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Language Working Group 2002-2004 Forum

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Resisting Instruction
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2002-02-11 23:16:11
Link to this Comment: 935

I found Eric and Paul's summary of our conversation a useful one--and a useful sketching out of further possibilities for conversation; am just adding here some bits that were particularly resonant to me, which either weren't recorded above, or which I'd frame somewhat differently than they did.

For me, the essential point of congruence between Pinker and Scarry had to w/ their shared conviction that "we can shape events in each other's brains w/ exquisite precision." Those are Pinker's opening words; they also describe exactly the project Scarry takes on: tracing the way in which a writer incites mental images in her reader. Some of us found ourselves resisting that level of prescription, disbelieving that our reading experience is (or can be) so directed--which meant that, in the first place, we queried the ways in which Pinker and Scarry themselves tried to instruct us (Scarry refusing to "translate" for an audience outside of literary critics; Pinker falling to evoke any range of denotation for his readers). Resisting our "instruction" meant that our reading, of course, raised for us a series of further questions:

--what does the appeal to a bodily basis of behavior mean to whose who make it?
--how is that related to/different from a notion of the body and brain as permeable to the environment?
--if the notion of language as an instinct turns out to be well-founded, what difference does it make?
--for instance: is there such a thing as a pure (separable) linguistic event? or is it impossible to extricate language from the scene of its use?
--for instance: we got a nice account of analogical thinking on the part of 2-yr-olds, who engage in "over-extended word meanings" (what later would be recognized as similes/metaphors, such as calling snow on one's head a hat, or dripping water "tick tock")
--of more interest to some of us than the so-called "purity" of words is what happens w/in the brain when the "limited imput" of "black marks on the page" encounter priori experiences;
--how does such a process differ when the encounter w/ language is aural?
--even if it is accurate to say that language has no direct connection to what it is trying to evoke, that it is absolutely and fully symbolic, or iconic,
--what is gained by narrowing our analysis, emphasizing the exceptionalism of the linguistic event?
--& why are we having these particular debates @ this point in time? why does Pinker's giving a forensic account of the interior life matter, just now? likewise, why does it matter so much to Scarry to privilege literary methods of creating the world?
--which of these claims is most useful to each of us @ this point? how can we use them?

What Categories Reveal About the Mind
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2002-03-04 20:32:08
Link to this Comment: 1333

Dear friends of language--

Just a clarification of where I was heading in our conversation today. I'm really not very interested in beating up on Pinker for his "sloppy language" or his (amusingly) "anthropomorphic" and "desiring" words (and not convinced that such a project will take us very far); rather, I'm trying to understand the degree to which such words are indicative of...what he "wants" to be telling us (consciously or not, and I think the usage is actually MORE interesting if UNintended/UNconscious, because it may reveal more about...something deeper than/anterior to/uninflected by/or rather interestingly-and-loopily-related-to rational choice).

What I was actually trying to work towards was an understanding of where the structures (the "functional" words, the "scaffolding," the classificatory systems, the categories) that we think w/ and through "come from." If they are largely genetic, as Pinker suggests--"Grammar is a protocol that...must have an abstract logic of its own...the human mind is designed to use abstract variables and data structures..[that] have no direct counterpart in the child's experience. Some of the organization of the grammar would have to be there from the start, part of the language-learning mechanism that allows children to make sense out of the noises they hear" (The Language Instinct, p. 118)-- then how much "wiggle room" does that give us, in thinking and talking and writing and re-imagining (what I'm interested in) the world?

In line w/ this line of inquiry, I was delighted to find this title by our next subject/object of study, George Lakoff. Check it out: Women Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind.

Along w/ our upcoming examination of the creolization of language, another "cute" link that might interest you all is The Jargon Dictionary, which includes an analysis of "hacker writing style" that begins, "hackers often coin jargon by overgeneralizing grammatical rules." It might be interesting, somewhere down the line, to consider the "meta-rules" that guide the emerging forms of on-line communication. This site suggests, for instance, that "introverted hackers who are next to inarticulate in person communicate w/ considerable fluency over the net precisely because they can forget on an unconscious level that they are dealing w/ people."

To be continued (w/ much pleasure from/in today's conversation)--


"desiring "words
Name: George Wea
Date: 2002-03-05 15:52:13
Link to this Comment: 1370

Two small points about 'desiring words". It is common when trying to explain abstract material to use a metaphor to something more concrete. The metaphor has no offical status. For example, one does not draw inferences using it. Sometimes what is sought is a way for the audience to remember the abstract notion, to aid in internalizing it-a slogan if you will. The metaphors don't always have the desired effect, but their use in formal/mathematical disciplines is common enough that people write about it.

That having been said, there is a certain(linguistic?) humor in this particular example: there are selectional restrictions on the word 'desire' and one of these is that it takes an animate subject. Selectional restrictions are a special kind of co-occurrence restriction - the idea is that certain subclasses of verbs can only co-occur in sentences with certain subclasses of subjects and objects. Using a non-animate subject violates the co-ocurrence restriction the author is talking about. In passing it is worth noting that according to one semantic theory those sentences which violate selectional restrictions are not literally meaningful. This kind of humor(?) is fairly common among graduate students in linguistics. Collecting odd sentences is a harmless and inexpensive hobby. Consider the following:'In English noun requires article'.

Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2002-03-06 10:09:31
Link to this Comment: 1390

An article in yesterday's (3/5/02) Philadelphia Inquirer put me in mind of our pre-conversation conversation earlier this week, querying the definition of "experience" as a state of "internal awareness." The newspaper article took that inquiry into the realms of both mental health and legal decision-making. What I noticed especially were the observations about a "simplistic idea of the relationship between awareness and choice" and the notion that "she did not know what she was doing even if it looked as if she did."

Yates trial calls us to rethink awareness/impairment divide

In the film A Beautiful Mind, we saw the peculiar twist of mental illness: that a person can appear to function normally even while trapped in delusions.

The full article will be available
on the Web for a limited time:
(c) 2001 inquirer and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

films and forms
Name: Ruth Guyer
Date: 2002-03-11 19:44:38
Link to this Comment: 1483

I was thinking about Iris last week during our session and (speaking of movies) wondered how many of you have seen that movie. There is a wonderful moment when she and John talk about words and how crucial they are for her experience/understanding of life.

This short scene seems to me to relate to the issue of who one is when one is no longer the person one once was. What is it like when one's ideas take on new forms (or are captured in new words)? This is a central and troubling subject in bioethics, particularly when someone has prepared an advance directive (what to do with me when I am no longer able to make my own decisions) but seems to be happy in her/his new "form." The dilemma for the person's decision makers or the agents who represent that person becomes this: which person's autonomous wishes do we now respect?

Re: A Brilliant Mind. Do you believe that a person with schizophrenia actually can compartmentalize the disease at will or hold the demons at bay in order to solve a mathematical (or other) problem, or is that just Hollywood?

Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2002-03-16 22:32:38
Link to this Comment: 1499

Matters "of definition" are sometimes important, not qua definition but rather because when one finds oneself arguing about definitions, it not infrequently means words are being differently understood in important ways by different people. So, let me try and make my point clear independently of "definition" (since I think its generally relevant to our inquiry).

Lots of what the nervous system (and hence people) do is done in the absence of any sense/awareness of "doing it", of either perceiving or acting. Despite these absences, what the nervous sytem does can often be quite significant, ie unperceived input can have dramatic effects on behavior (present and future), and not-experienced actions can be quite adaptive and sophisticated. Moreover, they both affect how the nervous system works in the future. In this sense, they are meaningful "experiences", even if they are not "experienced".

Subject to one reservation, all of the preceding can be quite "objectively" established. The reservation, curiously, takes one into the "subjective" realm. No one doubts that machines act as I've described; that is the point of "artificial intelligence". To determine whether humans do so depends, however, on "asking them". And hence on "subjective" information. The only way to know whether a human "had the experience of something" is to ask.

One significant relevance of all this is that language is, among other things, a way of conveying "internal states", which may or may not be the same as would be inferred by an outside observer of an individuals actions. Individuals may indeed "lie" about these internal states, but there are relatively few ways to get information about them other than through langauge. And so one necessarily has to make use of the "subjective" as a legitimate set of observations. Like any other set of observations, subjective ones are not definitive; the important thing is that if one refuses to admit them one has no way whatsoever to gain access to "internal states" (given that they are NOT necessarily evident in behavior, including language).

So, how about for the future we admit three things: unconscious perception/action/learning, "feelings", and externally observable actions, including language? What's relevant about all this, in the present context, is that language sits "on top of" both the unconscious and "feelings"; when one generates language it is affected, to one degree or another by both (eg, there is some innate organization that affects it, as per Pinker). And hence it may well have properties that derive from what it sits on, rather than being entirely sui generis, following rules entirely of its own. My personal guess is that the "Chomsky approach", valuable as it is, will prove limited because not all of the important parts of the underlying structure of language are apparent in language itself. Similarly, I think those of us who have gotten used to language as a primary tool of inquiry may be missing some important parts of how brains (including our own) work. I'm genuinely curious about whether Lakoff might be closer to some of this stuff, starting from metaphor rather than syntax as a take off point.

Recognizing that language sits "on top of" is also relevant in the opposite direction, not how language is generated but how it is received. What happens in language generation is a "squeezing" ... only part of what's in the unconscious and in feeling gets into words. The reverse, an expansion, happens with language comprehension (I'm modifying from a book by Norretranders, the User Illusion, that we might want to look at at some point). Words act not only in the rational realm but also in feelings and in the unconscious. This was Scarry's point, and what continues to interest me about her work. And it also bears on Anne's puzzlement because of Pinker's use of language. Language, as it normally is used, is SUPPOSED to generate, somewhat unpredictably, things in the mind of readers/listeners. George and others (me included) may discount the images Pinker's words bring up, but it is entirely appropriate for Anne to hear/be interested in them.

This, in some ways, takes us back to the starting point for last year's Two Cultures discussion, the issue of whether language is precise or allusive. Within disciplines (particularly "scientific" ones?), one may work very hard at discarding the allusive character of language. The price of doing so, however, is that one can then communicate only with those who have, like onself, spent years learning the rareified unambiguous language. If one wants to work across disciplines, on the other hand, maybe one has to pay the price of accepting ambiguity/allusiveness? Maybe, indeed, one comes to recognize that "misunderstanding" is as valuable an outcome of language use as is "understanding"?

Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2002-03-28 15:24:51
Link to this Comment: 1633

Another (possibly?) productive possibility: that language begins/takes its origins not in the desire to communicate (or mis-communicate!) @ all, but in the desire to play. In pleasure--@ the sounds, the arrangements, the aesthetics of what is being said or written.

18 march mtg summary
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2002-03-30 11:12:38
Link to this Comment: 1640

Paul WAS indeed, at the time, "unsure of exactly where his objection lay". And apologizes for apparently dominating the discussion with his incohate concerns (was it really all me against the world, as Eric implies? maybe its not so good to see ourselves as others see us). And found it a very interesting/generative conversation ... thanks to all for helping me ... think about these matters.

I think I'm clearer now than I was about what was/is bothering me, and that it is BOTH about "scientific method" generally AND more specificially about language. It is also about the immune system and Anne's comment immediately above and some things I earlier said in the Two Cultures Forum ... " ordinary language is not "supposed" to be unambiguous, because its primary function is not in fact to transmit from sender to receiver a particular, fully defined "story". Ordinary language is instead "designed" (by biological and cultural evolution) to perform a more sophisticated, bidirectional communication function. A story is told by the sender not to simply transmit the story but also, and equally importantly, to elicit information from/about the receiver, to find out what is otherwise unknowable by the sender: what ideas/thoughts/perspectives the receiver has about the general subject of the story."

Let me see if I can briefly make what I think clearer. I DO, in one important sense, "think that the Pinker style of language analysis is fundamentally flawed and thus doomed to failure". I think it in the sense that this is true of ALL science (indeed of all human inquiry). Yes, we try and detect patterns in observations (in language as elsewhere), yes we summarize them as hypotheses, yes the hypotheses are in turn checked and revised based on new observations, etc etc. And yes, this works amazingly well in lots of different situations (including language). But ... it works best when the mechanisms underlying/giving rise to the patterns are themselves stable, at least over the time of the inquiry. It works less well if the underlying mechanisms are theselves changing, for any of a variety of reasons including effects of the "observer" on what is being observed.

There is a BIG argument here about "reality" in general, which I won't get into here (but have a book chapter manuscript about, if anyone is interested). My point with regard to language is that I supect that the underlying mechanisms are NOT stable, or are at least designed (by evolution) not to generate the kinds of predictable patterns of observations from which the underlying mechanisms can be reliably inferred. The issue has precisely to do with whether language is designed for communication or for something else. My guess is that language actually evolved not to transmit information but to "explore", to find out/try out new things. To the extent this is true, one will never capture the essence of language by modelling the observed patterns, something is indeed being "lost in the endeavor": the fundamental novelty-creating character of language. I don't assert that this CAN'T be inquired into by normal scientific processes. Immunologists ultimately recognized that there is indeed an undirected novelty generation which is fundamental to the immune system (and evolutionary biologists that there is a similar thing operating in evolution). I am only saying that it seems to me to be being neglected in the Chomsky/Pinker/Raimy approach to language. And to be perhaps better captured in Anne's "in the desire to play" (see also Serendip's Playground).

And that, of course, takes one back to the issue of whether "desire" (to say nothing of "play") is or is not a property of "inanimate" things. My assertion is not quite that "desire" means "means something along the lines of 'able to cause things to happen' so since the thermostat can cause the heat to rise or fall, it is appropriate and correct to attribute 'desire' to thermostats". My assertion is that the normal usage of that words INCLUDES that meaning as well as some others, of which an important one is "having the internal experience of wanting something". And that we don't normally "parse" the various meanings of words. And that doing so is itself a productive route to better understanding things. Its a way of exploring, of using language to discover what one has not previously seen (and VERY common in/as a consequence of science, among other things).

Thanks again to all for a playful and for me productive conversation. Looking forward to more.

Test Case: Language as Undirected Novelty Generati
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2002-04-07 21:32:00
Link to this Comment: 1738

Paul's arguing, hard, that "language actually evolved . . . to 'explore,' to find out/try out new things," like the "undirected novelty generation which is fundamental to the immune system . . . a similar thing operating in evolution . . . and . . . perhaps . . . captured in . . . Anne's 'desire to play' (see also Serendip's Playground)." Hearing a strong echo of this idea in "The Turtle on the Fence Post," an essay in the NYTimes Book Review 3/24/02 which describes Bill Clinton, like William James, as "so extremely natural that there was no knowing what his nature was, or what came next," I'd like to challenge the Language Group to try and parse what (according, delightfully, to this review essay) is now a Clinton entry in "Barlett's Familiar Quotations":

"It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is. If the--if he--if 'is' means is and never has been, that is not--that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement."

Anyone want to bite?

a bite...well, really a nip
Name: Sharon Burgmayer
Date: 2002-04-10 22:17:29
Link to this Comment: 1783

At Anne's request, I'll share with all what I sent to her in response to Bill's, um, eloquent quote:

"I think it would be wise if I stuck to chemistry in this situation. ;-)

For fun, I might note that, in the context of chemistry, "is" will be governed largely by free energy.
And free energy is that which is left over after the universal requirement of increasing entropy (disorder) is satisfied.

So one may view this quote--indeed Bill himself--as a necessary, nay, even
unawares participant in disorder's rule."

Or in Paul's 'language', Nature is just exploring, exploration is messy, and
Bill helped enormously to push it along. ;-)

Language Play: Two More Test Cases
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2002-04-15 23:47:02
Link to this Comment: 1821

I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation in the Language Group today; my preference/suggestion for our next/last-for-this-year's reading would not be more Lakoff (whom I think we "got") but rather some sort of "test case" for Carol's query: assuming Lakoff's right in his claim that our thinking is bodily-dependent/sensorily-determined, what difference does it make? (for the history of philosophy, for our understanding of that history, for its future? more generally, for our uses of language?) Whom in the philosophical/linguistic traditions might we read to see how "useful" Lakoff's ideas are for further thinking?

Here are two short ("real-life") applications which have already occured to me.

After the Language group meets on Monday afternoons, I visit an elderly friend, Dorothy Steere, who is dying. Dorothy speaks, I now know from reading Lakoff, directly from the unconscious, and her speaking is very labile--she leaps quickly from one statement to its counterclaim, or to another completely unrelated one (often using completely nonsensical words), often before she has finished a single sentence. Today I had made a circlet of marsh marigolds for my hair, thinking it would please and amuse her--which it did. But she kept reaching out to touch it and say, "I love your pink . . . row." Occasionally she would add: "I love your pink row . . . . yel . . . low." This refrain (which she repeated numerous times while I was there) reminded me, of course, both of Stanlaw's essay on the evolutionary sequence of color nomenclature, and of Lakoff's description of color as an embodied concept: not just a reflection of an external reality, but the result of the evolution of our bodies/brains. So now I
want to know what happens when we become senile: Does Dorothy now "see" yellow as pink? Has she just "lost" the word for what she still "sees" as the same color?

This "evolution" (or de-volution) made me think differently about a conversation Mark Lord and I were having as we left today's session (I hope he'll correct me if I remember it differently than he does). We had been toying w/ the idea that each of us feels "most real" either when we are encountering a space of possibility--something about to happen, but not yet realized--or when we have an awareness, in a moment of fulfillment, of its transitoriness (as in a point of connection w/ another human being, which we know will end soon). Paradoxically (?), those moments which "feel" to both of us most "real" are NOT those which are most stable/secure, but just the opposite: those that are unstable, about to change. I'm thinking now that a metaphor marks just such a moment: it is a link that is tenuous, an analogy which both gestures towards what is the same ("my love is a red red rose") and towards its difference (my love is NOT....); it only works because the two terms ("tenor" and "vehicle") are both like AND not; it both compares and indicates the limits of the comparison.

There is (likewise) something very "real" about my encounters w/ Dorothy, in which language is used so unpredictably, so tenuously, so . . . playfully. That's where the "real" world is, neither "out there" nor "in here," but in that connection, in that tenuous, unstable play between . . . what I think I perceive and what I think I know (and can say) about it.


New Whorf-Sapir; new author
Name: Doug Blank
Date: 2002-04-16 08:41:53
Link to this Comment: 1828

I, too, would like to second the motion to pursue this new version of Whorf-Sapir (do our bodies dictate our concepts?) and the related questions. But, I would advocate to continue our reading of modern cognitive scientists.

One author that would fit into this discussion rather well, I think, is Doug Hofstadter. He has a few articles along the lines of "analogy-making as perception". He would also be a great person to invite next year. He also loves to play with language, and so he is an enjoyable read.


Categorization, Partitions and Pigeonhole Principl
Name: George Wea
Date: 2002-04-16 18:23:52
Link to this Comment: 1845

On page 18 and following of the stuff we have been reading from Lakoff there is a discussion of categorization as a consequence of the biology of the brains of agents. Paul made the same point more eloquently in the meeting and I recognized the argument that Paul used as an application of what is called a pigeonhole principle. There are several of these principles in both finitary and infinitary combinatorics. The simplest one I know goes something like this: suppose that you have n objects and you are trying to put them in m containers. If m There is some other stuff that can be said here once one starts filling out the details about A, B and f. On particularly interesting line is to look for "structure" on A and B and for functions which are called homomorphisms-functions that preserve the "structure".

Categorization, partitions and Pigeonhole principl
Date: 2002-04-16 18:59:55
Link to this Comment: 1849

For some unknown reason not all of my comments got posted. So I'll try again. Suppose that you have n objects and m containers and that m is strictly smaller than n. Them one container will have more than one object. Paul's argument was more complicated. Suppose that you have two sets A and B where A is strictly bigger than B. In Lakoff's example think of A as the 100 million light-sensing cells and B as the 1 million fibers leading to the brain. Let f be a function that associates things in A with things in B. Thus, given x in A, f(x) is that member of B that f associates with x. For simplicity assume that f is onto B- for all y in B there is x in A such that f(x)=y. Given y in B, the inverse image of y under f is the set of those members of A that f associates with y-{x|x is in A and f(x)=y}. The collection of inverse images of members of B under f forms a partition on the set A-i.e. a collection of non-empty subsets of A with two other properties: every member of A is in one of the sets and differnt sets have no member in common. The partition is called the partition on A induced by f and the members of the partition are called cells. Lakoff invites the reader to think of the cells of the induced partition as categories.To put partitions and pigeonholes together: since A is strictly larger than B some cell in the induced partition contains at least two members of A. If one takes all of this seriously, categorization is biology and a little combinatorics.
There is a more interesting story here when one fills in some of the details about A, B and f. In particular, if there is some "structure" on both A and B and f is a homomorphism- preserves the structure.

Categorization, partitions and Pigeonhole principl
Name: George Wea
Date: 2002-04-16 19:02:32
Link to this Comment: 1850

For some unknown reason not all of my comments got posted. So I'll try again. Suppose that you have n objects and m containers and that m is strictly smaller than n. Them one container will have more than one object. Paul's argument was more complicated. Suppose that you have two sets A and B where A is strictly bigger than B. In Lakoff's example think of A as the 100 million light-sensing cells and B as the 1 million fibers leading to the brain. Let f be a function that associates things in A with things in B. Thus, given x in A, f(x) is that member of B that f associates with x. For simplicity assume that f is onto B- for all y in B there is x in A such that f(x)=y. Given y in B, the inverse image of y under f is the set of those members of A that f associates with y-{x|x is in A and f(x)=y}. The collection of inverse images of members of B under f forms a partition on the set A-i.e. a collection of non-empty subsets of A with two other properties: every member of A is in one of the sets and differnt sets have no member in common. The partition is called the partition on A induced by f and the members of the partition are called cells. Lakoff invites the reader to think of the cells of the induced partition as categories.To put partitions and pigeonholes together: since A is strictly larger than B some cell in the induced partition contains at least two members of A. If one takes all of this seriously, categorization is biology and a little combinatorics.
There is a more interesting story here when one fills in some of the details about A, B and f. In particular, if there is some "structure" on both A and B and f is a homomorphism- preserves the structure.

Categorization, Partitions and Pigeonholes
Name: George Wea
Date: 2002-04-17 10:57:21
Link to this Comment: 1863

There is a point I neglected to mention in the last posting: the number of cells in the partition on A induced by f is the same as the number of things in B. This follows from the assumption that f is onto B and the observation that if y and z are different members of B, then the inverse image of y under f and the inverse image of z under f have no member in common. In Lakoff's terms the number of categories is determined by the number of things in B. Pigeonhole Principles provide information about the size of the categories.For example, if n is the number of things in A and m is the number of things in B,and k is the result of rounding n/m up to the nearest integer, then some cell contains at least k objects.

Planning Ahead
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2002-04-21 20:32:55
Link to this Comment: 1900

Despite several attempts on my own, plus tutorials from both Paul and George, I'm still scratching my head over most of the details of George's postings, intrigued that the language of logic, intended (I think?) to be so precise, is so-very difficult for me to follow (maybe simply because I've never had a course in logic, and so just haven't learned the language; or maybe because, to be engaged by language, I need a space for "play" this kind of language doesn't allow?). Even more interesting, perhaps, is that George was most successful in explaining this logic to me when he drew a picture. Maybe it's time to give up on our inquiry into language and move on to images....?

Another entirely unrelated suggestion to keep in mind as we plan (next week?) for continuing our discussion (next year?): I'm editor of the newsletter for a national Quaker college teachers' organization (FAHE, Friends Association for Higher Education). In the Spring 2002 volume we just put out is an report by Hal Schiffman about his work @ Penn on the consortium for language policy and planning. I checked out their website @ and found that, besides language policy and planning, they are exploring "language maintenance, language death, language loss, language abandonment, language preference, language prestige, language loyalty, language switching, language shift, language spread, language suppression,l anguage conflict, and so on." What REALLY interests me in this, besides the turn from "abstract and synchronic linguistics" to what Saussure called "external linguistics" (the role of language in history, or of the relations between language and political history), is the therefore-necessary attention to questions of choice, control and rights--the sorts of questions Labov's talk might have explored, but didn't; the sorts of questions that our speculations, last week, about the "realness" and the verifiability of the "real" will never get us to. "Real" questions about the "real" world. Another direction I'd be interested in moving towards--not metaphorically, but "really."

Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2002-04-24 10:00:51
Link to this Comment: 1943

Two sets of thoughts have been running in my mind since our last meeting, maybe related, and maybe related to a talk yesterday by Harold Shapiro. Maybe, maybe not ... let's see.

I was very struck by Anne's interest in the notion that "categorizing" was inevitable (a necessary function of the nervous system whether done consciously or not), and so any political agenda which sees categorizing as opressive and seeks to correct opression by eliminating categorization is doomed to failure. I think that is indeed so. And I think it is also so that much "categorizing" is done unconsciously and so is relatively inaccessible to many people under many circumstances. BUT ... one can in fact become aware of categorizations and, to varying degrees, alter them. Bottom line: it is indeed possible (with hard work/patience) to reduce opression by identifying and altering particular instances of "categorization" even if one cannot eliminate the phenomenon itself. One step further, "categorization" is not only inevitable but desirable. New frameworks can be constructed only by standing on old ones.

I was equally struck by some remarks by Marc which I will characterize as I remember them, hoping Marc will provide his version. Roughly, Marc noted (more dramatically/poetically than I can replicate) that individuals are in principle isolated not only from each other but from the past and future as well. I don't remember the context that elicited this but, in my terms, its an inevitable (again) consequence of thinking about brains. We are each a pattern of activity within one. All else, including both other people and times other than the present are necessarily inferences from/by that and patterns of activity in sensory neurons. Here too one can either be upset by the inevitability or excited by the promise. What goes on inside each of us is truly private, yielding the potential to make worlds/pasts/futures as we individually wish. At the same time, we can choose, to varying degrees, to share creations, and, by so doing, we have the possibility of making worlds/pasts/futures richer/more satisfying than ones we can create alone. THAT may be the most important/distinctive feature of language, what is missing in many other organisms: it is a tool making possible the more effective sharing of internal worlds which otherwise must be quite imperfectly and laboriously inferred from observations of actions.

Shapiro's talk was nominally on bioethics but was in fact a particularly rich and thoughtful reflection on what one might call "liberal democracy" and the role of "narrative" in it. There is an earlier and slightly different version available on the web at The gist of the talk was the importance of recognizing that humans create/share "narratives" that serve the function of providing individuals with a sense of meaning/purpose (Shapiro asserts the inclination to do this is more fundamental than curiousity; I think/hope he's wrong). "Science" (indeed all forms of human inquiry) create anxiety by challenging these narratives, and are progressively moving humanity toward a recognition that "meaning/purpose" is not in fact to be found "out there" (in much the sense of the above musings). The challenge, as Shapiro sees it, is how to continually and appropriately rewrite narratives, and the suggestion is to always do so in ways that acknowledge and give recognition to the widest possible array of existing narratives. There is a narrow "politically pragmatic" way of seeing this but also, I think, a broader, more significant underpinning: the idea that since there is no "correct" narrative, the "least wrong" one is the one that successfully incorporates the widest range of perspectives.

Needess to say, "narrative", in the sense being used here, depends on language (yes, there are probably unconscious "stories", but they bear the same relation to "narrative" as "category" does to "metaphor", lacking the internal experience and hence the potential for quick alteration). So ... there really IS a "role for language in history"? Which makes our conversations even more interesting? And maybe even sheds light on the theory of language? Yes, let's make plans not only for the rest of this year (Catherine suggested a shared evening viewing of Memento ... I have a copy and would be up for that if others would be) but for next year as well.

On Losing Categories (the World?)
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2002-04-24 12:23:54
Link to this Comment: 1946

Directly contra Paul's suggestion, that "the most important/distinctive feature of language.... [is] making possible the more effective sharing of internal worlds" (internal worlds, Lakoff would remind us, which are "inherently embodied") is a posting made on Blackboard yesterday by Rachel Wright, one of the students in my Big Books of American Literature class. Rachel begins by referring to "something that James Joyce toys with in Finnegan's Wake":

"he suggests that in reading, we miss the point when we look for meaning behind the words. He says that it is like looking at a beautiful, fully clothed woman and trying to see only what's underneath. (how is that for a gendered image/simile?!?) If you are always trying to get under/around/beneath you miss the point because, he argues, the point is not in what is behind the words but in the act of arranging the words. So maybe its not about the body at all, because the body is a location for isolation and captivity and how we dress the body or the voice is what really matters?"

I disagree w/ Joyce; I attended Shapiro's talk, too, and was similarly moved by the social possibilities he described for narrative. I was intrigued, in our discussion of language last week, not only by the inevitability of our categorizing (which Paul describes above) but also by the strong disjunction/paradox I saw between Lakoff's claim that, though our thinking is shaped by our bodies, what we think is not necessarily (or at least we cannot know if it is) a reflection of the world outside ourselves. I think we were trying to cross that divide, at the end of our session, by playing w/ the notion that a metaphor expresses the relationship, is the analogy between what we experience internally and the sensory imput we receive. This capacity to "metaphorize" (there, I said it) is never context free, but it is also not entirely context dependent; the "categories of our mind are not those of the world."

My visit to Dorothy this week seemed to me another playing out of this paradox. I could hear weaving in and out of my conversation w/ her not only Lakoff's claim that the ability to categorize is inherent, impossible for neural beings like ourselves NOT to perform, but also Scarry's reflections on the "counterfactual" process of "imagining flowers" (which she described as a "mimesis of perception," of the sensorily present). What I am really wondering, though, is whether Dorothy's fragmented musings might tell us anything "new" about Pinker's claims about the "language instinct."

Dorothy is very hard of hearing, so we communicate by my writing out what I have to say. She reads what I have written, then responds in speech (so one variable, in the story upcoming, is certainly the legibility of my writing). Anyhow: this Monday I placed a bouquet of lilacs in a vase on Dorothy's table, then wrote on a piece of paper lying in front of them, "These are lilacs from my yard." Running her finger under the flowers, and along the words I had written, Dorothy read, "These are daisies from my yard." A few minutes later, she read the line aloud again, this time decoding it as, "These are daylilies from my yard." A few minutes after, she read and revised once again, "These are lilies from my yard." When I asked her directly, "Dorothy, what kind of flowers are these?" she responded, "It's lavender." Although she couldn't remember the name for lilacs , she seemed still, at this point in our conversation, to be recognizing the category "flower" and (or @ least) its appropriate color category.

But then, as our conversation turned to food, she reached out, took hold of the bouquet, and said, "I want to eat these, they look so good." A bit later she commented that she had never seen this color before. When I asked her what color it was, she said, "It's gentle....these get very quiet" (they WERE a very pale shade of lilac). She seemed to be sliding @ this point into a wonderful sort of jumbled synesthesia. (Liz, w/ whom I taught a CSem, many years ago, on how we use our senses to "make sense" of the world, should appreciate what comes next.) What struck me most was that only one sense was missing from the range of those Dorothy was giving voice to. Although she'd mentioned sight (flower and color names), taste ("eat"), touch ("gentle") and sound ("quiet"), her descriptions had omitted the one sensory perception that is most remarkable about lilacs, and was certainly a characteristic of those I had brought: their very strong smell.

When I asked her directly, however, what the flowers smelled like, she said, "It's a smell that I can't remember SEEING before...." and (a little later), "Have you ever TASTED that kind of thing before?" When I wrote that it was very familiar to me, she responded, "It's known to you, it's known to you? I don't recall it now..." and then (a little later), "I'm interested in things different from anything else. For instance, I have never seen anything like this before, and that makes it very interesting." Dorothy seemed to havehad moved, by the end of our conversation, from a clear recognition of, if not the individual flower before her, both the category "flower" and its appropriate color name, through a synethesic description of its qualities, to an awareness that she had no categories available to her @ all for recognizing/describing what she was seeing. Several other comments she made along the way reinforced this impression: "My eyes get very hard, these old eyes," she said; and later, in response to a note from a friend, "Baby goats. What kind of animal is that?" Finally, when I wrote that I needed to get back to work, to serve champagne to our senior theses writers, she reached out, gathered the lilacs in her hands again, and said, "Champagne? Are these champagne?"

Most of my questions about this very-evocative conversation have to do w/Lakoff's description of the sensory basis of our thinking/categorizing/metaphorization. Is it because Dorothy's sensory imput has so diminished that the "appropriate" words are no longer available to her to describe her experiences of perception? Is she speaking so fully from her unconscious at this point in her life that the categories formed by our conscious mind--such as the separation of the five senses one from another (?) are not operative for her anymore? How would Pinker, Scarry, Lakoff "make sense" of this story? How do you?

Language and Spatial/Relational Reasoning
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2002-05-14 17:44:05
Link to this Comment: 2090

Language and Spatial/Relational Reasoning

I found our final session, in which we read Li and Gleitman's Cognition essay on "language and spatial reasoning," a rich one, and wanted to make that observation--not Eric's account of my "dropping big questions on the group"(!?)--my final note of the semester. I was particularly interested in Li and Gleitman's description of the "major cut" linguists see between language groups which orient themselves using locations relative to the speaker (those called "egocentric" or "body-centered" descriptors) and those that use landmarks outside the observer ("allocentric," "geocentric" or "place-based" classifications). Even more interesting to me was Katherine's playing off the footnote on p. 268 of the article, which observes that some investigators use the term allocentric to refer to the viewpoint of the other party in a conversation ("your left," "to the east of you"). Katherine's idea was that there is actually a third way to orient oneself in space: in relation to another who shares it. This thought led us into a discussion of the fundamentally relational nature of language,and the ways in which the subjects in the various experiments described by Li and Gleitman (try to) use language, by asking questions to (try to) reduce the ambiguity of instructions which are otherwise "socially

I drew heavily (and gratefully) on this distinction, and its refinements, for the final lecture I gave in my 19th c. American lit course later in the week, on the "geographical imagination" of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson: he projected his body onto the landscape, "incarnated" the nation's geography by literally becoming part of different topographical features; she--contrariwise--used place names metaphorically to describe the large capacity and expanse of her brain. See Geographical Imagination for a full discussion of this distinction. Whitman spread himself over the landscape, Dickinson brought the landscape into herself; in Li and Gleitman's terms, he made the "egocentric" "geocentric," while she made the "geo" "ego" (cute, huh?). But, in Katherine's terms, both did so in language that was relational, that profoundly (literally?) incorporated the reader into the speaking self. See, for instance, the opening stanza of Dickinson's # 632:

The Brain--is wider than the Sky--
For--put them side by side--
The one the other will contain
With ease--and You--beside--

as well as the final canto of Whitman's "Song of Myself":

I depart as air . . . . I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in edies, and drift it in lacy jags.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you

[important, in the earliest draft: there no period to close....]

Grammatically, relationally, gratefully "yours,"

P.S. Ruth just passed on to me two short pieces from Science magazine, Vol.
291 (Feb 16, 2001)
which we might look @ together as a group: "Hunting the Metaphor" describes the various metaphors used to describe the human genome; "In the Beginning was the Word" describes the ways in which molecular biology relies on metaphor both to construct a world view and formulate methods for its analysis-- "as if the metaphor were the thing itself "(?!).

New year/directions
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2002-09-17 19:22:37
Link to this Comment: 2734

Apologies to any/all who felt I took up too much air space at our first meeting, and/or was preoccupied with old issues. My excuse is that I thought an old issue became particularly crisply posed, and that that made it possible to get it firmly behind us so we could move on to new things.

The issue, as I saw it, was "is it the case that there are non-conscious and non-cultural dependent influences on language"? Color categorization, in particular the early processing dependent on cone pigments, provides one line of evidence that this is indeed so (I apologize again that the paper didn't help to make this clear). Cathy's question, what OBSERVATIONS support such a conclusion, was a good one, and Eric has in his notes indicated several general classes of such observations. I promised some more specifics, and so:

So now let me reiterate my point: there IS an unconscious, cultural independent INFLUENCE on language. That's quite a different thing from saying unconscious, cultural independent factors DETERMINE language (see My wish was/is not to assert the latter, but rather to be sure we all have the in common the unconscious/culturally independent tool for use as we go on to explore the complexities of language which it is unable alone to account for.

Surplus of Cognitive Linkages
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2002-09-28 11:41:37
Link to this Comment: 2959

A number of the members of the language group have also been participating, this fall, in the brown bag series on The Culture of Science. For those of you who have not: the most recent brown bag discussion about metaphor and metonymy picked up wonderfully on our last language discussion about Shakespeare's Brain and how we might understand the "surpluses of cognitive linkages," the "subversive effects of wordplay" that expose "buried links and structures." There was also discussion of Jakobson's work w/ aphasiacs which might serve as a rich source for our further conversation. For a humorous feint @ some of these issues, see also the recent Culture of Science posting about The Logic of Jokes.


The Songs of Eden
Name: Doug Blank
Date: 2002-10-08 11:54:02
Link to this Comment: 3203

[On Monday last, I mentioned an article by Danny Hillis called "The Songs of Eden". I found it on-line at, but, since it isn't that long, I have copied the main "story" below. -Doug]

Once upon a time, about two and a half million years ago, there lived a race of apes that walked upright. In terms of intellect and habit they were similar to modern chimps. The young apes had a tendency to mimic the actions of others. In particular, they had a tendency to imitate sounds. Some sequences of sounds, or "songs", were more likely to be mimicked than others.

Consider the evolution of the songs. Since the songs were replicated by the apes, and since they sometimes died away and were occasionally combined with others, we may loosely consider them as a form of life. They survived, bred, competed with one another, and evolved according to their own criterion of fitness. If a song contained a particularly catchy phrase that caused it to be repeated often, then that phrase was likely to be incorporated into other songs. Only songs that had a strong tendency to be repeated survived.

The survival of a song was only indirectly related to the survival of the apes; it was more directly affected by the survival of other songs. Since the apes were a limited resource, the songs had to compete with one another for a chance to be sung. One successful competition strategy was for a song to specialize; that is, for it to find a particular niche in which it was apt to be repeated. Songs that fit particularly well with specific moods or activities of apes had a special survival value for this reason.

Before songs began to specialize they were of no particular value to the apes. In a biological sense, they were parasites, taking advantage of the apes' tendency to imitate. As they became specialized, it became advantageous for apes to pay attention to the songs of others and to differentiate between them. By listening to songs, a clever ape could gain useful information, e.g. that another ape had found food, or that it was likely to attack. Once the apes began taking advantage of the songs, a symbiotic relationship developed; songs enhanced their own survival by conveying useful information to ages; apes enhanced their own survival by improving their capacity to remember, replicate and understand songs. Thus the blind forces of evolution created a partnership between the songs and the apes that thrived on the basis of mutual self-interest. Eventually this partnership evolved into one of the world's most successful symbiont: the human race.

Unfortunately, songs do not leave fossils, so we may never know if the preceding story describes what really happened. But it if is true, the apes and songs became the two components of human intelligence. The songs evolved into the knowledge, mores and mechanisms of thought that together are the symbolic portion of human intelligence. The apes became apes with bigger brains, perhaps optimised for late maturity so that they could learn more songs. Homo sapiens is a co-operative combination of the two...

Making Strange
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2002-11-19 21:44:03
Link to this Comment: 3799

"It would be easier to talk about this if we weren't familiar w/ language."
(Just wanting to be sure that comment this got recorded for posterity, along w/ "metaphorization," "desire," "furries" and the several other remarkable locutions/shorthands which have evolved as the members of the language group have used language on&w/ one another....)

Now cf. this (from a review of Robert Wilson's Woyzeck, which i saw @ the Brooklyn Academy of Music this weekend...): "what he was doing w/ language was quite strange."

Seriously: I've been chewing for a while on Katherine's suggestion a month ago (when we were discussing Jakobson) that our by-now-much vaulted & valorized distinction between metaphor and metonymy (and our obsession, since, w/ figuring out how to manage the transition/translation from one to the other) might both be subsumed into the "master trope" of synedoche, or the relation of parts to wholes. (Synedoche is a part of speech which uses a less inclusive term for a more inclusive one--i.e. "head" for "cattle"--and comes from a Greek word meaning "to take up with another.")

Seems to me, from the perspective of synedoche (yes, as seen by an English prof) that we're spending an awful lot of time trying to build bridges across categories we have ourselves constructed which are not (to quote Eric) "furry" enough (pardon a quick association here to a recent student paper about my "hairy" teaching...and its risks/costs). We have become preoccupied w/ building bridges because we need them to get from one self-contained (that is, inadequately furry) category to another.

So...I'm proposing we turn the wheel, shift gears, look @ metaphor and metonymy in different relation to one another, both as means of categorizing that work to pull parts out of (and put them back into) wholes, to attend to them, to dwell in them, to make them live, to (as Mark said) "tell you where Christ is." What astonishing language does--language that calls attention to what it's doing--is make the familiar strange, e-strange us from what we think we know. That's when it's alive, when it tunnels out of me into other cells, makes a connection that..."shouldn't" connect. That surprises. Delights. E-stranges.

Strangely yours,

Purging All (Self-Respecting? Abstract?) Punctuati
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2002-11-26 16:23:10
Link to this Comment: 3892

I realize that I'm pretty much holding down the fort/this forum on my own these days....but I still can't resist (even if/while talking to myself) archiving this very funny conversation I just had w/ Jan Richards, the Serendip Webmistress. I'd written her that

when i use serendip's search function for "Language: A Conversation" it told me it couldn't find that combination of terms.

and she replied,

In general, the search engine doesn't like punctuation and does wierd things with it, but I'm not sure what. Here, it will find what you're looking for if you search for "Language A Conversation" without punctuation or "Language : A Conversation" with the colon disconnected from the word, even though in the page it appears attached to the word, as any self-respecting, parasitic colon should. The search engine appears to index the colon as if it were a separate word, and then looks for it in the page as a separate word, which it isn't. I can't take credit for this creative and bizarre behavior since I didn't write the search engine but merely downloaded it off the Internet somewhere and installed it. In any case, you're better off purging all punctuation from you thought processes when you do a search and just search for "Language A Conversation" without any punctuation. As you know, Serendip is not human and can't deal with such abstract concepts as punctuation colons. It only knows the colon that's an organ, which is about as concrete as it gets.

pretty funny, i thought. pretty apt also.


Pump Head
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2002-11-27 11:08:03
Link to this Comment: 3898

Me again.

Feeling @ first blown away by Lakoff's notion of "embodied thinking," I've found myself increasingly impatient w/ and disinterested in the further elaboration/demonstration of this idea in the remainder of Philosophy in the Flesh. MUCH more interesting (@ least this morning) is this piece in The Chronicle of Higher Ed (11/29/02) "Battling for Hearts and Minds," by Lila Guterman, which explains the cognitive disfunctions which often follow heart surgery, and explores some possible causes ("pump head"? "trash sent to the brain" during surgery? damage from anesthesia?) and ends w/ this observation that "The brain is not like a light bulb.... You don't just turn it on and turn it off. When it comes back on, it might be a little dimmer, for longer than we thought."

Now THIS is the kind of thinking about embodied thinking that....
interests me.
See you after Thanksgiving--

for future?
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2002-11-29 13:05:35
Link to this Comment: 3908

Eric turned me on to Ray Jackendorf, an "alternative" linguist. Jackendorf apparently has a new book coming out: Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution. A precis of the book will appear in Behavioral and Brain Sciences along with commentary from others. That precis is available to potential commentators at The abstract, below, looks interesting/related to our conversations about the syntax/semantics relationship.

ABSTRACT. The goal of this study to reintegrate the theory of generative
grammar into the cognitive sciences. Generative grammar was correct to
focus on the child's acquisition of language as its central problem,
leading to the hypothesis of an innate Universal Grammar. However,
generative grammar was mistaken to assume that the syntactic component is
the sole course of combinatoriality, and that everything else is
"interpretive." The proper approach is a parallel architecture, in which
phonology, syntax, and semantics are autonomous generative systems, linked
by interface components. The parallel architecture leads to an
integration within linguistics, and to a far better integration with the
rest of cognitive neuroscience. It fits naturally into the larger
architecture of the mind/brain and permits a properly mentalistic theory
of semantics. It leads to a view of linguistic performance in which the
rules of grammar are directly involved in processing. Finally, it leads
to a natural account of the incremental evolution of the language

To think about for next semester?

Apostrophe, Lack and the Generation of Narrative M
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-03-20 12:40:54
Link to this Comment: 5114

Still chewing over the (rather charged) ending of yesterday's conversation, when we found ourselves arguing about Jerome Bruner's characterization of what results from an "impoverishment of narrative resouces." Bruner claims that in Palestinian refugee compounds (not to mention modern bureaucracies), "the 'worst scenario' story comes so to dominate daily life that variation seems no longer to be possible," that without resources which "nourish our sense of breach and of exception," rich narrative will not be generated.

Well, now. As I was saying before we began (arguing), I am this semester supervising Kat Fallon's senior thesis on "apostrophe" (not the sort that concerns Eric, "the sign indicating the omission of a letter, or possession, or plurals of abbreviations and symbol"; but rather) the sort that concerns--and was actually inspired by--Jane's work: "a digresion in the form of an address to someone not present, or to a personified object or idea (fr. Gk meaning 'a turning away')."

At this point, Kat is trying to decide whether apostrophe succeeeds in "resurrecting" the dead subject/absent object of the poem OR rather in testifying to her/its utter "goneness." Earlier this week, I was trying to nudge her beyond that binary, suggesting that she experiment with getting comfortable in the paradox that a good apostrophe accomplishes both, that by the very force of its resurrective qualities it reminds us of what is lost, and vice versa: that the very strength of loss can generate a strong sense of presence. I found myself, in the course of our most recent conversation, extending that invitation by reading Kat a passage from Marilynne Robinson's novel Housekeeping, which I have always found very moving (italics mine):

Imagine a Carthage sown with salt...What flowering would there be in such a garden? ...where the world was salt there would be gretaer need of slaking. For need can blossom into all the compensations it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? wish for a hand on one's hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.

The larger question, for me, is this one: if, as Lacan taught us, language is an index to loss (we only use words if we lack the thing itself; the very use of langauge is a mark of absence), is language most accurately/most usefully understood as emerging out of a sense of loss or out of plenitude--especially a plenitude of others who will encourage, listen and respond to the narratives we construct? Are we more generative in creating imaginative worlds when the one in which we live is "narratively impoverished" (whatever THAT means...) or rich?

This series of questions is fueled right now, of course, by my trying VERY hard to figure out a narrative that makes sense of the current impoverishment of political leadership in this country...


Decoding and Desire
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-03-31 14:30:45
Link to this Comment: 5217

I have some thoughts this afternoon which go in two very different directions. The first is about the language of war; the second is about the language of intimacy. Here comes the bad stuff first.

In the Philadelphia Inquirer this morning (Mon, Mar. 31, 2003) there was an article entitled "Decoding the Language of Wartime," by Marian Uhlman and Beth Gillin. It's the sort of thing that...

gives language a bad name. Just a taste:

Why does the military describe the current war as Operation Iraqi Freedom?
Or human beings as soft targets?
Or bombing everything in sight as sanitizing the area?
"It is very difficult for people to speak accurately about war," said James Dawes, author of The Language of War. "It is a self-protective move."
It's easier for soldiers and civilians alike to think in less personal terms about war. By using euphemisms, people can keep a psychological distance from gruesome details. For instance, wayward bombs that hit civilians are incontinent ordnance, and the civilians' deaths are referred to as collateral damage.
"The military does disguise the meaning to make things less dirty, to make things more palatable," said Frank Farley, a Temple University psychology professor.
Masking words "create distance between ourselves and the consequences of our actions by turning war into an antiseptic, clinical abstraction," said Michael Hanby, a Villanova University associate professor of humanities.
Arms and legs, then, aren't blown off, they are severed in a traumatic amputation, noted William Lutz, an English professor at Rutgers University-Camden.
People don't want to talk about "burned skin and corpses piled high," Dawes said. Far easier to use "the military metaphor of the enemy as one colossal body," with an attackable rear and exposed flanks.
While the euphemisms can be protective, they also can be desensitizing.
"What we are in danger of losing is the real sense of the embodied horror of war," said Hugh Gusterson, associate professor of anthropology and science studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"My concern would be not only that we dehumanize our enemies, but we dehumanize ourselves with this rhetoric," Hanby said. "Because the rhetoric helps detach us from what we do"....
"What's most remarkable about war rhetoric is its continuity over the ages," Dawes said. "You can look back as far as the Civil War memoirs of Generals Sherman and Grant, and you'll see the same sanitizing verbal reflexes: 'our flank was damaged,' 'we delivered a message'"....
Rather than being the generator of new words, Lutz said, the military often morphs common language into new meanings. "Attrition" is now shortened to attrit and attritted - referring to destruction through bombing.
Military language has become ever more businesslike and bureaucratic, experts say.
"It's cool, precise, objective language," said Lutz, author of Doublespeak and The New Doublespeak.
And anything that can be abbreviated is: TOC for tactical operations center; KIA for killed in action, even WMD for weapons of mass destruction.
"War exerts incredible pressure on language," said Dawes, professor of English at Macalester College in Minnesota. "Language shrinks to an efficient kernel."
In some regards, the military is no different than any group in devising a jargon for what it does.
"But like any jargon, this one offers not just efficiency but cohesion," said Clark McCauley, a Bryn Mawr psychology professor. "It provides a badge of membership that allows fast discrimination of insiders and outsiders."
For everyone else, it provides a reference point.
"All kinds of events, when they are important, gather a particular jargon to them," said Donna Jo Napoli, a linguistics professor at Swarthmore College. "It unites us in knowledge and interest in the event."

Unites SOME of us. Separates others. See the next post.

Intimacy: Good/Bad?
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-03-31 14:45:45
Link to this Comment: 5218

So...I finally got hold of the essay Jane had been teasing me w/ for weeks, Ted Cohen's "Metaphor and the Cultivation of Intimacy" (in Sheldon Sacks' collection On Metaphor, UChicago, 1978). What tickles me about this piece is its argument about the emotional work that metaphors do. Listen up:

"I want to suggest a point in metaphor which is independent of the question of its cognitivity and which has nothing to do with its aesthetical character....the achievement of intimacy. There is a unique way in which the maker and the appreciator of a metaphor are drawn closer to one another. Three aspects are involved: (1) the speaker issues a kind of concealed invitation; (2) the hearer expends a special effort to accept the invitation; and (3) this transaction constitutes the acknowledgement of a community....."

What's even more interesting, however (after Cohen traces examples of this process at work--and it works just the same way jokes do, creating an "insiders" who get it, and "outsiders" who do NOT) is his willingness to admit that

"linguistic invariably freindly thing, nor is it intended to be. Sometimes one draws near another in order to deal a penetrating thrust. When the device is a hostile metaphor or a cruel joke requiring much background and effort to understand, it is all the more painful because the victim has been made a complicitor in his own demise....Some of the most instructive examples will be ones in which intimacy is sought as a means to a lethal and one-sided effect."

Which returns us, of course, and sadly, to my last post, on Decoding the Language of Wartime."

Metaphor and Metonymy Resurrected
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-04-06 13:53:23
Link to this Comment: 5280

Carol Bernstein's retirement gala, this weekend, put me in mind of our musings, last fall, which had taken off, in turn, from Ted Wong's Brown Bag on Metaphor and Metonymy.

Carol's talk was preceded by presentations given by a teacher and student of hers; in her thanks she said (hoping that the student "wouldn't misunderstand") that she "was a metonym of all the voices I hear in this room." The student herself (Alison Weiner) talked about the poet Hart Crane embracing a "logic of metaphor," what he described as the "illogical impingements of the connotations of words on the consciousness (and their combinations and interplay in metaphor on this basis)"; refusing to explain his poems in prose, he expressed a desire to "free up connotation, vs. the stricture of singular, totalizing denotation." This sort of associative work is what Mary Thomas Crane talks about in Shakespeare's Brain, a text we discussed last fall.

worldly relevance
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-04-07 12:39:34
Link to this Comment: 5294

For the worldly/political relevance of our conversations, see Peacekeeping Stories

More on War-Speak
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-04-08 10:06:49
Link to this Comment: 5321

More thoughts on Bruner, narrative and war-speak ....

war-speak continued
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-06-22 19:46:58
Link to this Comment: 5769

Try "War is a Bad Metaphor."

some more observations
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-09-19 07:58:01
Link to this Comment: 6532

Amusing relevant email, circulating on the internet (with thanks to Alison Cook-Sather):

Subject: Cmabrigde Uinrvetisy sudty

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch sudty at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a total mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

a follow-up
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-09-19 08:07:50
Link to this Comment: 6533

Reminds me of another circulating item that I've been meaning to post, occurred to me yesterday when we were talking. Here's my slightly modfied version:

There are 10 kinds of people in the world: those who think this is funny and those who don't.

The original, which is a little more tribal but may help others understand the joke:

There are 10 kinds of people in the world: those who understand binary and those who don't.

What amuses me about this one is not only the dependence on an awareness of different languages but also the dependence on a difference between written and spoken language. There's no way to tell the joke out loud; it has to be read.

a follow-up
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-09-19 08:07:50
Link to this Comment: 6534

Reminds me of another circulating item that I've been meaning to post, occurred to me yesterday when we were talking. Here's my slightly modfied version:

There are 10 kinds of people in the world: those who think this is funny and those who don't.

The original, which is a little more tribal but may help others understand the joke:

There are 10 kinds of people in the world: those who understand binary and those who don't.

What amuses me about this one is not only the dependence on an awareness of different languages but also the dependence on a difference between written and spoken language. There's no way to tell the joke out loud; it has to be read.

getting out of the bottle's neck
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-10-23 22:19:10
Link to this Comment: 6981

After our so-interesting discussion this afternoon of the way in which the "bottleneck" that is language "compresses" all that one unconscious knows, transmitting it to be "decompressed" by another unconscious (this being the argument of The User Illusion, by Norretranders), I met w/ Mark Lord, who told me Kant's favorite (only) joke, from The Critique of Judgment. It is too, too a propos NOT to reproduce here (w/ the caveat that this is my reproduction of Mark's translation of Kant's version--having hence undergone several stages of compression/decompression, w/ all the attendant....ambiguity):

A (naive) man walks into a bar and asks for a beer. The bartender shakes a bottle, opens it, and hands it over. As the beer foams out all over the place, the patron asks, "How did all that beer get in that bottle?"

In the hopes that, in November, we'll figure out how all that beer got OUT of the bottleneck...

What is so amazing here?
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-10-24 22:00:50
Link to this Comment: 6995

So...I found the original (actually, Paul Guyer's translation) which (except for the racism) is even better/more a propos than the multiply-compressed version reproduced above:

"An Indian, at the table of an Englishman in Surat, seeing a bottle of ale being opened and all the beer, transformed into foam, spill out, displayed his great amazement with many exclamations, and in reply to the Englishman's question, 'What is so amazing here?' answers, 'I'm not amazed that it's coming out, but by how you got it all in.'"
(Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment , trans. Paul Guyer, Cambridge U Press, 2000: 209).

the redemptive power of language
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2004-02-21 08:15:18
Link to this Comment: 8332

It's been a long time since there has been any conversation in this space, but I wanted to bookmark here, as a possible place for future discussion in the Language Group, an interesting article I just came across in the Feb. 26, 2004 New York Review of Books: Roger Shattuck's introduction to the new edition of Helen Keller's The World I Live In,--which he presents as a powerful description of how a profoundly handicapped child received, through the manual alphabet (=writing rather than speech), symbolic knowledge of all physical and human reality. There are fascinating accounts of

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