Showing posts with label language. Show all posts
Showing posts with label language. Show all posts

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Lera Boroditsky:
How the languages we speak
shape the way we think
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which has the video
& includes a transcript)

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

An international poetry festival is a little like one of those lab experiments that science students are forced to perform. Take a creature that does one thing well – make art with their language – and put them into a container with other creatures who seem similar enough, but lack that one key common element – a mutual language. The possibilities are more or less obvious, and the folks in Rotterdam earlier this month were blessed with the fact that all 19 of their on-site participants¹ were actually nice people. One of the festival officials joked that this was an “innovation” they were trying this year, and that it had not always been the case in prior years.

It’s not an accurate statement that the poets lacked the same language. Eighteen of the 19 spoke at least some version of English, and four of us – Karen Solie of Canada, LK Holt of Australia, Sascha Aurora Akhtar of Pakistan &amp Britain, & I – use variants of it for our writing. With language, of course, history comes encrusted. When Moosejaw-born Karen Solie lists manufacturers of tractors in her work, US companies like John Deere turn up. And I heard Australian Lucy Holt asked on at least one occasion if she was British

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Friday, June 10, 2005

Roman Jakobson characterized language as having six distinct functions. In fact, the functions form three sets of pairs. Modified very slightly to employ terms readily understood by an audience of poets, these would be:

·        addresser and addressee

·        contact and code

·        signifier and signified

Addresser and addressee are clear enough, as are, I hope, signifier and signified. Contact is that element of psychic interaction between source & recipient that makes communication possible in the first place. Code is the abstract structure of language itself. In the nearly 30 years since I first encountered Jakobson’s Six Functions, thesis, I have never come across a speech act, an instance of language that could not be referred to as foregrounding at least one of these. Even an incoherent shout – WHA? – stresses the role of contact, without which (even in an empty room, or an empty forest) there would be no impulse to shout.

Every utterance or act of language, according to Jakobson, foregrounds one of these six functions, de-emphasizing the others to various degrees. In fact, one might note that whichever of the six functions is foregrounded, its “pair” invariably will be the one most muted. In this regard, one can make a common visual analogy to a simple playing die, another six-sided figure always organized by pairs (in its case, the numbers on the opposite sides always add up to seven, so that when the “6” is up, the “1” is down, when the “5” is up, the 2 is down, etc.).

Jakobson has a term for those works that foreground the signifier – “the poetic function.” And it is certainly true that from Homer to Bob Grenier, works of poetry have called attention to the presence of the signifier – the sound of phonemes, the materiality of the graphic text, etc. – as have no other genre of literature. Visual poetry & sound poetry function largely, although not necessarily exclusively, on this plane. But, Jakobson would argue, the same is true also for any of the Boston Brahmins – Cal Lowell or Anne Sexton, say – or any poet of whom William Logan or Billy Collins might approve. They complicate matters perhaps, placing a secondary emphasis on the signified, the referential world discussed by their poet, just as a composer of dramatic monologues – Robert Browning or Richard Howard – puts a secondary emphasis on the addresser. Michael McClure’s Ghost Tantras – with their invented “lion language”¹ – GRAHHHRRRR – foregrounds contact, implying that it need not be restricted to human contact.

Historically, Jakobson systematized Saussure’s conceptualization of linguistics, giving birth to structural linguistics and setting the ground that Chomsky (and later the post-Chomskians) would all build upon. Jakobson had an unusual – even ironic – role with regard to poetry & the intellectual history of the 20th century, having begun in fact as a poet & critic around the Russian Futurists & formalists during the period of the Russian Revolution, an acquaintance of Mayakovsky & Shklovsky, Brik & Kruchenykh. One can see the formalist influence in how Jakobson understood Saussure. Jakobson escaped Stalinism by moving west to head up the Prague School of Linguistics, where one of his students, RenĂ© Wellek, would later surface in the U.S. to co-author several of the classic texts of New Criticism, carrying forward the diamond nugget of close reading in a muddy elixir of cultural conservatism. Jacobson himself escaped the Nazis, decamping to the New School in New York City where he spent the Second World War. One of the students at his series of talks later published as Six Lectures on Sound and Meaning was a young French sociologist by the name of Claude Levi-Strauss, stranded in New York after fieldwork in Brazil. Levi-Strauss would later credit Jakobson with creating the “Aha” experience that led him to organize mythic systems as if they were languages, thereby setting off the theoretical tendency that came to be known as structuralism. By the time that structuralism was morphing in France into post-structuralism, Jakobson had moved on to MIT, where a math major by the name of George Lakoff decided to take a course on poetry & poetics only to discover that it was being taught by this strange Russian. Lakoff changed his major to linguistics as a result. His work on cognitive linguistics is today the dominant model in that profession, yet it is not unrelated to the same experiments in poetry that 90 years ago lead to phenomena such as zaum, the “tran-sense” linguistic avant-garde extremism that was one off-shoot of Futurism. History is funny that way.

All of which is a roundabout preface to note that, on Monday, when I discussed how one might read the poetry of Clark Coolidge – especially work from the early 1970s pieces – I never suggested that Coolidge’s poetry was meaningless. Quite the opposite is true. The excerpts chosen from The Maintains may foreground sound – that old “poetic function” of the signifier once again – but the words chosen are not without their schematic frames, literally their meaning. That these don’t lead to a vulgar figured narrative at the level of the signified does not suggest that these lines are meaningless, only that that function of language was most evidently effaced – a predictable result in any work that foregrounds the opposite side of the signifier/signified coin.

Further, the frames (or “meanings” if you must) around individual words, such as

laurel ratio sharp or hard
instrumental triple to or fro
granule in award

one to whom is made

as the near wheel

stay, for the most part, close to the word itself, while the sound pattern of the passage is heavily defined by the highly syncopated sense of the line. So you have referential meaning fixating at one level, while the sonic structure resolves on a whole other level. Which becomes, I would argue, completely visible here precisely when Coolidge unfurls lines that are clearly clauses from larger stretches of grammar – one to whom is made or as the near wheel – instances where that “close-to-the-word” feel of language from the other lines suddenly pulls back into these larger structures.

None of which is apt to be terribly perceptible or interesting if you define meaning solely as that which exists along the axis of the signified. There is nothing wrong with the signified, mind you, but it has been so heavily exploited for centuries that a kind of aphasia has crept in that confuses it with the linguistic structures that enact that diorama of an implied universe. One of the advantages of language poetry, at least for a time, was that it noticed – and made perceptible to others – that the five remaining functions of language were also always already present & variously active whenever language was being used. Indeed, I would go so far as to argue that people who presume meaning exists solely on the axis of the signified miss literally 5/6ths of everything they read. This is a condition much more devastating than color blindness, for even the profoundly color-blind can tell the difference between dark & light.

In the title essay of his first great book of critical writing, Total Syntax, Barrett Watten performs an extended analysis of the work of Clark Coolidge, centering around the period in which The Maintains & Polaroid were written. It is worth revisiting that book, especially pages 88 through 106, to see all the ways Watten demonstrates reference & meaning active in the work. Even in just the passages & material I’ve posted this week, we need to ask ourselves, for example, about the context of titles. The Maintains, for example, carries implications in a variety of manners. Some of these include

  • an allusion to music, where it is the drummer (Coolidge’s instrument) who maintains the beat
  • an allusion to the dictionary, a primary source for this project, which maintains all possible meanings right there in alphabetical order
  • an echo of any noun that ends on ains – the one I always hear is The Plantains, but I’m a self-confessed banana junky
  • an inference as to what becomes of language when words are pulled up from their contexts – The Remains
  • an ironic reference to the question of development in a literary work, since this one will develop through the gradual elimination of words with clear referential schema, to the zero degree writing of the work’s end, in which language is carved down to a series of positions & connectors
  • an evocation of every work entitled with that static noun phrase The X, in which X is invariably plural – these could be surnames, place names, nouns, etc.

That Coolidge doesn’t restrict himself to just one or two of these six -- there may well be others I’m not thinking of at this late hour – active levels of meaning is an aesthetic stance, having as much to do with jazz and painting (Watten is brilliant on this) as it does the history of poetry. And one could proceed through virtually every phrase, every line of this book & see at least this much going on.

To see it as chaotic, or trivial, even as a “psychedelic word salad” as one famous review of an earlier Coolidge book once characterized his style, is to fail to understand that each word here is as thoroughly determined not only with regard to its kind but also to its depths of allusion & meaning as any sentence or phrase from War and Peace. That they don’t proceed in a unilateral stance toward the signified is, at least in Coolidge’s case, what makes this possible.

But to suggest that this work is without meaning, or is “only sound,” is to envision a language so one-dimensional as to be without depth or detail. This is why I find works that only operate with a fixed relationship to a referential universe, while ignoring all the other functions of language, pallid & lacking in imagination. And why the idea that writing is “only words” is as appalling as the idea that painting is “only sight.” If all you see when you look at Clark Coolidge is “only words,” you haven’t begun to read.


¹ Michael might disagree about that word invented. He used to have his students at the California Arts and Crafts head off to the zoo to scan lion roars & perform an analysis of the meters employed.

Tuesday, October 15, 2002

I’m going to New York for a few days for the readings to launch the Short Fuse anthology & won’t be taking my laptop. Since my Palm Pilot isn’t web-enabled, the blog shall be silent until Friday at least.

Two of the books I shall be taking with me will be Your Ancient See Through by Hoa Nguyen and Clean and Well Lit by Tom Raworth.

In the meantime, U.S. readers should participate in the Dialect Survey. It consists of 122 questions concerning vocabulary, pronunciation and usage, every one of which is worth pondering. I am of course reminded of the linguistic geography of the United States that Jack Spicer worked on some 40 years ago. This survey, I suspect, is a descendant of that research.

Contemplating for a moment Question 103 –

103. What do you call the thing from which you might drink water in a school?
a) bubbler
b) water bubbler
c) drinking fountain
d) water fountain
e) other:    

I’m reminded that Rochelle Nameroff identifies “bubbler” as an aspect of the language of her native city, Milwaukee. It is, as she likes to put it, “’M'waukee talk.”

Which, in turn, leads me to Boontling, the most radical of regional American dialects. Boontling, short for Boont lingo, Boont standing for Boonville, a town in the Anderson Valley of Northern California, roughly two-thirds of the distance north from San Francisco on the way to Mendocino. Quite isolated in the 19th century, the teenagers in Boonville, Philo and Anderson developed a code some time around 1890 that enabled them to talk salaciously in the general vicinity of the elders without invoking censorship or retribution. But of course the teenagers all became adults and in that region during that period, relatively few of them left for the wide world and just as few newcomers moved into the community, so by, say, World War I, boontling had become the daily discursive mode of the region. Boontling held reasonably contained and coherent until after the Second World War when first radio and then television finally reached the valley. Now the only speakers left apparently are adults who learned it from their grandparents. Sometimes you will see a Boontling speaker at a folk festival, telling a familiar tale in that all but impenetrable variation of English.

It’s been years since I’ve been to Boonville, but even in the 1980s, pay telephone booths were labeled Buck Walter (literally: nickel phone). Charles Adams wrote a most useful volume, Boontling: An American Lingo, with a dictionary of Boontling that the University of Texas press published in 1971. The dictionary alone is over 100 pages long. Copies can be found through, though the hardback prices strike me as a little pricey. Most of the websites on the topic are pretty limited. The one link I gave above comes from a regional brewery site, but it’s the best short introduction I’ve encountered.