Never Mind the Tagmemics

Last time I heard the clause “never mind the tagmemics” was when my blogger friend, Theophrastus, announced this blog in his comment at the Better Bibles Blog: “I like the URL even more: ‘never mind the tagmemics’.” The first time I heard this clause was when Composition Studies professor, Geoffry Sirc, published the essay with this title: “Never Mind the Tagmemics, Where’s the Sex Pistols?”

What Theophrastus had in mind, he got to right away with the first comment on the first post I wrote:

Tagmemics has always struck me as wildly insulting for any language with a literary tradition — such as English or Arabic or Chinese or Russian or French — or even a tiny creole language such as Yiddish with its own literary tradition — or even an artificial language such as Esperanto. Tagmemics with its classic missionary focus of “move into the culture, figure out the key points, and blast out a translation, move on to the next project” is simply the opposite the way that great literature is produced.

What Sirc had in mind takes much more explaining. He never mentioned the Tagmemics even once in his 1997 article published simultaneously in the paper journal College Composition and Communication and in the digital journal PRE/TEXT: Electra(Lite). The Tagmemics were a one-gig punk rock band of 1980. What the band members had in mind takes even more explaining.

I think I should probably say what I have in mind by Tagmemics. It’s the name Kenneth Pike gave to his now widely dis-regarded virtually-dead theory of language. The name is probably the reason for its death. Ironically, Pike was using his theory in part to attack abstract linguistic theories, such as the revolutionary generative grammar / universal grammar theories of linguist Noam Chomsky. But Pike was developing tagmemics long before Chomsky started developing his theories.

Chomsky started in 1951 with his master’s thesis Morphophonemics of Modern Hebrew. And Chomsky continued in 1955 with his Ph.D. thesis Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory and his Ph.D. dissertation Transformational Analysis. Chomsky’s first wildly popular books were his 1957 Syntactic Structures and his 1965 Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (the latter which Pike had many of us, his students, read first).

We can all see the –emics suffix at the end of Chomsky’s initial graduate-work title, and how, subsequently, Chomsky began to focus on “logic” and then on “syn-tax.” The borrowing from Greek by English translation was something that linguists early on had been doing. These labels were meaningful abstracts to form the jargon of a discipline. For example, linguist Leonard Bloomfield in his 1933 book Language wrote the following:

In the case of lexical forms, we have defined the smallest meaningful units as morphemes, and their meanings as sememes; in the same way, the smallest meaningful units of grammatical form may be spoken of as tagmemes, and their meanings as episememes.

Bloomfield taught Zellig Harris, and Harris taught Chomsky. But Bloomfield also taught Pike.

It was as early as 1937, when Pike published “Likenesses, Differences and Variation of Phonemes in Mexican Indian Languages and How to Find Them.” In 1941, he continued to work with likenesses and differences to produce a Ph.D. dissertation, A Reconstruction of Phonetic Theory. Bloomfield, who had coined and defined tagmeme, was on Pike’s dissertation committee. The development toward tagmemics continued; by 1943, Pike had written “A Monolingual Approach to a Foreign Language: Theoretical Observations on Type, Function, and Relationship in Grammatical Analysis, Emanating from an Approach to a Foreign Language without using an Intermediate One for Translating Forms.” And that same year, Pike authored two book length works: Phonetics: a Critical Analysis of Phonetic Theory and a Technic for the Practical Description of Sounds and Phonemics: a Technic for Reducing Languages to Writing. The “monolingual” foreign “approach” was a practical key in the development of Pike’s theorizing outsider / insider difference. And his play on “phonetics” vs. “phonemics” were the real impetus for Pike’s naming his theory “tagmemics.” Clearly, in 1933, Bloomfield had paved the way by writing of “tagmemes” as “the smallest meaningful units of grammatical form.” A decade later, in a 1943 issue of the journal Language, Pike redefined this word by saying:

Somewhat diffidently I suggest the following classifications and relabelings as perhaps being a bit easier to handle than Bloomfield’s.

TAXEME: a complex, composite, or simple feature of meaningful or meaningless grammatical arrangement, of the basic type of selection, order, modulation, or phonetic modification. E.g. the facts of selection of the male personal noun duke.

TAGMEME: a composite view of basic composite taxemes of a linguistic form, at any one specific layer of structure. E.g. the total arrangement features of the form duchess considered as a single entity.

In 1954, 1955, 1960, Pike published his grand theory book — Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of the Structure of Human Behavior — in which he continued to develop, from Bloomfield, the meanings of the suffix -eme. He wrote, “The nonlinguistic reader should note, then, that it is worth considerable effort to understand the way this useful suffix is entering the literature. ” In 1966, Pike published two works (the first works ever) with the word tagmemics in the title. These were both works not for the “nonlinguistic reader” but for the linguistic reader, the one well-versed in Bloomfield’s coinages and Pike’s correctives and extensions of them.

If you’ve stayed with me, reading my post here, so far, then you notice how abstract, how technical the language for language had become for linguists such as Bloomfield, Pike, and Chomsky. Ironically, Pike viewed Chomsky’s theories as overly abstract although Pike’s own theory seemed to have its own terminology. And the theory’s very name seemed to require a technical, abstract training. Tagmemics.

So I say, “never mind the Tagmemics.”

(My parenthetical aside is this: tagmemics entered some 20 different non-linguistic disciplines, or more. However, in most contexts now, tagmemics has died. In Bible translation, in SIL, in Wycliffe Bible Translators, Pike’s theory is mummified if taught. “Relevance Theory” is what’s in vogue there. In rhetoric and composition, where it was once viewed as “new rhetoric,” tagmemics has gone the way of Sirc’s titular but otherwise unmentioned single-gig punk rock band of 1980, the Tagmemics. New media and social media are now the fads. The main place where Pike’s theory and practice of language is alive this millennium is in the computer language PERL, which has people with a culture; here’s from someone’s notes from a 2002 conference on the language in Switzerland:

The second day started with a presentation by Allison Randall entitled “Linguistic Basis of Perl 6”. Every so often, in perl6-language in particular, some discussion about linguistics crops up, often referring to tagmemics. Allison explained to us what a tagmeme is, and how it relates to the design of Perl 6. I won’t pretend to understand it all, but apparently tagmemics is the Swiss Army Knife of linguistics, a tagmeme is a unit in context, tagmemes are fractal, and both “etic” and “emic” are real words, protestations of my spell checker to the contrary notwithstanding. I understand that Allison gave this talk at TPC and will also give it at YAPC::E, so soon we’ll all understand tagmemic matrices and be perfectly happy to get dropped off into some uncharted jungle.

But notice how this writer struggles with the abstract terms. So ironic since one Joe has called Tagmemics “the theory of everything.”)

So I say (to tagmemics insiders) that there is a way to translate (even tagmemically) the wonderful, useful concepts Pike taught. Translate it into English. Pike did. I was in his seminar with him and just a few others one semester in the late 1980s. He’d talk about “talked about reality.” And “the psychological reality” of things like the phoneme. And had us reading “linguistic concepts.” And asked each one of us (from mostly non-linguistic disciplines) to use these concepts to express “ways of worldmaking” and “radical relativism within rigid restraints.” If you’ll allow me, from time to time, sometimes and some places here at this blog, I’ll try to give tagmemics some CPR, to resuscitate it. But I think it’s ridiculous to try to resurrect a theory for its own sake. That’s like loving love, or being a feminist for the sake of feminism (and not in order to try to work toward egalitarianism), or using a telescope to look at a microscope or vice versa.

Or it’s like asking, in the title of an English-studies article (a title that itself is a no-no comma splice), “Where’s the Sex Pistols?”  I’m sure I could think of more analogies. But I’d rather you think of some too. Let’s try that sometime together.

Never mind the tagmemics then.


2 responses to “Never Mind the Tagmemics

  1. Nice to know that blogging isn’t dead. Even if tagmemics is.

  2. Yeah, we’ve heard that before. But is this blog memic site dead?

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