandings and double meanings arise when we have two blocks that look alike.

I don't think that's a complete list, but it's enough to explain why I like this metaphor so much. I'm also interested in the way our access to different sets of blocks can be limited. Usually, we don't have a block just because we don't know a concept or word - jargon, for example, can be used to exclude people who haven't learned certain blocks. But access can also be limited by authority, including social authority. Consider all the hundreds of times you've been stopped or discouraged from using a certain block because it was profane, not politically correct, wrong, inappropriate, too smart, too dumb, not funny, not serious, mispronounced, and so on. There is, in each of these cases, some authority making pronouncements about what is excluded, and those authorities should be considered, too.



How about this exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science. There are so many cool things there, but this really mundane exhibit has captured my imagination. Basically, you have two tables divided by a curtain. On each table there is a set of blocks identical to one another (though it looks like some of them had been lost or stolen). The tables face each other and are divided by a curtain. One person sits on each side of the curtain.

Follow me so far?

... I just lost the entire post from below here, so... sigh. I'll try to recreate it.

On one side, a person constructs something out of the blocks given. After doing so, he or she gives directions to the other on how to erect a similar construction. The curtain is then pulled, and the similarity and differences between the two constructions is revealed.

Isn't this a great metaphor for writing/speaking? On one side sits the author/speaker, and on the other the reader listener. Each brings to the table all the blocks that they have been given over their entire life. The author/speaker then builds their construction, and gives directions (the text) to the reader/listener who attempts to reconstruct what has been given. The only catch is, the curtain is never pulled, one can never know whether their construction is the same as the author/speaker's.

My thinking about all this isn't anywhere near complete, so you'll have to bear with me. I'll probably come to this again. I really like this as a metaphor though, because there is no distinction to be made between writing and speaking. Though in the exhibit the directions are given orally, they could just as easily be given on a sheet of paper. Is there any real difference between the two?

Another factor I've been considering is that of intent. In the context of literature, I believe that we view the author as having complete intent/agency over the text. In less official writing/speaking though, we assume that the author will err in their directions. These less official mediums I take to be things like email, journals, letters, conversation, academic essays, etc. In these we assume that the author/speaker will sometimes say what they don't. That their ability to relate the construction through the text will not always be complete. How many times has someone said something to you that you didn't take the correct way, or something that they later admit is 'not what they meant'. Text as a relation of the internal is not flawless.

To me, this is what makes a website like Engrish so funny. The humor's foundation is the official-ness of the signs that the website shows. In that official context, the lack of intent over the myriad meanings of what has been writing becomes apparent. Of course, the site wouldn't be funny if it were just a collection of typos. The errors on the signs have to make the text add up to something in reader's mind that is clearly what was not intended by the sign. A simple typo does not (usually) preclude the reader from deciphering the text. There's no humor in it unless it creates the possibility of a further unintended reading.

A pun allows to constructions from the same set of words without a typo...

I'm running out steam here, after typing this twice, but I think I got most of what I originally wrote. At this point, I turn to Cristi. What says you? What, for that matter, does anyone say who is reading this?


why ask why?

I'd like to nominate "why" for the title of Most Overused Word. I'd like to propose that, more often than not, questions that begin with it are totally useless, or at least severely overrated. And here's why:

To ask "why?" is always to ask for a more than an explanation. It demands a reason, or an intention - a sentient being or a knowable pattern at the helm of whatever event is being questioned. In science, this is pretty useful.
Why do things stay attached to the Earth?
Because objects with mass have gravity, and the gravity of the Earth... etc. (I obviously don't know anything about science.)
But the point is, knowing about the laws that govern the physical world is valuable. It lets us predict the way those objects will behave in the future. But, in uses of language, where cause and effect become blurry, and intention is often absent, "why" slows us down a lot more than it helps.
Wherefore art thou Romeo? Deny thy father and refuse thy name...
I like this example because it demonstrates the impossible longings that make the play such a tragedy. Asking why someone is named the way they are is as useless as asking them to refuse that name... that which we call a rose is as sweet by any other name, or something like that. Consider the potential answers to Juliet's rhetorical question. They're either inane:
So I turn around when people yell at me.
Because Butch Montague was taken.
Or they reveal the irrational nature of fate and family that cannot be questioned or argued against.
Because of fate.
Because my family is my identity AND my fate.
Asking "why" of a movement of language that has no single human agent is just asking for trouble.

Additionally, "why" questions require that the event in question already be pretty well defined. I'm reminded of the recent blow-up surrounding Larry Summers' comments at Harvard, which my Dad and I have been discussing recently. Summers set out to answer a question:
Why are women underrepresented in the fields of science and engineering?
Just based on the question, we can know for certain that the answer will contain a "because..." and presuppose that women are underrepresented in those fields. Just by asking this "why," we have already determined that women are UNDERrepresented. Meaning, I think, that they are not as represented as they SHOULD be. This authoritative statement reveals all kinds of presuppositions which might lead to interesting questions (according to whom? is this a problem?) that the "why" glosses over and allows to stand in the sentence. In general, rephrasing a question just enough to eliminate "why" will change it drastically and provoke a much more useful interrogation:
Are people's opportunities to excell in science and engineering determined or limited by their gender?
Are hiring practices at top universities biased against women?
What can be done to encourage women to pursue careers in science?
How do women's career and family choices tend to differ from men's?
Is there an inherent difference between men's and women's aptitudes for science?
These are all very different from "why" and "for what reason" and "what is the cause" questions, which by their nature imply an underlying cause (possibly an intention) that causes the already-demonstrated difference in representation. If Summers had answered any one of these, I doubt he would be taking the heat for assumptions made in his initial question.

In contemporary literary studies (and, I suppose a good Derridian would argue, in all the world, which is a text), "why" should be taboo. The movements of language and discourse don't follow the kinds of "because" logic that have to necessarily answer a "why" question. Foucault's studies are unique as histories, for instance, because they don't explain "why" certain concepts came to mean certain things; they show how and through what metaphors and images meanings arose.

We can study HOW an effect is produced, WHAT alternative works might have looked like, WHEN or WITHIN WHAT context a work was made, but if we reject the possibility of knowing an author's intention, then we can never answer WHY.

Names Not of This Blog

Have you ever thought of naming a child nothing? Not calling it "nothing," but just not providing it a name and then sending it out in the world to fight through the bureaucracies you wanted to liberate it from. We didn't have the heart to do that to this blog, though, so we had to name it.

Unsumupable: Languidge
Unsumupable: Languidging
Unsumupable: Blanguidge
DrApathy1: blanguidge
Unsumupable: Blogwitch
Unsumupable: Mmm... Blogwich
DrApathy1: Blad the Impaler
Unsumupable: Bloguidge
DrApathy1: Big Bad of Doritos
Unsumupable: A Big Bad
DrApathy1: Bite Language On the Gullet
Unsumupable: Bad Language On the Go
DrApathy1: Cristi and Scott's Guide to Everything... except that
DrApathy1: The Marked Blog
DrApathy1: Deconblogged
Unsumupable: Normablogity.
DrApathy1: Derradidn't
Unsumupable: Blogstructed Arteries
DrApathy1: Bloggle
DrApathy1: Derridon't
DrApathy1: Derrohmygodwtf?
Unsumupable: DerriNyet!!
DrApathy1: Conblogted
DrApathy1: Blogophone
DrApathy1: Crott
DrApathy1: Scristi
Unsumupable: Blog Crott
DrApathy1: supplement
Unsumupable: supple ment
Unsumupable: supple meant
DrApathy1: differ ant
Unsumupable: The Meanying of Life
DrApathy1: the best blog in the universe
DrApathy1: Cristi and Scott: WTF?
DrApathy1: WTF?
DrApathy1: B.L.O.G.
Unsumupable: Fourthest
DrApathy1: more fourth than you!
DrApathy1: Langowedge
Unsumupable: Langawidget
DrApathy1: dawidgetword
Unsumupable: are you widget?
DrApathy1: takes one to know one
DrApathy1: ;-)
DrApathy1: poer languish
Unsumupable: Invented Usage
DrApathy1: hmmmmmm
Unsumupable: hmm..
DrApathy1: *scrathes head, looks out window, hears voices, looks back at computer screen, scratches head again*
Unsumupable: Pood
DrApathy1: pood.blogspot.com
DrApathy1: Pood for Thought
Unsumupable: Deadly Debate
DrApathy1: Deadly Banter
Unsumupable: deadban.blogspt
Unsumupable: i'll spt you!
DrApathy1: S'Blog
DrApathy1: you're spting days are over!
Unsumupable: ain't room in this town for more'n one sptr!
DrApathy1: spt
DrApathy1: spectre
DrApathy1: spectate
Unsumupable: spout
DrApathy1: spit
Unsumupable: spat
Unsumupable: spate
DrApathy1: spoot
Unsumupable: spyut
DrApathy1: splicter
Unsumupable: spite
DrApathy1: spanto
Unsumupable: spitten

Before writing was invented...

Huh. Joan Houlihan has been thinking about poetry since before I was born. She edits things, she wins awards, she's written a few poems herself. But in the miles of research she's doubtless undertaken in that time she's never encountered the idea that there is no firm boundary between poetry and prose? (Not to mention speech and writing... that's a whole other can of worms.) No physicist could write columns on current issues about space exploration if she'd completely missed or disregarded the bulk of writing on the topic done over the last thirty years. I agree wholeheartedly with Scott's post, I just have a few things to add:

Theorists like Gee and Hymes (see my first post: Gee. That's cool.) argue that ALL speech is based on rythms, emphasis, patterning. It's not "myths and truths of a culture" that are necessary, it's the patterns of language itself. It's the forms of language (along with, completely bound up with the meanings) that perpetuate themselves through any discourse.

There's also been a lot of writing (see Bakhtin) about the privileding of poetry over prose or 'normal speech,' which I think Ms. Houlihan is pretty clearly guilty of. I personally see this (and most authoritative moves that instruct us in how language SHOULD be used) as a move made by people who think that they should be in charge of the language. Joan is afraid that the apparent simplicity of poets like William Carlos Williams will ... wait for it... inspire other people to attempt writing poetry. The last thing a real poet needs is more competition.

I would argue, along with Scott, that this prosing of poetry is one more way of revealing the complex processes of encoding and reading that go into all uses of language. Houlihan writes, "We are told to kneel and stare at this specimen of dead lines laid out in its little coffin on the page, and declare it alive. What do we say?" Does she really want to be told what to say? Does the poem have to be declared alive? Sometimes things in coffins have more meaning than when they're walking around telling you what to think of them. (And, if we needed a clue, the WCW poem that she cites is tellingly called, "This is Just to Say")

There are, additionally, thousands of examples of the impracticality of the distinctions that Houlihan founds her argument on. Stanley Fish points out in Is There a Text in This Class? in the essay "How to Recognize a Poem When You See One" that readers presented with a text called "a poem" will precede to read it as a poem. Further, he stresses that analysis is not secondary to reading, but that introductions and titles such as "poem" irreversibly influence the very way we read. If you believe it's a poem, it's a poem, and you'll find poetry in it.

Here's my Big Thought for the day: All language is idiomatic. Meaning (poetic or prosaic, connotation, tone, metaphoricity, symbolism) is determined completely by usage. I think I should credit Wittgenstein with that idea. From the effectiveness of poetry to the linguistically necessary expectations that allow conversation to function, any usage of language only has meaning (and form?) because we are looking for it.

Why the Internet is Trouble.

Once You Pop, You Can't Stop

notes to an american

In honor of Joan, I offer these prose poems for public consumption. They were a part of a short project I completed recently:

You see yourself as a comma in the sentence. Everyone has been writing, and there you are to provide space to break, lying underneath the line of the text like a hand from the grave. In this moment given the breathing, you’d like to think that you and I have come, to be, one.
Someone’s always stealing your inventions, always filing the patent before you. The television plays their infomercials into your sleep. In your dreams, the thief is a small, scrupulous Asian man who sneaks around the bushes outside your house. You rarely ever see him, but you always see the flash of his glasses reflecting the sober yellow light coming from your work lamp. The dog, meanwhile, shits in the bathtub upstairs.
Oh no! I've denatured the poem. I've prosed poetry. My resignation is forthcoming, and I will soon fall upon my pen.


my language wants to get high

Took a look at Joan Houlihan's article On the Prosing of Poetry over at WebdelSol. It was as invective as usual. Here we go (though this isn't excerpted from the invective parts):

Although spoken, poetry was not common; it was instead, a singular kind of speech, reserved for relaying important or sacred events, ensuring that such events would be remembered almost in a physical way, in the body's deep response to sound, rhythm and imagery. Speaking poetically served a purpose. Speaking prosaically also served a purpose to negotiate everyday reality, to speak of those things which were common to all and not worthy of long remembrance to speak of the world in transit.

I don't even know where to start with this, but let's step back for a minute. Joan sets about claiming that there are specific language devices that define a proper poem--as opposed to the 'non-poems' she seeks to undermine:

sound, rhythm, and heightened, pictorial language, economy of expression ('epigrammatic' speech that encodes many meanings in as few words as possible) and assonance, consonance, alliteration, parallelism

Exactly which of these characteristics distinguish poetry from prose? I suppose some people like to modify the term prose along the lines of poetic prose and prose poem. But these distinctions are completely arbitrary, especially in light of establishing the poetic as a set of devices employed upon the use of language. Also, exactly which of these characteristics are more important? If a poem does not possess alliteration, is no longer a poem? What if the alliteration is purely coincidental, can it still be marked off on the Create-a-Poem checklist? I would suspect that Joan would say no, but then the question begs to be asked: What number of these devices must be present to constitute the critical mass of a poem?

Also, (and Cristi I'm looking at you on this one) what's up with heightened language? Assumedly, I'm writing this in shortened language. But, I could like the long cheetah around the bear absolutely assume that the fiery composition of this sentence, branded upon the blog, becomes the bird like speech she seeks? Have I just heightened my language? Did the sentence a reverberate in your body? I suppose that I'm being a tad glib here, but I think there's something broken about necessitating that a poem or any genre of language for that matter must employ heightened language. If anything, the purposeful encoding of "many meanings in as few words as possible" only exposes the very act of encoding itself. Shortened language is as equally rich with layers of encoding, it is by its being unprivileged as "unheightened" that this encoding becomes transparent.

Despite this, I will say that Joan does pick on some pretty unappealing poems. She even takes a swipe at the late R. C. and his poem Mitch:

Mitch was a classmate
later married extraordinary poet
and so our families were friends
when we were young
and lived in New York, New Hampshire, France.

Mitch, Robert Creeley

Which, alright. Fair enough. This isn't my cup of tea either, but I think it's exceptionally ironic that Joan chose this one to pick on. The poem reads like an obituary, a marking of someone's death. Under Joan's privileging of the 'poetic', the death of a friend certainly warrants the occasion of a poem. Additionally, if the poem were to be pulled into one sentence (one of Joan's many contentions--in fact the title of the article--is the prosing of poetry) it would not parse easily. How does it follow that what Mitch has done later in his life is responsible for the author and Mitch's parents being friends "when [they] were young"? Does this break with prose sentence logic mark a heightening of Creeley's language?

I suppose Joan's contention would be that why is this a poem? I would say that it can find no other home than under the heading of 'poetry'. This is especially true if you subscribe to the belief that we mark special occasions, things to be remembered (not the transitory), with poetic language. By the very nature of this being labeled a poem, does not the language instantly become poetic?

"but breath is man's special qualification as animal"

So, how did this 'ideal form' of the sentence become such a priviledged thing? If we speak in contours, or poetic lines, how did the formal period-ended-capital-letter-begun sentence become 'proper', 'correct', 'a complete idea', as everyone learned in every writing class ever?

The notion of a "poetic line" is suspect. Theories about how the lines of a poem should be broken are as varied as the poets who write the poems. My first inclination is to read that quotation with respect to contemporary poetry which has tended to break with inherited form.

Specifically, I think of Charles Olson's pivotal PROJECTIVE VERSE essay. In it he examines--among other things--the role of the typewriter in freeing poets from the constraints of inherited form. He argues that the typewriter, with its "space precisions", gives the poet the same tools as a musical composer. That line breaks can denote breath, blank space too. With the typewriter the poet can "record the listening he has done to his own speech and by that one act indicate how he would want any reader, silently or otherwise, to voice his work."

This sort of idea is what I take the notion of a "poetic line" to be referent to. But here's the thing, it's a snake biting its own tail. Poetry is not created outside of society, and though in many cases it shirks traditional notions of grammar (invented usage), the pressures of standard English usage must still be felt upon it. So what came first? The poetic line or the sentence? Maybe I'm missing the point.

What can be taken away from Olson is this concept of breath, which must absolutely be central to any discussion of the way in which we break our language up. The simple fact of our body prevents us from uninterrupted speech (although, I wonder if those jazz musicians who practice circular breathing can do so). We only hold so much oxygen in our lungs to produce sound. Of course, in the case of writing/reading there is no 'breath'. Although, someone in a recent workshop of mine mentioned that we sound out the things that we read in our own heads (does breath become embedded here?). Additionally, perhaps there is breath in our cognition. How many things can we hold in her heads at one time? Perhaps the sentence rises out of some sort of corporeal necessity. A necessity for things to be digestable.


Gee. That's cool.

"... in our everyday lives and in much traditional psychology, what we think of as 'mental' is in fact, 'social'. Meaning and memory, believing and knowing, are social practices that vary as they are embedded with different Discourses within a society. Each Discourse apprentices its members and 'disciplines' them so that their mental networks of associations and their folk theories converge towards a 'norm' reflected in the social practices of the Discourse. These 'ideal' norms, which are rarely statable, but only discoverable by close ethnographic study, are what constitute meaning, memory, believing, knowing, and so forth, from the perspective of each Discourse."

Mr. Gee said that in the midst of proving that all our stories are divided into (somewhat) poetic lines and stanzas without our knowledge. Let me just say, Bad. Ass. He's quoted in Dell Hyme's "Ethnograpy, Linguistics, Narrative Inequality: Toward an Understanding of Voice."

But, I'm also going to take issue with a few things in that quote. First of all, 'ethnography' sounds a bit fishy to me. It raises a lot of questions - why is this discussion, which could be applied to so many things, centered around race? But you (one, Gee) have to approach these kinds of studies from some field or other, so I don't think the word 'ethnography' is too major a fault. It just seems to me that the history of studies that are ALMOST really successful is riddled with examples of professors and researchers who get too attached to the methodology of their field and the aims of their own studies to break away from divisions (like race, gender) that their departments take as given.

Anyway, keeping that in mind... I think Mr. Gee is real close to hitting the nail on the head. The idea that the history of a concept can be discovered based on the "networks of associations" to it is straight from Foucault, I think, but the interesting twist is that, instead of history or cultural criticism, Gee, Hymes, and people like them are coming straight from linguistics.

Another issue i'd like to raise is whether or not Discourse has perspective. I've always found the whole concept hard to pin down: Is it a group of people? Is it a set of utterances? Is it language, disembodied, floating around us? Big questions. I'll do some more reading and come back to this, but I tend to think of Discourse as the possibility of speaking , so that the 'ideal norms' in the quote above are actually proper statements and i use that broad phrasing intentionally. Grammatical mistakes and mispronunciations are not approved (on the grounds of not being understood), but so are offensive statments, incorrect statments, and so on, in certain settings, for certain people, and to certain degrees. these statements, though, can't be considered outside the Discourse. They're just discouraged within it, according to various methods of discipline, as Gee mentions. There's a lot more to this idea, but it's a thesis worth, so... onward.

The other interesting thing about these kinds of studies is the poetic element. The idea that these kinds of patterns in Discourse that organize the way we speak are transmitted in lines and rythms and sets of stanzas is pretty important. I don't know if Gee proves that this is the case, but blurring the lines between poetry, prose, and normal speech is a great thing - it demonstrates the power of Discourse and language to operate under any conditions to transmit its forms and meanings and associations between people.

A final note: Hyme writes, "It is sentence-like contours that have proven to be the central building blocks of narrative form." So, how did this 'ideal form' of the sentence become such a priviledged thing? If we speak in contours, or poetic lines, how did the formal period-ended-capital-letter-begun sentence become 'proper', 'correct', 'a complete idea', as everyone learned in every writing class ever? Is there a way to trace the movement of that concept (the Sentence) with all its associated network of ideas, through specific historical moments to demonstrate how its very priviledge has shaped all subsequent Discourse?

And now for something completely different...

Watch out, as Cristi and myself make the internet beg for mercy with our blogging skillz.