Letterally, the figure A

It’s a common enough reality to human beings, and yet many languages don’t use ‘have’ in this idiomatic way.
Mike Sangrey

There are lots of ways for something to mean something.” He’s interested in the original meaning of the text, what it meant when the stuff was written down. There are, of course, other ways to read these texts: devotionally, recited for comfort, in lifecycle events, and so on, and each of those gives different meaning to the text. “But people want to know when they are looking at the Bible what the words originally meant when they were written down, and what they have come to mean in the context of a religious community.”
Rachel Barenblat directly quoting Joel Hoffman (whose words I’ve also quoted here but now in red)

Scott appears to assume that autentein means “to exercise authority.” This is widely held misconception, but in fact, there is no evidence whatsoever that this was one possible meaning of the word. It is a kind of urban legend, and an instrument of deceit, a ploy of Satan, an impertinence of man, wishful thinking on the part of the immature – whatever you want to call it. But “to exercise authority” is not a meaning of authentein found in antiquity. I have put this challenge out on the blog, and no one has offered this evidence.
Suzanne McCarthy inferring an assumption of Scott Lencke (whose words I’ve again put in red)

I’m starting to say something in this post by letting you hear how three or four or five others are saying things. What I want to say, my own thesis statement, if you will, is this:

It’s us people who use language, and language doesn’t act itself, on its own, all by itself, without us; likewise, we humans are meaning makers and not the other way around, as if “meanings” could make us somehow.

I may write another blogpost, in which I more directly engage the epigraphs of my blogger friends, in which I paraphrase this thesis as the following:

Let’s be aware of the fact that Mr. Aristotle, Mr. Chomsky, Mr. Krashen, and Mr. Gutt like to talk about language as if it were Natural, a thing in itself / not a something dependent on us humans; let’s beware of the binary: “me/not me, active/passive, culture/nature, normal/deviant, good/bad, masculine/feminine, public/private, political/personal, form/content, subjective/objective, friend/enemy, true/falseAristotle’s logical/illogical, Chomsky’s competence/performance, Krashen’s acquired language/learned language, and Gutt’s ostensive-inferential communication/unintended meanings. (If I do write another blogpost related to the epigraphs above, then I’ll try to remember to link it here.)

If I were talking with children, trying to rephrase my thesis, I might say it this way:

Mr. Language is just a puppet; so is Ms. Meaning; and we all are the puppeteers.

Since I talk more about this stuff with language professionals, such as the college-level instructors of English as an additional language with whom I work, I usually try to get them to illustrate this thesis statement. So that’s what I want to do here in this blog. It’s not so technical, if you’re still reading. It’s as simple as the ABCs. Actually, I want to be simpler than that. let’s just talk about the letter A. We might even call it the figure A.

The Simple Shape of the Letter A

“What is the shape of the letter A?” I usually ask an English language teacher who’s just starting to work with me. He or she surely knows it. It’s the first, or perhaps one of the first letters ever learned. So, what’s its shape?

“Are you asking about the CAPITAL A or the lowercase a?” they sometimes reply. Sometimes they even make a case that fundamentally and prototypically both the uppercase and the small letters share one and the same shape: “It’s definitely a letter with an enclosed, boundaried area up top, with a leg or two on the boundaries extending down.

My reply is that there is a shape to the upper case and the lower case A or As. And the contrast with the other 24 English alphabet letters is somehow apparent. And yet, we all concede that Typewritten A is somehow different from Cursive A. And that fonts are imaginably infinite in design. And that nobody handwriting an A will ever really do it really the same way as anybody else does, which allows signatures to be so unique and so office. And no one person, really, ever writes a cursive A the same way twice, no matter how many times his or her elementary school teacher asks it to be traced or copied on lined paper. And if the letter on the typewriter or computer or cellphone keyboard or keypad is stuck and broken, then friends reading are so forgiving if an @ or a ^ or some other such substitute is made for the letter A. The shape of the letter A. It’s describable and reproducible but infinitely varied nonetheless. It can be taught to children and can be used by adults as well. It is one of those people-dependent parts of language that might be talked-about the way Kenneth Pike used to like to talk about language in general; he used to paraphrase Nelson Goodman (from Ways of Worldmaking) with some regularity: Pike would quote Goodman saying, What we need is radical relativism within rigid restraints. The shape of the letter “a” is radically relative. You try to describe it and let me know if you’ve defined it absolutely and precisely and invariably! And yet, you can describe it, can’t you, its rigid restraints. Hmmmm….

The moral to this parable is that the shape of the letter A is inherited but also learned; it’s about as Natural as any other part of Language.

The Sounds of the Letter A

Sometimes, when I bore other ESL teachers with the same old questions, I’ll try a variation on the theme to make it a bit more interesting, as if it could possibly be exciting. I think it is!

“What sounds are represented by the Letter “a”? I’ll ask.

The astute English language professor knows that every phonemic sound of any English (whether American, or English, or Australian, or Canadian, or Indian, or New Zealander, or Singaporean, to name a few) could be represented by the letter A. We in America say there are fundamentally two As: the long “A” as in “say” and the short “A” as in “hat.” It’s akin to Dr. Seuss and his Cat in the Hat wordplay lessons for children learning. But we southern Americans also can acknowledge that there’s “a” in “beat,” in “really,” in “day,” in “threat,” in “cat,” in “heard,” in “haute,” in “swap,” in “Breaux,” in “bordeaux,” in “law,” in “Thai,” in “cacao,” and so forth. It’s almost every phonemic sound, we could agree. Some might object that some of these words are not true English, or that the spelling is contrived, made of combinations of the letter A and other letters too. And yet, you get the point, right?

The moral here is that there is radical relativism, human relativity, within the rigid restraints of people using the letter A to represent English sounds. What English is is another chapter altogether.

The Meanings of the Letter A

Going beyond orthography (and we haven’t even discussed the origins of the shape of the letter A), and going beyond phonemics and phonetics (and we’ve failed to mention IPA), we might come to meaning. It might be even more interesting. It might be crucial, especially when some people are making pronouncements about language (and meaning) such as this: “many languages don’t use…” (and “what the words originally meant“). Why not say, “What the letter A in English means is….”? Well, why not say that is because the Letter “A” never means anything itself.

The letter is used by English speakers and writers as the indefinite article (with the variant “an” as also “a”). Baseball fans talk about the Oakland As, or about A-Rod. My son likes to put A-1 Sauce on his steaks, and he’ll ask for it in English too. And then there’s the Scarlet letter; is it hers, the adulteress’s, or is it his, the author’s, or is it ours reading it? Shouldn’t the font be red?
I’ve already talked about going back to the ABCs in this post. And some of us English writers and speakers and bloggers will say A-Okay to mean certain things.

The moral? A as a letter has a shape, a sound, and a meaning. An “a” can be an infinite set of shapes, can have many different sounds, and might make an awful lot of meanings. And yet, and yet, always, always, also it’s us people who are determining the rigid restraints on the radical relativism. There’s nothing Natural about the letter A. It’s literal, of course, and figural too because you and I make it so in so many different-similar ways.


4 responses to “Letterally, the figure A

  1. I love this creativity of yours – thanks again. Now to your claim: It’s us people who use language, and language doesn’t act itself, on its own, all by itself, without us; likewise, we humans are meaning makers and not the other way around, as if “meanings” could make us somehow.

    Nice note – just a little quibble from me: the meme takes its meaning by its usage and some human used it in this way. (I don’t do a lot precisely with meaning – I do much imprecision though). So how do we get the usage? By word order, repetition, and if hearing, by tone, or if not by failure to repeat, or some other word – like ‘What! did the word of God come to you only?’ Indicating presence of sarcasm, anger, impatience, etc. There is no plain meaning on its own, as you note. But while meanings do not make us, we make our reality by what we think is meant around us and by what we say – in the same way that one speaks of the word of God making the heavens. So words and language are not only used, but used creatively to create the reality they are then used in. I am not sure where this takes me – but I know where it has taken me so far. It is through this ‘word’ from ancient times that I discovered my own senses – became seeing, hearing, feeling, known in a sensible fashion – still with my unknown impulses moving me around from words spoken to me in my childhood. Words and actions but mainly remembered words – truths, lies, unpoetic and ignorant things that nonetheless had creative and destructive power.

    Anyway- you’re right, words get used, but they also create. It was the psalm today – divided tongue, Psalm 12 – all about words and speaking and lips – those are the frames. Their force goes well beyond meaning. In my own translations, meaning emerges from what is personal. I only hope that indirectly, one hears and is known in a new way that gives life. Because it is good. That’s why the letters are black and white fire.

    • Many thanks, Bob, for your thoughts and your quibble. I also love your question, How do we get meaning? What you’re saying is not so much a quibble with my point since it is and you are so personal here. I do hope that makes sense. Even shared meanings made.

  2. As Dr. Kang says, “Nothing is natural.”

  3. Dr. Kang earned that, right? Thanks Rod.

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