Subtitles: Language Subtleties

A friend of mine asked me to lead our group discussion on how we, in the 21st century, have come to understand and to practice slavery biblically.

“No thanks,” I said politely, since I was already wanting our group to talk about what makes a “good day” and about “what is talked about” in the Bible related to that.  And I added, “For just this next week’s talk, can’t we steer clear of divisive controversy?”  But she protested:  “I’m really interested in how our perspectives have changed as we read the Bible.”

My wife had already mentioned to our friend William J. Webb’s controversial book, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals.   What they hadn’t discussed was the book’s subtitle.

So with you here at this blog, I’d like for us to talk about subtitles of books.  I’ll confess that once upon a time I was an acquisitions editor for a book publishing company and may be infected with some “expert” opinions here.  But I really do think there’s no corner on language expertise here, and you may have far more expertise than I or may even consider yourself rather naive when it comes to the science of “subtitles.”  Well, let’s try anyway:

There are language subtleties to notice in book subtitles, things that we readers do once the writer or publisher has given us a subtitle to read.

Let’s look at William Webb’s book again.

Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis

Now let’s compare that with the title: subtitle of one of George Lakoff’s books:

Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind

What do we notice, just looking at these two?  Do we notice the significant similarities?  The differences?  Are they really so subtle, these titles and subtitles?

First, it may be important to note how both writers make a big explicit deal about their titles.  Listen to Webb (i.e., read this for yourself):

The book’s title Slaves, Women & Homosexuals reflects the idea that in cultural/transcultural analysis the Christian community needs to move from neutral examples, likes slavery, to the debated issues.  By “neural” examples, I do not mean that absolutely no one debates these examples.  Rather, they are examples that have already been more widely accepted by the church to this point.  Also, within each criterion some reflective evaluation of the criterion will be provided. [page 68]

Now listen to what Lakoff says:

Many readers, I suspect, will take the title of this book as suggesting that women, fire, and dangerous things have something in common–say, that women are fiery and dangerous. Most feminists I’ve mentioned it to have loved the title for that reason, though some have hated it for the same reason. But the chain of inference–from conjunction to categorization to commonality–is the norm. The inference is based on the common idea of what it means to be in the same category: things are categorized together on the basis of what they have in common. The idea that categories are defined by common properties is not only our everyday folk theory of what a category is, it is also the principal technical theory–one that has been with us for more than two thousand years. [page 5]

It’s very interesting, I think, to compare the two titles.

The thing I want to make a big deal about is how both male writers key in on the word “women.”  Note how both their titles have “women” in them.

And there’s more:  both of the titles have the noun women in them with two other nouns that are subtly classed together by another noun.  Webb calls these “examples,” and Lakoff calls them “categories.”  Webb says he’s interested in what’s “transcultural.”  And Lakoff  says he’s been “inspired by the Australian aboriginal language Dyirbal, which has a category, balan, that actually includes women, fire, and dangerous things.”  Both titles are what my publisher who’d employed me as an acquisitions editor called, “sexy.”  They are immediately a little funny.  English insiders laugh, we readers of English do.  And we get the authors’ explicit attention to their funny grouping of terms.   “Slavery,” says Webb explicitly, is “neutral”; and he implies that “women” and “homosexuals” as “examples” are relatively less neutral.   Lakoff, likewise, wants his readers to focus on how surprising — how not so neutral to “feminists” — his titular categories are.

It’s the subtitle, now, that I’d like us to talk about.  If you’ve read the two books,  then you know how little both Webb and Lakoff talk about their subtitles.  It’s the funny titles, with the explicit noun “women,” with the two other nouns joined with “women,” that both male authors have to make a big deal about.  But their books really seem to be about something bigger, something more directly noted by the subtitles.  Both authors are writing books about language, about culture and language, and about methods for knowing.

Webb’s subtitle again?

: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis

Lakoff’s subtitle again?

: What Categories Reveal about the Mind

Isn’t it rather funny how these two subtitles are similar?  What do you see there?

Focus in on the verbals, Exploring and Reveal ;

on the head nouns, Hermeneutics and Categories ;

and on the direct-object noun phrases, Cultural Analysis and the Mind.

Notice the parallels, the patterns here.  Both verbs allow the authors to suggest that their books are going “to get into” and “to open up” new things.  And isn’t this just what academics are all about?  Both head nouns are the author’s terms for “how language interprets or boxes up ideas.”  And both object nouns have to do with “knowing,” with what we might call “epistemology” (a Greeky English word in philosophy for “how we know”).

There’s a lot of presumption here.  Both writers are counting on you and on me to already know what they mean.  As much as we’re to learn from them reading their books, they’re wanting us subtly to start with agreement with them that they can’t prove.  Or that they take for granted.  Sure, if we don’t know English (or Greek behind the English perhaps), we might have to run to a dictionary.  But most of the time, none of us uses language like that much.

So what?  “So what,” you’re asking me now that you’ve read what I’ve written here about subtitles.  So now I’m asking you.  Isn’t language, what we share I mean, isn’t it a whole lot of talked-about reality as if our talk is less real than our reality?  I’m struggling for words here.  Would you help me out?  What do you think helps us “know” for sure?  Can we talk about it?  Can we see it when we talk about subtitles?  about subtleties?

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2 responses to “Subtitles: Language Subtleties

  1. (I don’t know what to do about the whole dual blog thing, so with your forbearance I’m posting here what I posted on the blogspot version)

    It’s a lot to think about (thus the late comment). I don’t know where to start, or rather, where to jump in. So I’ll just drop a link to an article that this post put me in mind of. I found it interesting:

    http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/boroditsky09/boroditsky09_index.html

  2. Welcome here Katherine!

    Thanks for posting your comment. (And thank you for posting at both blog versions; for what it’s worth, you’re the first one to do so! So I’ve replied to you in the same way)

    What an apt, thought-provoking article to link to. Lera Boroditsky seems fascinating, and I really like that she’s continuing to look at How our language shapes the way we think! Looks neoWhorfian.

    You’re also making me interested in posting something on art as language and language as art and thinking. Maybe soon.

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