Friday, May 28, 2010

WHAT is the dictionary ?

A few words of summary as I continue on structural linguistics.
First off, I am going to ask my readers to suspend their PRESUMPTIONS about just what structural linguistics IS. On this blog, I am presenting MY vision of linguistics, which is based on empirical observation of the structure of our language. I am NOT trying to write a Wiki article, nor am I presenting or summarizing what other people have written on the subject, unless precisely noted.
And in true Rousseauean, and humanist fashion, I try to start with anecdotal observation, and see where it leads (me). And I invite ALL who read this blog to chip in with THEIR observations, when they may be different, for example, or challenge mine.
The ONLY legitimacy, and authority I can claim here stems from the fact that I am totally bilingual, and stumble around in several other European languages too. And that language is a passion for me, and I have been observing IT, and ME through it for over 40 years now. I ask my readers to ACCEPT my authority and legitimacy on this basis, WHILE comparing it with their own observations.
End of methodological considerations, which I will not repeat.
My nine year old daughter came home from school one day with a mistake in her schoolwork, and we looked over it together. The French language is structured in such a way that even an educated, cultivated person HAS TO spend three to four times longer REREADING what he/she has written in order to correct mistakes. There are picky little things in French that don't exist in English. Aligning past participles on genders (masculin and feminine) in certain cases. Gender is NOT sex : the moon in French is LA lune, it is a feminine noun, the sun is masculine, for example. Making sure that all those markers go together takes time.
So, my daughter had made a mistake with the word "lorsque", roughly translated as "when".
She wrote it : "lors que".
When I corrected her, she told me, with the closed, scowling face that most of us put on when we are corrected : "but my teacher spelled it that way".
To which I answered.. "um... no, I don't think your teacher spelled it that way." Her teacher was an over 50 year old lady who had an EXCELLENT command of the French language. (As it turns out, in the course of my children's school careers, I NEVER took it for granted that their teachers were always right about such matters... My 11 year old son came back one day from school with a correction that was WRONG in his homework, and we took the time to look it up to make sure... of course we told him that there were some cases where being right can be hasardous to your health... Like blithely driving into an intersection when the light is green as a Mac truck barrels through at a ninety degree angle... What profiteth it a man to be right when he loses his material body (or soul) in consequence ??)
So, in good adult, PEDAGOGIC fashion, I said... "Well, let's get the dictionary out, and see what IT says about the word, shall we ?".
Sure enough, when we looked for the word, it was spelled as I said it was, and as her teacher had corrected.
End of the matter, right ?
My nine year old looked at me and said... "The dictionary is wrong".
I LOVE this story now. It gives me a belly laugh.
But what is really interesting is how I felt, what I thought, and how I reacted when it happened...
Her reaction was an earthquake for me.
It HAD NEVER occurred to me that the dictionary could be.. wrong before.
I was INCAPABLE of thinking this.
So, let's START examining the terrain that her remark opens up. We won't finish today, because it's really somewhat complicated.
CAN the dictionary be wrong ?
What does it mean to hold that the dictionary is RIGHT about a word ?
Geez... what IS the dictionary, anyway ?
Is it a kind of.. Bible, for example ?
Observation number 1 : We have at home several dictionaries of the French language. One dictionary that is over 20 years old. And we just recently bought a dictionary published 2 years ago.
You guessed it. There are words in the dictionary published 2 years ago that are NOT in the dictionary published 20 years ago...
Like there are words in the dictionary 20 years ago that are not in the most recent one.
When I write poetry using the idiom of 16th century English, that I know, and like a lot... am I WRONG, because the words I'm using are not in the most recent English dictionaries ?
If you compare TWO dictionaries from two time periods you will be able to see several things : 1) looking at the SAME word, you will see that its meaning evolves OVER TIME. Words change MEANING, while THEY remain the same. Think for a minute about a word like... "science", or a word like.. "money"... This PERSPECTIVE for looking at language, and culture, we call the DIACHRONIC perspective, because it looks at a stable element over time. The historical perspective opens up with diachrony.
Remember what I said about COMPARING, and its role in determining meaning ?
Here it is again, this method of comparing to extract meaning, like.. comparing the phonemes in oral language to DIFFERENTIATE words.
2) You will see, as stated above, that words enter and leave the lexic. They... go out of style, for example. When our society changes, words that "refer to" tools, processes that are abandoned in favor of "newer" modus operandi are abandoned, lie fallow. This happens over a longer period of time, AS THE GENERATIONS disappear.

You will not be able to SEE this perspective with only one dictionary. ONE and ONLY one dictionary gives you... the STATE of the lexic (the treasury of words, if you like) at any given point in time. In 1654. In 2008, for example. This phenomenon is called.. SYNCHRONY. Synchrony is anhistoric. It brings together the words spoken AT THAT TIME. In relation to EACH OTHER, within the language.

SOMEBODY has to "write", or compile the dictionary.
That somebody (or those somebodies..) is human.
The dictionary is based on the writer's observation of the state of the language at a given point in time.
Do the American RECOGNIZED dictionaries include... the words that the people in certain ethnic enclaves are using in THEIR daily lives (when they are speaking English, that is...) ?
Their slang ?
Why ? Why not ?
Um... conclusion... ideology, ideas (and prejudice) are behind EVERYTHING we do.
Even something as apparently innocuous as the dictionary...
I'll come back to the dictionary.
The lexic is the MOLECULAR level of our language.
And it is the area that interests me the most.
By the way... I just made up a "new" word (I think...).
The word.. "illude".
On the root of "illusion". Because I don't like.. delusion which has NEGATIVE connotations...
(Another post on connotations, boy, I could spend the rest of my life doing this...)
Help !!! Gotta come up for air !!! ;-)


Toby said...

This is the can of worms to end all cans of worms. Consensus as it changes slowly over time, although of course sometimes quite quickly and violently.

You picked me up once on my use of the word "tool" to define language. I agree with the correction while still seeing language as a tool, albeit a unique tool which shapes and is shaped as it is used by and "uses" us. The interrelationships are so deep we cannot fathom them.

Two weeks ago I watched "The Soloist" with Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx. There is a moment in that film where Jamie Foxx's character Nathaniel closes his eyes while listening to some music. Shifting multi-coloured shapes fill the screen. They pulse and dance to the music. As I watched I thought of how Universe must be to the new born -- a shifting miasma of information without discernible pattern. Over time the child comes to recognize patterns from out of the chaos and orients itself to them, not realizing it is engaged in a tango with 'reality', learning about itself as it learns about "Not-Me Out There". Language is of course part of this, but deaf people and animals must go through this "making sense" phase too.

We are not equipped with anything that helps us get an 'objective' take on what is happening during this phase, so are 100% vulnerable to incoming influences. We are tossed about on them, infiltrated by them, shaped, formed, dyed in the wool by them. One day as reason starts to make sense to us, we forget how symbiotic the process was, and come falsely to believe we are 'separate', capable of objectively analyzing reality 'out there' and bringing it into ever sharper focus. Dictionaries are part of this objectifying process, of pinning things down, of laying down rules. There's nothing wrong with this at all, but rules are floppier and more subjective than we tend to acknowledge. I would welcome more humility from our culture generally on this point, more and deeper recognition that there is much arbitrariness in how we achieve consensus, and that it is ever shifting and emerging.

Debra said...

I'm really interested in what you wrote here Toby.
I envy your having seen "The Soloist". In Germany ?
As far as I know, it has not made it to France so far...
It would be just my luck that cinéma art et essai in France would snub this film.
For the time being, I'll cross my fingers that it will still manage to make it here...

Toby said...

I rarely get the chance to go to the cinema, so watched it, as other films I see, on DVD rental. This weekend I enjoyed Avatar far more than I expected to. Although too focused on war and the ego as hero, it has much to recommend it, particularly symbiosis of animals and environment. A very pretty film too.

Christopher said...

Debra, this obviously falls under philosophy of language; academics debate a plethora of similar topics incl descriptive vs causal theories of nouns' reference. You may find the following approach helpful...

I start with two concepts from later Wittgenstein: (i) "meaning is use" - ie if you know how a word is used by a linguistic community in a language, then you understand its meaning, and (ii) "family resemblance": many words (eg "game") don't have any single thing which all instances of their senses share; rather, different senses of "game" will resemble other senses in varied ways (albeit that, where there is a benefit in doing so, a linguistic community will delineate terms precisely, eg scientific/technical terms).

Beyond a certain level of social complexity, a linguistic community will tend to start producing dictionaries, which can serve two functions (i) explain a word's usage to those who have only just encountered them, and (ii) codify usage (incl spelling) of words to maintain some homogeneity in the usage of words - preventing usage from becoming too fluid.

If the linguistic community at large starts using a word differently (and spelling it differently) then it can become a tug-of-war between different elements of the community - the conservatives and the reformists(in both cases, with respect to this word). In this tug-of-war, there is no right answer as to which side should win. A dictionary publisher will generally be on the 'conservative' side of a disagreement, but eventually if a tipping point is reached (based on % of population? Weighted by perceived linguistic sophistication?), the publisher must concede to the reformists - and change its definition/spelling.

Hilary Putnam coined a helpful term: division of linguistic labor. Members of a linguistic community will all tend to know roughly how a word is used, but for getting down to the nitty gritty (exactly how long is 1 minute, when does red become orange, how are words spelled), most defer to experts. Unfortunately, different experts will find their usage changing over time, creating interesting debates which need to be fought with no appeal to a single, higher authority. I don't think any metaphysical discussion is particularly helpful here.

Toby's post relates to debates on linguistic acquisition between the traditional 'tabula rasa' position and Steven Pinker...suggest you read the Blank Slate.


Debra said...

Christopher, I think it is only fair to tell you that I am a somewhat quixotic (from Don Quixote) arrogant bastard, who is hell bent on developing my OWN theories about language.
I really at this time see no real need to defer to.. Wittgenstein, or anybody else in what I'm doing here. I have tried reading Wittgenstein. I fail every time. My head can't wrap itself around Wittgenstein. Plus... I rapidly get bored. (Mea culpa on that one. I am not really a philosopher anyway. I am a poet masquerading as a philosopher...)
I think that you are promoting a rather... authoritarian and reductionist approach as to how language changes.
I am not at all sure that the dictionary question can be indexed on social complexity. That operation short circuits the historical reasons for the appearance of the dictionary in OUR civilization, and those reasons are important. Those reasons in themselves involve judgments and ideas about language.
I think that you are laboring under the illusion of consensus with respect to meaning.
Consensus in meaning IS an illusion. I will talk about this later.
It is a fundamental illusion for social cohesion, of course. But an illusion nevertheless.
The meaning of language for us as individuals is AT THE SAME TIME the result of intensely personal experience, and our perception of the social body's arbitrary but constantly changing, independant of the dictionary, definitions of the words in any particular language.
For the quote... "members of a linguistic community will all tend to know how a word is used.... experts", I can confidently say as a shrink (expert, if you like...) that careful questioning on my part from within my profession shows that... even among the experts we have significantly different meanings for the jargon words...
And for the words... "science", "love", "fascism"...
Well, try finding the consensus there. There is none. Regardless of what the dictionary says.
At a certain point at this time, the question becomes... what constitutes authority, and what confers legitimacy on these questions ?
Big questions, big questions... The dictionary is NOT going to give us these answers.
And.. Wikipedia won't either...
The problem here lies in the heterogeny between... what Lacan called "le signifiant", the word itself, which is neat, clean, surgical, on ONE side in the dictionary, and the other side, that side which is shadowy, nebulous, and refuses to allow itself to be reduced, quantified, or measured. The side we call... MEANING.