deconstruction of a stradivarius

i already devoted a whole post to this article by David Foster Wallace, which appeared in Harper's. as satisfying as writing that was, there is one point, one essential metaphor of Wallace's text, that deserves even more attention.

writes wallace: "A fellow SNOOT I know likes to say that
listening to most people's English feels like watching somebody use a Stradivarius to pound nails."

a wildly descriptive analogy (isn't it?) that serves to illustrate wallace's SNOOTy outlook for the rest of the article. the analogy doesn't just characterize a snoot's logical position, but also the rhetorical and emotional impact of the 'mis'use of language. to introduce such a charged metaphor into what wallace considers a 'logical' argument is to already break down those distinctions (logical vs. rhetorical vs. emotional appeals) to which wallace clings so strongly.

consider the emotional impact of watching someone literally use a stradivarius to pound nails. one would be not only appalled but almost sickened, and certainly justified in trying to stop that clearly destructive action. that is, this use is not just misapplication of an instrument and an unsuccessful endeavor. it also causes the destruction of something finely-wrought by a long-dead master, which, had it been preserved, could have been used by someone else to produce something profoundly beautiful.

it takes a lot of training to properly use a violin, and even more to derive the full benefit of playing an instrument like a strad. there are those, one supposes, who appreciate the music but do not have the education necessary to produce it, but there are apparently others whose ignorance regarding the instrument reveals a ignorance to even the beauty of music.

a stradivarius is a fragile physical object with huge historical significance. to even have access to a strad means having extreme privilege and expertise. the number of such old violins is so limited that even professional recording artists must take excessive precautions when playing them. the VERY wealthy own strads. the poor pound nails.

a SNOOT is one who believes that the voice of an uneducated person is a detriment to language.
they believe that your 'mis'use of language is an infringement upon their ability to use language correctly--not just correctly, but sublimely.
they believe that language is an object that a community shares and should view as a valuable link to the past. if you 'mis'use it, it is significantly, violently and irreparably damaged.
they cannot write the poetry of Keats because you say 'ain't.'

i'm not sure how the idea that language can be damaged got started, but it's very old and often taken for granted. perhaps the snoots feel that the nail pounders should be given an instrument other than language--at least it would be well-applied to the kind of communication 'most people' engage in.

the metaphor, of course, carries intense classist and even racist undertones. the violin and the hammer might as well be symbols of stereotypical leisure and working class activities. the violin is the height of a certain kind of refinement--but only classical european refinement--the only kind that counts. the metaphor calls to mind a savage native trying to bootstrap up to his first use of tools while the european craftsman looks on, disgusted.

doubtless, the snoot utterer, being perfectly in control of language and very well-educated about the consequences of its 'mis'use, knew all this in advance and packed it into the metaphor in question to precisely reveal her own superiority. doubtless wallace quoted it for its concision at debasing those who don't use language as prescribed. kudos to them both. now that's an artful use of language.


the SNOOT fallacy

at issue is this article by David Foster Wallace (who i typically like and agree with). it's quite lengthy but well worth the read; Wallace is a very interesting writer and the topic is the politics of usage and dictionary-making. what could be more at home here on invented usage? there's a lot here i'd like to talk about and argue with, but i'll try to focus.

the article, which appeared in Harper's, i believe, amounts to a glowing review of Bryan Garner's A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. true to form, though, Wallace also gives us all the backstory including the 'seamy underbelly' of lexicography: the descriptivist/precriptivist divide. descriptivists would like a dictionary to reflect language the way people actually use it, insofar as possible, while prescriptivists tend to believe that a dictionary should tell us what's right and how to use words properly. i found it somewhat surprising that Wallace himself comes down firmly on the prescriptive side, proudly calling himself a SNOOT. that's a nice, cute term for something i've called a 'grammar nazi' or a 'big fat jerk' elsewhere on this blog. i'm sure he has his reasons for capitalizing it (and for once mispelling it as 'SNOT,' i'd like to add).

his precious reasons. wallace, garner, and snoots of their ilk are fond of reasoning about language. and the basic premise of 99% of logical arguments about language is... drumroll please... "the purpose of language is communication." in fact, this maxim is taken so keenly for granted that it is embedded only in parentheticals on linguistics departments' webpages. (Brown's for instance: How does the function of language (to communicate) interact with its structure?) so of course wallace feels justified in defending at least the prescriptivist rules that aid 'clarity and precision.'

i'd like to submit (usage liberal that i am) that language has more purposes than just communication. i even believe it goes beyond wallace's observation that the diction/style/accent we use communicates something about us. language is used to confuse, to distract, to entertain, to kill time, to remember, to make art, to perform ceremonies, all of which could be considered communicative under my usually broad definition... but beyond even that, the ways people judge each other based on language use are PART OF LANGUAGE ITSELF. its purpose is also to divide, include, grade and judge. these functions determine who gets listened to, and in extreme cases, who gets listened to is a matter of life and death.

wallace quotes a snoot friend of his: "listening to most people's English feels like watching somebody use a Stradivarius to pound nails." this analogy reveals more than a few things about the prescriptivist (snoot) perspective. first, it reveals that they consider language an object. an object that we all approach the same way from the outside and use for a determined purpose. they believe there is a right function and a wrong function for language, that that function is essentially benign and beautiful. wallace acts as though prejudice, awkwardness, and judgmentality are faults of people, and not built into language in any way.

wallace writes,
These are tense linguistic times. Blame it on Heisenbergian Uncertainty or postmodern relativism or Image Over Substance or the ubiquity, of advertising and P.R. or the rise of Identity Politics or whatever you will — we live in an era of terrible preoccupation with presentation and interpretation. In rhetorical terms, certain long-held distinctions between the Ethical Appeal, Logical Appeal (= an argument's plausibility or soundness), and Pathetic Appeal (= an argument's emotional impact) have now pretty much collapsed — or rather the different sorts of Appeals now affect and are affected by one another in ways that make it almost impossible to advance an argument on "reason" alone.
and i'd like to object. postmodernism is NOT relativism, though this is a common misconception. postmodernism never says 'everything is the same. it doesn't matter how we speak because everything is as good as everything else.' it says 'the distinctions we make in language are arbitrary, but they have to be made. we have to make the choice to have an official academic language, or to read a certain text a certain way. it's just VERY important that we consider why (and from what cultural standpoint) we're making those decisions.' wallace's distinciton between different rhetorical strategies is an old one--one of the oldest, in fact. but language has never been transparent. there has never been a 'logical' argument that was not also rhetorical and emotional. EVERY statement that has content also has form and also has a speaker who speaks from a particular perspective and whose words therefore have a particular emotional impact. as soon as a word enters the language (or is uttered... not the same thing, i guess) it's encoded with information about the social and mental status of those who use it. logic never has been and never will be free of language.

wallace finally praises garner's dictionary of modern usage because garner himself seems not to speak from a normal human position.
It's like he's so bland he's barely there. E.g., as this reviewer was finishing the book's final entry, it struck me that I had no idea whether Bryan Garner was black or white, gay or straight, Democrat or Dittohead. What was even more striking was that I hadn't once wondered about any of this up to now; something about Garner's lexical persona kept me ever from asking where the guy was coming from or what particular agendas or ideologies were informing what he had admitted right up front were "value judgments."
that is, according to wallace, the perfect person to judge language is barely a person at all. garner lays bare his assumptions, but doesn't admit the sociocultural ground he makes them from (although i'll lay 20-to-1 he's white). this is perfection in scientific distance and objectivity. maybe it's a great way to write a text book, but it misses something fundamentally beautiful about what language is: inconsistent and ever-changing, as anything determined by everyone in the world all at once has to be.


triangle battle!

here's a version of the semiotic triangle from seb's last post:
it was made famous by ogden & richards in a 1923 book known as 'the meaning of meaning.' it's important to note that the line along the bottom is dashed and labeled 'an imputed relation,' since symbols can only refer to objects (referents, that which is referred to) through a concept or thought.

here's how ferdinand de saussure, writing slightly earlier, saw the relation between thought and language:
where A is the medium of thought (nebulous, undifferentiated), and B is the medium of language (undifferentiated sound material). the vertical lines are the arbitrary connections between the two media.

roland barthes, an interesting theorist who bridges the structuralist/post-structuralist gap in the mid-20th century, used this model: i personally like the more specific labels of the relations between the three vertices of the triangle. later, he turned to this image to explain the structure of the 'myth': here, the sign is a more complicated amalgam and the whole process of sign formation/understanding is recursive. (derrida, in particular, is known for his claims about the infinite play of signs and meanings).

another more recent semiotic triangle is extended to include the term 'definition'. this one is from 1997 and is credited to Suonnuuti, who i've never heard of before. i guess the definition is added based on other conceptual systems or something like that.

here's what i guess could be called a post-structuralist semiotic schema. it's greimas' semiotic square. it's not actually about the structure of a symbol, but the structure of a particular opposition within a text. remember, post-structuralism isn't a philosophy per se, it's just a way of handling texts and their meanings. in this example, the 'deconstructed' binary is 'beautiful/ugly', and the corners represent (more or less) different positions that characters in a story can occupy or represent.

and here's an epistemological model of the semiotic triangle that i think tries to explain what an artificial intelligence would have to have in order to understand signs: pretty, no? i don't really understand it, but it has the most lines, squiggles, and circles so far!

i guess the point is that these kinds of models are very vague. what lines and circles mean is pretty debatable and not even very empirically useful. also, the value of using a little picture to talk about symbols seems dubious at best to me. these kinds of diagrams only make sense when they're responding to one another, or when one philosopher says 'but what if it did work like this...' and uses an illustration to demonstrate their difference from some other tradition. someone should probably launch a study of these kinds of diagrams as a form in the semiotic/linguistic/cognitive fields. maybe someone already has...



this is awesome

A quick link:


More about this later after I have some time to putz around with it.

usage of the creek

Bonus! today's invented usage is actually a whole pattern of word formation!

when a friend of mine looked up some other word on urban dictionary, she stumbled across 'mugly,' and was immediately able to figure out its etymology. (we guessed 'mother-fucking ugly,' but the site also lists 'mad ugly,' 'monkey-ugly' and 'man ugly.') at any rate, these formations all have something in common. they all take the onset (first consonant sound or group of consonant sounds) of the first word in a pair and use it to replace the onset of the second word. fans of the movie Mean Girls also encountered this in the word 'fugly,' and if you can guess what that means, then i feel justified in saying that this is a productive morphological process!

it's interesting that in most of these cases, the word-formation combines the first letters of an adverb with the end of an adjective to form a new adjective. also, the 'adverb' in some of the cases i cited above is just a noun placed before the word. this too is a pretty slang-ish usage, i think, and i read it as 'adjective as a noun,' like 'ugly as a monkey.' it also seems possible to derive a new noun by combining an adjective and noun in the same way.

some examples that i found on urban dictionary:
fex (pretty much any consonant followed by -ex is a word, whether by this formation process or not)
mex (the first definition at least)
it's amazing what we have words for. (though more than a few of these did not mean what i expected them to.) a couple use additional morphological processes (changing vowel sounds, inserting another consonant after the onset...) but seem to be based on the main one we're talking about here. also, note that many of them have alternate definitions; for instance, i'm not sure 'f' can be considered a true morpheme since it has multiple meanings ('fake,' 'fucking,' 'female').

another key example is 'crunk,' a term made popular by rap producer lil jon (thank you urbandictionary). i always thought it was an adjective meaning 'crazy drunk,' since it has similar distribution distribution to 'drunk.' but, as evidenced by the contention on urban dictionary, the word has beaucoup de ambiguity. whereas 'drunk' (almost) exclusively applies to people, one can go to a 'crunk party,' and some claim there is a genre of music by the same name. there are also claims circulating that 'crunk' is a mix of 'chronic' and 'drunk,' and means to use alcohol and marijuana at the same time.

despite these ambiguities and alternate definitions, it's important to note that upon being introduced to a novel word a speaker of english slang can propose a systematic formation process. after hearing any one of these words we can create infinitely many more, whether we know the 'true meaning' or 'actual' formation process of the original example or not. after all, one example does not a pattern make. that is, it's possible that a morphological process actually becomes systematic for the first time when we try to come up with a coherent explanation for how morphology relates to meaning and then use the process (which the hearer has imagined!) to create more words. it's just possible.