Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Inquiry: language

Language is a luxury. What a privilege!

Someone told me we live as fish in a sea of language, unaware of the substrate around us. It's not quite right: languages evolve and mix, like different kinds of soil. Every now and then there's a flood of language, enriching the culture.

But what is language? I'll go back to basics, and start with Saussure. I disagree with him in a couple of areas.

First, the arbitrariness of the sign for the signified: when language first takes hold, a child - who typically has been encouraged to make sounds by the older people around them - makes some rudimentary sounds related to food - Mm, mm, good - which it hears itself, and sees that they create a response from the primary sources of food and comfort: typically, mama, mother, maman, mater, madre.

I'll ignore the rare reports of exceptions like Macauley, whose first words were reportedly "What ails thee, Jock?"

Second, Saussure's definitions also seem static: language evolves, and the sounds in words have textures - soft, grating, rough, and so on. Poets know this and use it; and where a word, the signifier, ends up over time can fit the signified. At the same time, the signified is affected by the signifier: there are neologies which create things in the world.

The differences between words for the same thing in different languages reflect different contexts. Saussure contrasts boeuf and cow, but boeuf/beef, porc/pork show the opposite - that when words move their meanings change as they become located in a semantic topography. They do not stand in isolation. It is crucial that the meanings of words are not isolated to the arrow of signification: words exist in relation to other words, as well. These relationships modify meaning.

A forest is a thing: a collection of trees. A tree is a thing: composed of roots, trunk, branches, twigs and leaves. A leaf is a thing: composed of cells. But where is the edge of the forest? What defines its boundary? Perhaps more tellingly, the roots are embedded in the soil, drawing nourishment and water into the tree. Where does a molecule of water leave the soil and enter the tree? when does it become part of the tree? What I'm thinking is that the signified is arbitrary: before any person could speak of a particular tree, what was there in its place? A tree? Or un arbre?

This is perhaps what gives language its greatest power, which is to create by naming. The properties of the thing created exist in weighted relation to the name, the signifier, not the thing itself. In this model, language (or Saussurean langue, at any rate) is present in the brain as a network of related signs. It seems to me that the structure of the brain - an evolving network of connected neurons with different weights applied to signals passing between them - is a perfect vessel for this model of language.

Inquiry: What question?

I don't know. I know there are things I want to write, things I've puzzled over for a long time, and things I've learned.

Inquiry: prologue

Over the course of the first act of Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, Winnie laboriously reads the words on her toothbrush. What she finally reads is "Fully guaranteed, genuine pure, hog's setae." When she makes out the last two words, she puzzles: "A hog? A sow of course I know, but a hog?"

I like this for two reasons. First, the interesting word, the rare word, is setae; but Winnie is only interested in hog. Second, she knows that ontologically a hog stands in direct relationship to a sow, and she knows what a sow is (of course), yet she does not, or cannot, or will not make the entire link.

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