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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Sunday, August 08, 2010

Language About Language

Posted by Bill Benzon on 08/08/10 at 11:46 AM

How is it, then, that we can talk about talking? If you are willing to assume the existence of basic perceptual and cognitive capacities, a relatively simple answer follows immediately. The sounds of talk are, after all, sounds like any other sounds. We can perceive them in the same way we perceive the sound of a waterfall or a bird’s song, a thunderclap or the rustling of leaves in the wind, a cricket’s chirp or the breaking of waves on a beach. All are things we can hear, easily and naturally, and so it is with the sound of the human voice.

Roman Jakobson famously theorized that language has six functions: referential, emotive, poetic, conative, phatic, and the metalingual function. That’s the function we’re interested in, our capacity to speak about speech. Jakobson talked of the metalingual function as an orientation toward the language code, which seems just a bit grand. For I’m led to believe that many languages lack terms for explicitly talking about the ‘code.’ Thus, in The Singer of Tales (Atheneum 1973, orig. Harvard 1960), Albert Lord attests (p. 25):

Man without writing thinks in terms of sound groups and not in words, and the two do not necessarily coincide. When asked what a word is, he will reply that he does not know, or he will give a sound group which may vary in length from what we call a word to an entire line of poetry, or even an entire song. [Remember, Lord is writing about oral narrative.] The word for “word” means an “utterance.” When the singer is pressed then to way what a line is, he, whose chief claim to fame is that he traffics in lines of poetry, will be entirely baffled by the question; or he will say that since he has been dictating and has seen his utterances being written down, he has discovered what a line is, although he did not know it as such before, because he had never gone to school.

While I’m willing to entertain doubts about the full generality of this statement – “man without writing” – I assume the it is an accurate report about the Yugoslavian peasants among whom Milman Perry and Albert Lord conducted their fieldwork and that it also applies to other preliterate peoples, though not necessarily to all.

Given those caveats, the paragraph is worth re-reading. Before doing so, recall how casually we have come to see language as a window on the workings of the mind in the Chomskyian and post-Chomskyian eras. If that is the case, then what can one see through a window that lacks even a word for words, that fails to distinguish between words and utterances? And what of the poets who don’t know what a line is? The lack of such knowledge does not stand in the way of the poeticizing, no more than the lack of knowledge of generative grammar precludes the ability to talk intelligently on a vast range of subjects.

Continued at New Savanna.


Comments

Something similar is probably the case with musicians who do not train in the Western formal tradition.  I remember that, when I was first learning the guitar from my dad, who never studied music but could play several instruments, he thought less in terms of single notes or single chords and more in terms of melodic statements, harmonic figures, rhythmic patterns, and chord progressions.  When he played with a chord shape, he couldn’t have told you that he was suspending the 4th or adding a 9th.

It probably is the case that writing—music or language—teaches us to think of words as the building blocks of communication.  Thinking about oral poetry, it does seem like the poets compose in terms of formulaic statements and passages, and more original or improvised sections (Homeric simile, etc.).  The building blocks aren’t individual words, just like the building blocks of a country blues song aren’t individual chords or notes but rather chordal and rhythmic patterns.

By on 08/08/10 at 07:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You don’t even have to go outside the Western formal tradition. That’s my basic tradition. But I picked up the blues from listening and didn’t even know it was a 12-bar form that had “blue” notes. Doing is prior to explicitly conceptualizing what is being done.

By Bill Benzon on 08/09/10 at 05:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This does not mean that these oral poets lack the metalingual function.  The fact that they do not conceive of poetry as visual “lines” on the page, or that the word “word” covers a wider semantic range for them, simply means that they don’t recognize that particular terminology or use it in the exact same way.  Maybe you don’t use some particular linguistic terminology to talk about your own speech.  Could I use that as evidence that you lack a metalingual function?

By Jonathan Mayhew on 08/23/10 at 10:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

No one’s denying them the metalingual function. It goes with language.

By Bill Benzon on 08/23/10 at 10:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ok, so what did you mean by “For I’m led to believe that many languages lack terms for explicitly talking about the ‘code.’”?  The example of lacking the term “line” does not support that conclusion in the least.  All it means is that you can’t expect everyone to have the same terminology for talking about the code.

By Jonathan Mayhew on 08/23/10 at 11:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The line you quote, Jonathan, was preceded by this one: “Jakobson talked of the metalingual function as an orientation toward the language code, which seems just a bit grand.”

What I mean by the line you quote, and subsequent example, was that Jakobson’s characterization of the metalingual function was not quite right. One can reference language without explicitly talking about the code.

By Bill Benzon on 08/23/10 at 12:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Forgive my nitpicking. I thought language was the code, so I don’t see the distinction you’re trying to make between those two terms.  Maybe there’s a subtlety here I’m missing.

By Jonathan Mayhew on 08/23/10 at 12:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A question such as “What’d you mean?” is metalingual but it isn’t necessarily about the code, though it might be.

By Bill Benzon on 08/23/10 at 01:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ok.  Thanks for the clarification and sorry to be such a pest.

By Jonathan Mayhew on 08/23/10 at 02:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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