Monday, June 14, 2010

On with (my...) structural linguistics : the lexic

These days I am thinking a lot about language.
It is one of our most preoccupying problems at this time, I feel.
While I became very interested in our problems with money, which are at the forefront of our collective consciousness at this time, it is my observation that our problems with money are intricately linked to our problems with our language, and that THIS observation is not receiving as much attention as it could, or should, for evident reasons.
Because... talking ABOUT language is not an evidence. It requires being in a particular place in order to see what is going on. And most of us, well, we simply are not at that place, and maybe it is not such a good thing to be at that place. As I have said before, there is a price to pay for being at that place, and it can be very high.
It is important for me to try to transmit to my readers what I feel are insights towards understanding where we are, at this point in our civilization, and what this means for.. where we are going.
A word of warning here. Much of what will appear here will appear... deceptively obvious and evident. The problem is that we can perceive obvious things WITHOUT drawing out all the conclusions that come from these obvious observations. We compartementalize our knowledge. It is not easy at all to start drawing out the conclusions from some of these observations.
Because we are too close to what is going on, what is happening, to see what it means for/to us.
Quick recap on the previous posts :
I demonstrated at the atomic level of language, the phonetic level, how we create meaning at its most elementary level by determining difference between sounds against a backdrop of continuity : bat/bet/let. We hear the difference between the "a" and the "e". Then the difference between "b" and "l". We are constantly OPPOSING AND COMPARING discrete elements to determine difference and CONSTRUCT meaning from that difference.
I told you that a child of 2-3 ALREADY knew the structure of his mother tongue without ever having cracked a book, and that he was capable of understanding the incredibly complicated "idea" of linguistic "representation" : the word is a kind of symbol for WHAT he is talking about. It is a generalization that PERMITS us to TALK ABOUT our world... (not just, but we won't go into that here).
I said that all of this knowledge remains at a very unconscious (...) level, and that what is at an unconscious level determines us WITHOUT our knowing that it is determining us.
So... today we are going to talk about the lexic, the molecular level of language.
On to the four year old.
He has a basic vocabulary at his disposition.
He has never opened the dictionary, but he knows what at least 300-400 words mean.
HOW DO WE KNOW WHAT THE WORDS MEAN ?
Not... what do the words mean, but HOW DO WE KNOW, LEARN ?
That one is pretty easy, isn't it ?
We learn what the words mean.. by listening to other people around us use the words.
If you learn a foreign language, you will ALSO use this process (in addition to your books...).
Our first ideas about what the words mean come from our observation of how other people are using them.
And once again.. we will be comparing, and differentiating.
We will be listening to how different people use the same word, for example. And comparing what the words mean FOR THEM.
Something else in the comparison game...
We will be comparing the words BETWEEN THEMSELVES, just like we compared the individual sounds, to DIFFERENTIATE THEM.
Look, to know the difference between "bat" and "bet".. I compare and OPPOSE the sounds/..words.
Let's take a word that you probably never looked up in the dictionary....
"man".
You never had to look that word up in the dictionary, did you ? People RARELY even look that word up in the dictionary.
So... let's look at HOW it means.
Let's compare it.
WHAT are we going to compare it with ?
Remember that with our phonemes, AT ANY ONE TIME, we will be comparing it with ONE OTHER ITEM.
Let's start...
man/animal
Now...
man/woman
man/God
man/society
man/boy
A more historically recent one.... man/machine
Are you impressed yet ?
Do you think it's as awesome as I think it is ??
All those contexts... for sure I haven't exhausted them at all. This is just a start.
All those OPPOSITIONS layered up, INTRICATED, make up the meaning of the word "man". For us. And.. the oppositions are a RELATION. And this relation is constantly shifting. The words MEAN in relation to EACH OTHER, and they are constantly bouncing off each other, their meaning being subtely inflected.
So... this is HOW the word "man" means, and how we discover and understand what it means.
REMEMBER... if you take a word OUT of the system, or stick a new word IN... ALL of the words will have to be redefined in relation to each other... (Do you see where I'm going, and why I say this ?? ;-) )
And we do this... from INSIDE the SYSTEM of language.
It all means... from INSIDE the system.
And the system.. well, we only have the illusion that the system is in relation with our natural world, I believe.
And WE, well WE have to find our SYMBOLIC place WITHIN this system.
It's not a piece of cake. Not at all.
Because... there is a big problem.
Our bodies. US.
Are our bodies... IN THE SYSTEM ? Outside of the system ?
Between the inside and the outside ?
Big questions, big questions...

Now think about... the polarization that is going on in our society at this time. The OPPOSITIONS between liberal/libertarian, for example..
We are desperately trying to redefine meaning at this time.
One of the ways we redefine meaning is through... POLARIZATION.
I will come back to this. It is very important.
By the way.. for ME, at any rate, what Freud called the Oedipus complex figures in my post above. Knowing what "man" means, supposes knowing what... "child" means.
IN OUR CULTURE. In almost all cultures, probably, even if their INDIVIDUAL DEFINITIONS differ from culture to culture.
There is a universal phenomenon involved in KNOWING WHAT THE WORD "MAN" MEANS.
After that... the definition itself, well, that can change from culture to culture, and from historical period to historical period.




9 comments:

Toby said...

Fascinating again, Debra!

To my eyes this appears to be a systems approach to the task of exposing to ourselves how enmeshed we humans are in the process of growing up in a 'physical' environment we symbolize and represent to ourselves via language, the tool that makes its maker.

For me the first (or rather most powerful) impulse in the human is to make sense of its surroundings. We are the most vulnerable of all animals for years of our lives. We start out totally impotent, utterly dependent on our care-givers (I am sure this impotence is where our images of god come from). This total dependence has a cure in the form of self-control, i.e. of the body and of the mind. Somewhere along the line we come to 'know' that more control is better than less, and language is a magic over our environment that seems to add to this control.

After millennia of language use we start to look at language itself, but have to use language to do so. It seems, despite this challenge, that we're getting quite good at it. It seems we are learning, more and more, that what we think about the world and our place in it was born in ignorance and unconciousness. This new awareness is a good thing. As we peer into the depths of what we have done we notice that separateness is an illusion generated by the necessary limits of our 5 senses, which are the 'tools' we used to generate the language we used to 'know' what we 'know.' We begin to realize we have a lot of unlearning to do.

Sadly we have in the meantime built such a stiff and inflexible apparatus for the functioning of civilization it is close to impossible to change our ways, individually, institutionally and culturally, in response to the dawning awareness that we got so much wrong. So yes, Debra, language lies very much at the roots of what we are facing, deeper even than money (which is a word covering a vast range of meanings).

Dig on, dig deeper! The human world needs as many of us doing so as possible.

Debra said...

Thanks, Toby.
I am glad that we are sharing about this. It would be too lonely for me sticking it down with no comments...
I am not sure, however that it is OUR SENSES that isolate us in the physical world.
I think, rather, that it is our construction of mind that is much more isolating.
Our senses are about... bringing us together, in relation, if you think about it.

Toby said...

True, but as imperfect tools our senses have shaped mind via language to 'see' separateness, in conjunction of course with our love/fear/hate relationship with impotence and dependency. It's not that one thing or the other is to blame or is responsible, more that all things taken together have meant that we are too ready to 'see' separateness and isolation 'out there,' when in truth everything is connected.

Debra said...

This is a chicken/egg debate, Toby, I think.
The shrinks say that at the beginning, our senses and perceptions are indifferenciated within the senses and perceptions of our caretakers.
WHY are our senses imperfect tools ?
Are you sure that that idea is not... a prejudice based on platonic ideas about our sensory experience ?
Ideas shape our experience of our world...
The horse before the cart, I say.
"Psychotic" experience is a pretty interesting phenomenon with respect to separateness.
Many "psychotics" feel much less separateness than "non psychotics" do. They can speak of melting into the person they are interacting with, for example.
Interestingly enough, our tolerance of indifferenciation is variable.
Over the past twenty years or so, French psychoanalysts are showing an increasing capacity to admit that their emotions, thoughts, are influenced by those of their patients during and after psychoanalytic sessions.
They are... opening up to interconnectedness.
The fear of indifferenciation is a potent one in our civilization. Of... melting into our surrounding world.
Interestingly enough, Freud described this "oceanic" feeling, or urge to... become a drop in the ocean ? (Is this part of the masses phenomenon ??)
This urge, I feel, is at work in the mystical experience.
The hic is... WHAT you are going to melt into, isn't it, Toby ??
Melting into the masses is not quite the same thing as... melting into God.
Not for me, at any rate.

Toby said...

"WHY are our senses imperfect tools ?"

Because all tools are. We can't see an atom, can't see the whole universe, can't see infra red etc. We can't hear what dogs hear, taste everything, smell everything and so on.

But, even though I might insist on sticking to that point, the rest of your comment is bang on as far as I'm concerned. We had long discussions and touched sore various ego-points (in Thai particularly) under my post on the illusion of individuality. But this again comes back, in my opinion, to the primal fear of being at the mercy of events. The ego is the device that is built to 'control' what we do as the human animal, and to convince us that we are in control of our world. This on the civilizational level makes for stiff and paranoid status quos which have a terrible time with change.

Debra said...

I don't think that our senses are tools.
The idea of our senses being tools is one that reduces being to having...
Having tools vs. being senses.
WHAT are we outside of our senses ?
Are we... anything at all ?
We cannot think without... starting from somewhere, and that somewhere ultimately ends up in the natural world, and thus depends on our sensory experience.
You should really check out Jacques Barzun's book, that I have been promoting : "From Dawn to Decadence, from 1500 to the Present..."
You will find this book fascinating, Toby, I promise.
Jacques and I have minds that function a lot alike, I believe.
Trying to balance the analytic and the intuitive mind.
Not easy at all...

Toby said...

I made a number of Cartersian slips in my comments, and used the tool metaphor again. Of course your question on this point is valid, and I bow to it.

However, there is some limited use in defining senses as tools in that the metaphor is about the process of developing better and better understandings of All That Is. We use ourselves for the task (if that makes sense), have given birth to language as part of this task (for other reasons too but nevertheless...) and so it is slightly valid to refer to us as 'understanders' using whatever 'tools' we have as part of being us.

And I do intend to read Barzun. Fritjof Capra mentions him often...

Debra said...

Who is Capra ?
You made an earlier comment about tools that I like better.
Language as a "tool" is like... having picked up a hammer, and then having it grow into our bodies to such an extent that we no longer perceive it as a hammer at all. The hammer IS us. It is not something we HAVE. It is NOT OBJECT. It is SUBJECT.
I'll come back to this.
Jacques Barzun's chapter on the beginning of science is a masterwork in this book.
You can tell that Jacques... has an encyclopedic mind in the 18th century sense, and not in the... Wiki, 20th century sense.
Wiki is indigent. A waste of time. In MY book...
The encyclopedic mind is more oriented around analogy, maybe. It picks up on similarities, and draws separate, compartementalized areas together. It is a generalist mind, principally, although it CAN be analytical.
If you have the means to discuss analogy, I would be interested in hearing your comments on analogy vs digital, for example. The principles behind this opposition. (!)
I would like to hear the ideas. From SOMEBODY and not Wiki..

Toby said...

Fritjof Capra wrote The Tao of Physics, The Turning Point, and The Web of Life. He is a PhD physicist who promotes the systemic approach to understanding All That Is. In this approach we 'understand' things by understanding how they relate to each other and interact. The 'truth' is not found in the smallest particle, in the gene, in the individual, but in relationships, and the observer is a very important part of the process. I see it as a fusing of analysis and synthesis, rather than one or the other.

As to any expertise on the analog/digital debate, I'm going to have to disappoint you. The systems approach is analog I guess, but has arisen (in part) out of studying what happens in simple digital mechanisms, the patterns that arise and information flow travels through node in circuits which can be open or closed. Digital, as you no doubt know, is either/or, yes or no, on or off, and yet analog networks seem to arise from this 'clunky' setup.

Now I have a meeting.