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Meaning of Words More Significant in Overall Comprehension: An Experiment

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Meanings of words more significant than sounds in overall comprehension of text


Sonal Kumar, 2008



            It was in Anne Dalke’s Feminist Studies course at Bryn Mawr College when I was first introduced to a revolutionary lesbian writer—one who Dalke claims has sex with words— and her striking poem: “Lifting Belly.” Stein’s poem seems ineffable to the reader; Stein writes with unpredictable, punctuation-less phrases. This writing style makes her sexy conversation a private affair, barricading the outside world from intruding on something between herself and her lover. Additionally, “Stein creates a new form, apparently ignoring the literary tradition to create hir own poetry, defying grammatical conventions.”[1] As a whole, the poem stands as an invincible lesbian text. While numerous critics have interpreted “Lifting Belly,” there has been no concluding solution to the mystery of the poem’s title. In fact, the only thing we know for certain is that Stein’s poem is a concealed conversation between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.


            In class, students expressed generally similar commentary on the text. Below I will produce some of the comments, some of the rationale of the revulsion raised in class discussion:


“Stein’s ambiguity of subjects, objects, nouns and banter in Lifting Belly was likely the culprit of the distaste that some of us voiced in class[2].”


“I feel as though that ambiguity could come out of decades of institutional and historical silencing of lesbian sex… as though there is no way to come to speech about lesbian love – or, at least, no way that does not simply conform to the heterosexual paradigm or the language of othering that has been used to describe lesbian sex.[3]


“I am not a fan of Gertrude Stein’s writing style. I like punctuation, and knowing what the writer is saying. I did gain more appreciation for Lifting Belly from the class discussion, but while reading it alone it seemed too jumbled.[4]


“I think that what caused a lot frustration with "Lifting Belly" was our, as readers, preference for discovering the meaning of the words. It seems reasonable that most readers enter texts expecting them to communicate something from the writer to them.[5]


From the web postings, we can see that students found reading “Lifting Belly” a difficult task because of Stein’s free-flowing style. Despite the many attempts at explaining Stein’s poem, what stays consistent is its’ ineffability. To assuage the reader’s obscurity of the text, Dalke suggested reading “Lifting Belly” for sound and not meanings of words. This was the primary inspiration for my experiment. Furthermore, fellow inquirer served as a secondary inspiration for this experiment:


“I was thinking that it would be interesting to have Stein's poem read out loud to people who do not speak English and ask about their reactions to it. Perhaps they could appreciate the rhythm or flow or general sound of the words better since they would not be focused on attaching meaning to them.[6]


Thus, my experiment will explore Anne Dalke’s claim that “Lifting Belly” can be understood as a poem of sexy sounds. Moreover, I hope to investigate whether appreciating the conversational language of the lesbian sex poem is adequate attempt to understand Stein’s intent.



            I first translated three English texts with different content into French. I used the organic structure “Lifting Belly” as the model for all of the texts. In other words, I altered the two other texts to fit the line length and overall format of “Lifting Belly,” so all three poems appeared similar in physical appearance to a reader. This served as the control for the experiment because each text appeared exactly alike to a non-native speaker of French at first glance. The control was necessary, as it was essential that the poems did not reveal the content to the participants.


            I conducted the experiment for 5 days. The length of the experiment varied, usually ranging from 30 minutes to 45 minutes depending on the amount of time the participant spent reading the three texts. Each day during the week, I asked a person[7] (whose exposure to the French language is minimal) to read the three texts in French. The texts were presented in a packet in no particular order and authors and content of each text was not revealed to the participants. I suggested the reader spend an average of 5 minutes reading each poem. As the participant read the poems, I took note of the behavioral response to the way the student read the poems. There were no outside resources provided during the experiment and participants. Scrap paper, pens, pencils, and highlighters were provided to create a realistic reading environment for the participant. At the end I provided the participant with a questionnaire that served to evaluate the participant’s comprehension (attached to this report). The purpose of the experiment was told to the participants only at the conclusion of the session.




puis examinant avec attention ce que jetais

et voyant que je pouvais feindre

que je navais aucun corps

et qu je pouvais feindre que je navais aucun corps

et quil ny avait aucun monde

ni aucun lieu ou je fusse 

mais que je ne pouvais pas feindre

pour cela que je netais point 

et quau contraire

de cela membre que je pensais

a douter de la verite des autres choses

il suivit très évidemment et tres certainement que jetais 

au lieu que si jeusse seulement cesse de penser

encore que tout le reste de ce que javais jamais imagine eut ete vrai

je navais aucune raison de croire que jeusse ete 

je connus de la que jetais une substance

dont toute lessence ou la nature

nest que de penser et quipour etre

na berielle.

En sorte que ce moi

cest a dire lame par laquelle

je suis ce que je suis

est entierement distincte du corps

et membre qu elle ne fut point

elle ne laisserait pas detre

tout ce qu elle est.


In the next place, I attentively examined what I was and as I observed that I could suppose that I had no body, and that there was no world nor any place in which I might be; but that I could not therefore suppose that I was not; and that, on the contrary, from the very circumstance that I thought to doubt of the truth of other things, it most clearly and certainly followed that I was; while, on the other hand, if I had only ceased to think, although all the other objects which I had ever imagined had been in reality existent, I would have had no reason to believe that I existed; I thence concluded that I was a substance whose whole essence or nature consists only in thinking, and which, that it may exist, has need of no place, nor is dependent on any material thing; so that “ I,” that is to say, the mind by which I am what I am, is wholly distinct from the body, and is even more easily known than the latter, and is such, that although the latter were not, it would still continue to be all that it is.



                        levee le ventre est ce que vous levez

                        oh la la jai dit que je suis molle feroce et molle

                        le faire quel magnifique exemple de negligence

                        il me donne beaucoup de plasir a dire oui

                        pour quoi jai toujours sourire

                        je ne sais pas

                        il me donne plaisir

                        vous etes heureuse facilement

                        je suis tres heureuse

                        merci je suis a peine ensoleille

                        jespere que le soleil se serait leve


                        est ce que le soleil se serait leve


                        est ce que le soleil se serait leve


                        est ce que vous levez


                        oui monsieur jai contribue a faire

                        est ce que vous


                        est ce que vous levez

                        nous coupons etrangement


                        cest ca

                        nous ne serons repentons jamais

                        qu est ce que je crois est qu est ce que je veux dire

                        levee ventre et fleurs

                        nous recevons beaucoup des fleurs

                        j ai toujours sourire


                        et je suis heureuse

                        avec moi

                        avec quest ce que jai dit

                        ce soir

                        ne pas jolie


                        oui belle

                        pourqui vous ne pliez pas joliment

                        parce qu il montre la pensee

                        il ne

                        levee du ventre est si forte


 Lifting belly. Are you. Lifting.

Oh dear I said I was tender, fierce and tender.

Do it. What a splendid example of carelessness.

It gives me a great deal of pleasure to say yes.

Why do I always smile.

I don’t know.

It pleases me.

You are easily pleased.

I am very pleased.

Thank you I am scarely sunny.

I wish the sun would come out.

Yes. Do you lift it.


Yes sir I helped to do it.

Did you.


Did you left it.

We cut strangely.


That’s it.

Address it say to it that we will never repent.

A great many people come together.

Come together.

I don’t this has anything to do with it.

What I believe in is what I mean.

Lifting belly and roses.

We get a great many roses.

I always smile.


And I am happy.

With what.

With what I said.

This evening.

Not pretty.


Yes beautiful.

Why don’t you prettily bow.

Because it shows tonight.

It does.

Lifting belly is so strong.



ou est elle 

activite passivite

soleil lune

culture nature

jour nuit


pere mere

tete sentiment

intelligible sensible

logos pathos




avance semence progres


concave sol-sol lequel s’appuie la marche réceptacle



toujours la meme metaphor 

on la suit elle nous transporte

sous toutes ses figures partout ou sorganise un discours

le meme fil ou tresse double

nous conduit

si nous lisons ou parlons

a travers la litterature la philosophie la critiquedes siecles de representation

 de reflexion

la pensee a toujours travaille par opposition,
parole ecriture.

haut bas

par opposition duelles


superieur inferieur

mythes legends livres

systems philosophiques

partout ou intervient une mise

en ordre une loi organize

le pensable par opposition

et tous to couples


sont des couples

est ce que va veut dire quelque chose 

que le logocentrisme soumette la pensee

tous les concepts

les codes

les valeurs a un systeme a deux termes estce que cest en rapport avec le couple

homme femme 




Where is she?

Activity/ passivity 









Form, convex, step, advance, semen, progress.

Matter, concave, ground-where steps are taken, hold in-and dumping- ground.



Always the same metaphor: we follow it; it carries us, beneath all its figures, wherever discourse is organized. If we read or speak, the same thread or double braid is leading us throughout literature, philosophy, criticism, centuries of representation and reflection.


Thought has always worked through opposition,





            Through dual, hierarchical oppositions. Superior/Inferior. Myths, legends, books. Philosophical systems. Everywhere (where) ordering intervenes, where a law organizes what is thinkable by oppositions (dual, irreconcilable; or sublatable, dialectical). And all these pairs of oppositions are couples. Does that mean something? Is the fact that Logocentrism subjects thought-all concepts, codes and values- to a binary system, related to ‘the’ couple, man/woman?




1. On a scale of 1-10 (where 1 is extremely easy and 10 is extremely hard), what would you say was the difficulty level of the experiment? Please expand on how you found the experiment difficult.

2. What method did you use to try to understand the text?

3. How much exposure have you had to the French language? Please explain the context.

4. In reading a text, do you play closer attention to sounds of words or the meanings of words?

5. According to you, what do you hypothesize will be the results of my experiment?


Participant 1

1. 10! I do not know French, so I had no idea what the authors were saying. I stopped reading the texts after 3 lines. After that, I just looked for words in French that appeared similar to words I knew in English. I really had no idea what anything meant.

2. I tried to find words that I could translate in English. I could not even find one, so I stopped reading the poems.

3. Not at all

4. I would say the definitions of words are more important than sounds because definitions can tell you more about the word. Even if you do not know what the word means, knowing the root of the word/knowing the definition of the word will give you clearer sense of the word in its context.

5. I think the results will be that meaning of words will be more significant.



Participant 2

1. 10- This was really difficult. I have no idea what anything meant. Even though you said the texts were different, they seemed really similar especially because I did not know what any of the texts were saying.

2. I highlighted the words that I thought I might know. When I looked at the words again, I realized I had no idea what it meant. I skipped through the text a lot, because I did not find it useful to read something I did not understand.

3. I have heard two people speak French to each other before and I did not know what they were talking about, so reading a text was a huge challenge for me.

4. I never thought sounds of words could help you understand something you are reading, so I would have to say that meanings of words are better.

5. The meanings of words are more significant.


Participant 3

1.10- This is nearly impossible, especially given the fact that I did not know what any word meant. I wish there was an English translation we could have read afterwards.

2. I looked for familiar words in English that could help me understand the French words.

3. I have never spoken or read or heard French before. This was my first time.

4. I pay more attention to the meanings of words. When you learn to read, you learn how to make sense of sentences by the meanings or definitions of individual words.

5. I think the results will show that meanings of words are more significant.


Participant 4

1. 10.5- I did not think the experiment would be as hard as it was. I thought I would find some words that I could recognize in English, but I could not and this made it harder to understand.

2. I did not read word by word, but I tried to generalize a sentence by generating a meaning of a single word in the sentence.

3. No experience.

4. I pay more attention to the meanings of words because the definitions that each word possesses helps me better understand a text.

5. The results will definitely show that meanings of words are useful. Sounds of words can probably help after we know the meaning.


Participant 5

1. 8.5- I have previous experience with Italian, so I tried to match French words to Italian words or English words I knew.

2. I read the passage once through fully. After, I reread the text and highlighted words that I thought I might be able to understand. I was surprised to find that the romance languages have a lot more in common than English.

3. I do not have any experience in French per se. See answer to question 1.

4. Without doubt, I attribute more attention to meanings of words because sound can not tell you as much about the word in the context.

5. I think the results will be that meanings > sounds of words.

            The average difficulty level for the experiment was: 9.8. This high number signifies that the participants found the language barrier a hindrance to overall comprehension of the three French texts. I say this because all five participants knew little to no French. Therefore, the only changing variable is the participant’s engagement with the foreign texts. The results from participants 1-5 validate that readers seek meanings—not sounds— of unfamiliar words. The phenomenon is further validated by the strategies used by every participants; all of the participants attempted to understand the text by translating the French words into English. When participants were asked what strategy of reading (reading for sounds of words or reading for meanings of words) was one that he or she most frequently used, all participants answered that searching for the meaning of words was helpful during his or her reading process. There was one student, however, who mentioned using sounds of words as an additional technique to understand the meaning of a word. Thus, analyzing the sound of a word could serve as a technique that follows from searching for a meaning. It must be noted, though, that this student still voted in favor of reading words for meaning and her response was in no way suggesting that sounds of words triumphed searching for a word’s meaning. Lastly, all five participants hypothesized that the results for my experiment will conclude that meanings of words are generally utilized to comprehend foreign, or incomprehensible, texts.


            My hypothesis for the experiment was that participants would rely heavily on meanings of words. I hoped that readers would begin to translate unfamiliar words into words with simpler, more explicit meanings. This is exactly what had happened during the experiment. In other words, all of the participants tried to search for French words that appeared like English counterparts. For example, words like “femme” and “actualite” and “metaphor” in the text help to better understand select words. Overall, the participants were able to understand a few words but no one was able to understand an entire line or an entire sentence of the texts. I must add that it is not proven fact that readers require only definition meaning to understand language of a text. The experiment consisted of a small data set, so someone interested in finding a generalized truth in regards to this issue is recommended to obtain a larger data set with additional controls and multiple variables. Nonetheless, the result from this experiment reinforces the fact that “Lifting Belly” cannot be understood as a poem of sensual sounds. “Lifting Belly” was among the three texts. Despite the fact that “oui,” a commonly recognized French word for “yes” appeared several times throughout Stein’s poem, the participants did not recognize the poem as being a conversation between two people. Thus, from this mere fact I think it is safe to draw the conclusion that Dalke’s claim is (empirically) false.




Cixous, Hélène and Catherine Clement. La jeune née. Union générale d’éditions. Paris: France, 1975.

Descartes, René.  Discours de la méthode. Union générale d’éditions. Paris: France, 1986.

Stein, Gertrude. Lifting Belly. The Yale Gertrude Stein. Ed. Richard Kostelanetz. New Haven: Yale UP, 1980. 4-54.

[1] Serendip Exchange. Post by steph migliori on Mon, 11/26/07- 1:19 AM.

[2] Serendip Exchange. Post by egleichm on Wed, 10/08/2008- 2:43 PM.

[3] Serendip Exchange. Post by lperry on Wed, 10/8/2008-3:54 PM.

[4] Serendip Exchange. Post by sarina on Thu, 10/9/2008- 12:00 AM.

[5] Serendip Exchange. Post by anorton on Thu, 10/9/2008- 12:51 AM.

[6]  Serendip Exchange. Post by hope on Thu 10/9/2008- 5:36 AM.

[7] Participants were not all students of Bryn Mawr College; the participants of the experiment consisted of both male and female.