One of my blogger friends used the word clouds when talking to me, about how I use language.  So I’m going to do a series of posts on clouds.

  • A first follow-up post will be “Clouds: What Made Me Laugh as a Kid.
  • A second post will be “Clouds (Νεφέλαι / Nephelai): How Aristophanes Made Some of Us Laugh as Adults.
  • A third post will be “Always Playing with Language Only Clouds the Issue: When Rich Rhodes Plays.
  • If you like, you can help me with a fourth or fifth post.

15 responses to “Clouds

  1. And nothing about the (Internet) “cloud” — the biggest buzzword of the year?

    And nothing about the play “Cloud 9” by Caryl Churchill?

    And nothing about the novel “Cloud Nine” by James M. Cain?

    And no remarks about how Kurt Vonnegut’s brother invented cloud seeding?


    • Brilliant Theophrastus. Yes, of course, you’ve given us much for that fourth and fifth post! I love including the modern Kurt Vonnegut’s brother. And Internet cloud? How very postmodern. (Now won’t anyone remember the poetry of Shelley and of Wordsworth and of the psalmists? What too of that pillar of cloud for Moses, and his people, by day? Isn’t it literary as they mind their language?)

  2. Actually, I wasn’t talking about how you use language, which is interesting and engaging; I was talking about how language works. What you, and other poets and masters of the literary arts, do is to achieve engaging and mind stretching effects by pushing the boundaries and swimming upstream. (And Pike was really interested in that. Unfortunately, poetry was about the only thing he couldn’t do well.)

    My argument is that you can do what you do precisely because that’s not what language does naturally. If the stretching I’m talking about was the way language worked ordinarily, we wouldn’t give poets and writers a second look.

    In normal usage, language is characteristically very precise (largely because of frames, BTW). That’s why we can order a meal, or buy postage stamps, with amazingly few syllables. (It’s also what drives non-native speakers crazy, that they can’t do all those little transactions of life, and why they don’t get half the jokes.)

    Native speakers often have a dozen ways to say “the same thing”, each one bringing a different shading of appropriateness in particular contexts. And it’s why we can recognize when a writer nails the perfect description.

    You can only play with language because we all know when we’re not playing with it.

    • Rich,
      You speak of “how language works” as if it’s something mechanical. You talk about “what language does naturally” as if it’s a seed or a weed or a big bang or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a thing with a mind and behavior of its own.

      But you yourself have the “argument.” You use language, and so do I. You define “normal usage.” You do. You use metalanguage to talk about language as if your metalanguage is objective.

      Yes, I understand that “we can order a meal, or buy postage stamps, with amazingly few syllables.” I think linguists who are evangelical Christian Bible translators are often very motivated to reduce language to such speech acts, to message communication, to information, to proposition, to logic, to syllogisms. The very worst a language user can do is “get it wrong” by this view. The best is to “get it right.” So talk of non-native speakers being driven crazy and failing to get the message and to do the act and missing the jokes half the time — really makes sense from this “relevance theory” and “pragmatics” reductive approach.

      One of my kids is reading Nabokov’s Lolita in English right now. The author is not, you know, a native English speaker. But the book, you also know, is just brilliant. And I love to tell my daughter how the novelist decided later to render it in his own mother tongue. Was it ever a Russian novel originally? But the communication, the communications, of Nabokov won’t need to be just to buy postage stamps. He uses amazingly few syllables in places, and many of us native English speakers don’t get all of it. Not all can or do “recognize when a writer nails the perfect description.”

      “You can only play with language because we all know when we’re not playing with it,” you say. And yet, I hope to post soon on some thing you’ve said, some language play, when you didn’t even know it. Thanks for the conversation. Your turn, if you like.

  3. Yas, I like. (If you remember Señor Wences.)

    One of the things that linguists often forget in their haste to condemn prescriptivism — as we were all taught to do in Ling 101 — is that there is a grain of truth in it, and that grain of truth is relevant to this discussion.

    Words (and other constructions, for that matter) are contracts. We all agree that dog refers to a class of entities and we agree on what that class is. Now the edges of the class are a little rough – a la Rosch and fuzzy sets – but nonetheless the contract is real.

    The other parts of the contract include all the metalinguistic features of words (and other constructions). That’s how we know what’s regional (like traipse) and disfavored (like ain’t) and taboo (like shit, but not poo), and so on.

    And we know that to violate the contract on a word or construction comes with consequences.

    We know that to break the contract in some ways, like to say refudiate, betrays lack of linguistic sophistication, but to break the contract in other ways like to trip the light fantastic, displays great linguistic sophistication.

    Basically, you can’t get any of these effects without a significant amount of what you sneer at as reductionism.

    Now I will grant that in literary terms, the level of detail that I’m interested in is beneath notice. (I can drive literature professors straight up the wall.) To a certain extent, when looked at from that level, what I’m focused on is reductionist detail.

    That doesn’t mean it is wrong.

    Pike, himself, fought hard for the continued recognition of the quite reductive notion of phoneme when the rest of the linguistic world wanted to treat phonemes as epiphenomenal. And phonemes (and morphemes for that matter) are pretty close to being essential.

    Don’t mistake Pike’s brilliant insight that language is multifaceted (particle, wave, and field) for anything more that what it was — an insight that language couldn’t be completely explained by reductionist models. But that’s not the same as denying that there are huge swaths of language that are best modeled that way.

  4. Thanks for the reply, Rich.

    Yes, let’s get beyond Linguistics 101. Let’s not let models for language (i.e., theories) fail to highlight certain aspects of language.

    This is exactly what Adele Berlin gets at when she says “that narrative [language] is a form of representation. Abraham in Genesis is not a real person any more than the painting of an apple is real fruit.”

    It’s also precisely what Robert E. Quinn desires when paraphrasing and expanding on the language of Oliver Wendell Holmes: “there is a vast chasm between being simple and being simplistic.”

    Perhaps in a fuller blogpost, I’ll come back to your point about prototype theory (which is entirely inadequate). I’ll also come back to your very “essential” ideas of phonemes and other emes.

    What you and I would do well to discuss together is HOW reductive your theory can be. You keep quoting Pike back at me, saying that he said “that language couldn’t be completely explained by reductionist models.” Well, Pike said a lot of things which can be reduced to Tagmemics or to Pikean linguistics and such. The thing that Pike didn’t ever fully get, but pushed for later in his life especially, was to view language as a theory of language; but not just that: also to turn to language as a theory of everything epistemic. He did, nonetheless, have his pickles – as already mentioned elsewhere.

    One thing I have not ever discussed when blogging about Pike is how he’d have us, his students, use direct quotations (and not either indirect quotes or paraphrases) when citing other linguists or scholars in various disciplines. His explicit intention was that we not misquote. He was unhappy, for example, when Marvin Harris would use the Pikean terms emic and etic in non-Tagmemic ways. But I always found Pike’s expectation of Harris and of us his students to be a little hypocritical; Pike himself paraphrased people when speaking. He loved to repeat (hardly ever quoting precisely) Nelson Goodman’s statement that in language (theorizing) we need radical relativism with rigid restraints. And when Pike did his famous monolingual demonstrations, he attempted direct quotation of his informants (using their language); but he ended up using his language: IPA to reduce the etic sounds and derive the phonemes; and English to lecture and do a Q & A afterwards; and his English poetry to give some final reflections on the others’ language(s), poetry that got at things inadequately addressed elsewhere in the Monolingual Demonstration. His rather rhetorical question to us his students was telling. “Is IPA an emic system,” he’d ask. Ostensibly, he wanted us to classify the Phonetic Alphabet as either etic or emic. The problem, of course, is that it can be and really is both. (Pike so appreciated that Willard Quine called what he did in his monolingual demonstration “observational sentences”; funny, those are never and shouldn’t be “direct quotations”; rather, they are and should be a(p)positional.)

    So, please know I’m not intending to “sneer” at “reductionism” any more than you come across as sneering at “literature professors.”

    It’s not reductionism per se that I have a problem with. It is the arrogance of certain kinds of reductionism. It is the arrogance of presumed objectivity that reduces the other’s view of and uses of language as merely subjective. It is reductive masculinist language that insists on the either / or binary. It is reductive phallogocentrism that I have a problem with. It is reductive linguistics that puts logic over persons using language, that is abstract, that is “objective,” that is dis-ambiguative, that is formulaic, that is impersonal. It is reductivity that puts Western views above others’ views, that puts humans in marked classes such as “black” and “Jew” and “wo-man” and “fe-male.”

    Two other things: 1) I’ve used passive voice in the last sentence above to try to soften the rant, my complaint. Would you be willing to hear that in active voice? Western linguists (real people) tend to ignore how others (also real humans) use and theorize language: Which linguist in the Anglo-Centric world recognizes and validates, for example, what Lydia He Liu sees Chinese doing with translation, with language? How important, and what consequence is there, when “guest” and “host” are used instead of “source” and “target” when talking about L1 and L2 in translation? Who at AAAL or in SIL would ever acknowledge what Toni Morrison’s parable means when her blind griot (a woman, a black woman, a black woman slave) has to agonize over this:

    “The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.”?

    2) It’s tough to talk about language, and our language practices, and linguistic theories, not only because we have our own blindspots but also because of the taunting and the namecalling. You rightly point to taboos: “taboo (like shit, but not poo).” I must say that you yourself, Rich, have been kind to engage “feminist” perspectives on linguistics, on language, on translation. But not all are so friendly, not to me anyway, when I use “the f-word.” This lack of cordiality (the arrogance of many, mostly patriarchal white males) in the blogosphere and especially in the Bible Blogosphere is precisely why I’ve moved to a new blog and why I am reluctant to blog as much.

  5. Kurk,
    This is getting interesting.

    I think you and I can dispense with the wonderfully understated “lack of cordiality” in the blogosphere. As you well know by now, I’m not into those games. So I’m not interested in the kinds of social control linear thinking has been used to perpetrate. But I see that there is a baby-and-the-bath-water problem. Just because a tool has been misused doesn’t mean you need to reject the tool. (We didn’t build airplanes and discover vaccines by subjective reasoning. We owe most of our standard of living to a combination of serendipity and linear thinking.)

    I think it’s a mistake to confuse thought and language. When Toni Morrison talks about oppressive language, she’s really talking about oppressive thinking expressed in language. It’s the same mistake that Orwell made in his famous essay on propaganda. He thought that if you simply speak clearly then you can’t think evilly. How wrong he was! (Although people still think that essay is wonderful.)

    I don’t know whether we’ve gone over this ground before, but I actually believe in the priority of subjectivity. That is, objectivity is ultimately based in subjectivity. If you do the experiment, the way I did it, you’ll end up having the same experience I had. That includes interpreting your native language.

    I got it for $5.


    They gave it to me for $5.

    The second one implies the speaker believes (s)he got a good deal.

    The experiment is processing the sentences, and the subjective experience is interpreting them. If you share my intuition about the second sentence, then that becomes the objective truth about it for us to use as the basis for a discussion of why that reading is available.

    The mid-century British linguist, Angus McIntosh had some of the best insights into bridging the gap between the subjective practice of literary analysis and the objective practice of linguistic analysis. Pike was very taken by McIntosh’s work and referred to him often — at least during the decade of our interaction. If you don’t know about McIntosh, you should. (Of course, he was writing in a time when linguistics was all about structuralism but structuralism hadn’t taken hold in literary criticism, let alone the pomo reaction to structuralism.)

    But the one piece that I can’t get past is that at the most basic level of perception, the mechanisms work on contrast. A is not B. Piled up as perceptual systems, they can behave in more nuanced ways, but at the root they are black and white, which says to me that we can never move past treating our world in categorical ways. That certainly is the way phonemes work. (BTW, I’ve always believed that the IPA is, in actual practice, emic, just at a lower level. What is transcribed as [y] in French is not the same sound as what is transcribed as [y] in German.

    The other piece of relevant neurolinguistic evidence is that there is both activation and suppression in language processing. Potential ambiguities are actually suppressed in context, so the categorization effect is heightened. That’s why I’m comfortable doing a lot of reductionist analysis. I think there’s plenty of evidence that that’s the way things work at the level I’m most interested in.

    • Thanks again, Rich. I get your proverbial “baby and the bathwater,” a parable perhaps; I can also follow your logic that “linear thinking” has much going for it – alongside what you’ve called, very separately, “subjective reasoning,” which seems to be what you’re also referring to in part as “serendipity.” I do appreciate why and how you’re “comfortable doing a lot of reductionist analysis” and have, along the way, found “plenty of evidence that that’s the way things work at the level [you are] most interested in.”

      You and Pike should have no argument there, since he seemed to want analysts to come at language and at language as thinking “according to the current need and interests of the observer.” Constantly, nonetheless, he railed against mechanistic approaches (although he was hardly as sophisticated as Toni Morrison in arguing against them or as passionate as her – athough he was very enthusiastic – in getting at very human, very robust ways of talking about reality). An observer, such as yourself, can adopt abstraction, the binary such as A is not B. “The danger is,” Pike warns, “that the analyst will get carried away with its usefulness and assume that the world is nothing but discreteness—a partioning—of nonoverlapping elements.” These quotations are from his Preface to Linguistic Concepts; but he goes on in the first Introduction:

      “A theory is part of the observer; a different theory makes a different observer; a different observer sees different things, or sees the same things as structured differently; and the structure of the observer must, in some sense or to some degree, be part of the data of an adequate theory of language…. Tagmemic theory is… a theory of theories which tells how the observer universally affects the data and becomes part of the data.”

      The bit that Pike does not state well (but Toni Morrison and Nancy Mairs and Jacqueline Jones Royster all do state better) is how the observer universally affects the data and becomes part of the data (but also how the partitioner of data into nonoverlapping elements cannot see how his “A is not B” partitions mostly favor him.)

      We can come back to Morrison later if you’re going to partition what she calls “oppressive language” away from what you call “really [instead] oppressive thinking expressed in language.”

      Let’s move forward to Mairs, who calls the “binary” the “fundamental structure of patriarchy.” Don’t think that she just made that up. There’s a long history of finding such in the sexist language of ancient Greek men.

      And we can even skip ahead to Royster. She’s an afrafeminist who very much understands how the observer universally affects the observed data and becomes part of the data. If you read her essay entitled “When the First Voice You Hear is Not Your Own,” then you get this. She’s talking about scholars who study African American women who are either not black or are not females, and she’s talking about herself, who is both an African American and a woman. If you read Royster’s history book called Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change Among African American Women, then you see how she studies literacy changes and society changes with herself also as part of her data. For those of us who are not black females, it’s almost as if we readers are watching Heraclitus ask his famous same-river / different-river question while he’s standing in the river as the rest of us pretend we can better answer it from the shore.

      Alright, now let me get personal. My Dad called me this morning to ask me to post an entry to his journal on caringbridge. He’s fighting “uncurable” lung and brain cancer. He choked back tears to try to tell me that the gravity of the whole experience is causing him to reprioritize everything and to worry less, to enjoy others around him more. He told me he his able to look at himself, to check himself for example, wanting to gripe at my Mom. He’s not wanting to do that anymore. “This may not be very significant to anyone else, Kurk,” he said. “But to your Old Dad it’s huge.” My Dad’s language is changing; he’s not practicing what Mairs calls “the fundamental structure of patriarchy” as much anymore. If you read his journal, you’d see his discrete categories are busting up and that he’s standing right in the middle of the stream that’s passing by him. It’s like he’s David hearing Nathan’s parable; or like a disciple of Jesus listening to and really profoundly getting the language on the other side, right alongside and within himself. I’m not sure this late in the day that I have good language adequate to say what I’m hoping to convey. But I can say that his reality, Dad’s talked about reality, and Mom’s too, and mine as well, is changing.

      [Rich, I meant to say Thanks for the mention of Angus McIntosh, whom Pike never mentioned to us as I recall. I did find McIntosh’s obituary by his former student Norman Macleod, who says very likeable things about his mentor, including this:

      He put together masterly metrical and rhythmical linguistic exercises, and occasionally in the internal mail there would be a light or comic (and sometimes a quite serious) poem; some of these appeared in an American anthology, Linguistic Muse (1979). I remember one in particular on how unlikely it was that a poet called Laurie Lee could ever become popular in Japan. McIntosh was fascinating to work with, always showing vision; as a one-time colleague put it, “he seemed able to see round corners”.]

  6. Kurk,
    There’s a lot of yin and yang lying around here. There are things you can’t understand if you think in linear and reductionist ways, but there are also a lot of things that you can’t understand if you think in holistic and subjective ways (the point of my bringing up engineering). You have to have both.

    So I react badly to the rhetoric that the yin of subjectivism is better than the yang, or worse that the yang of objectivism is evil because it has been used in evil ways. (Objectivism is just a tool.)

    Besides I’ve spent enough times around radically matriarchal cultures to know that the sins of aggression and oppression often blamed on men’s thinking aren’t just left-brained. (Some of the nastiest and most war-like Native Americans and the ugliest torturers were from the most radically matriarchal societies.)

    I will admit that it’s hard to get past the overvaluing of objectivist thinking for a lot of folks. (Even I have trouble with things like critical discourse analysis, because I can get you to the best insights it provides in a left brain way.) But my reaction is largely that the pendulum has, in some quarters swung to far in the other direction.

    The insider/outsider observer paradox has haunted me all my professional life. Pike may have talked about the observer paradox, but there were things he did that effectively circumvented it. (I didn’t see this first hand, but I’ve heard the story often enough from different sources that it must be true.) When he was trying to work out English intonation, he would take a slidewhistle and walk around eavesdropping and then try to imitate what he had just heard. No interaction with the observed at all.

    Finally — now that I’m in complete free association mode — I have two short stories that I’ll tie together at the end.

    1) I spent a lot of time early in my career among the folks I studied. My main consultant has long treated me like her younger brother. (We’re only about a year apart in age.) To me it always felt like I was an outsider, but to them, I was more often than not seen as an insider. Her (now grown) children still treat me like an uncle.

    2) One of the real jokes in my adoptive family is that the partner (now wife) of the oldest child is African-American, and she had some tense relations with her future in-laws early on because she told them in no uncertain terms that they didn’t understand what it meant to be the victim of prejudice and injustice.

    Those stories together highlight the problem. No one can truly be anyone else, but that doesn’t preclude our experiences being close enough that it may not make a difference. It’s more a matter of a meeting of the minds.

    I’m running out of steam (and time) I’ll have to address the language-thought issue in another round.

    • Rich,
      Isn’t it interesting to you how you keep assuming (unmarked) the binary? yin / yang, linear / discursive, reductionist / holistic, objectivism / subjectivism, outsider / insider, modern / postmodern, Toni Morrison’s thought / her language, etc. The series of oppositions is part and parcel of what many feminists rightly call phallogocentrism; others call it masculinist language; Mairs calls it the “fundamental structure of patriarchy” and gives “control” and “power” reasons behind it. Mairs’s observation sounds like Jacques Derrida’s deconstructive accusation. But, notice, that Derrida, like Socrates and Plato and Aristotle especially and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel assume the “logos” or the “thesis” or (as Pike would try to put it) the “thing in itself” to which there’s always a reaction (for Aristotle, always a series of oppositions).

      Mairs uses language to point out the language, the system of male binarying, which is systemic, part and parcel of much of our culture in the West. She says, “To have power is to alienate oneself, however, because power is always power over and the preposition demands an object.” This is a hauntingly subjective observation. Mairs lives in a body sexed female. Mairs lives in a body crippled by multiple sclerosis. She lives relatively speaking without power among and “under” many who have it. The alienation, the separation, the unmarked natural category of “male” or what have you affords the power, that power “over.” The paradox that haunts you, me, most of us in the West, is a very old one. It’s Heraclitus’s paradox.

      Thanks for your personal stories told in “free association”! Where one stands, I think, is critical. When Pike notices how Einstein can “talk about” light as “field” then it’s interesting to note that the pure (mere) binary isn’t necessary always. This is, pardon the pun, brilliant stuff. Prototype theory approaches explanation. George Lakoff (often with the help of others such as Mark Johnson) get closer to how alienation isn’t always required.

      And yet it seems sophists such as Gorgias and fable tellers such as Jesus and literary types such as George Steiner and even business scholar-gurus such as Robert E. Quinn go well beyond the binary. It’s difficult stuff. Haunting perhaps. And they warn that the “either / or” binary is fairly basic (if sometimes useful) but eventually unproductive stuff. Gorgias uses the word “logos” for it; Jesus through translator Mark discusses the “logos” or the “seed” falling by the wayside (either it goes into the ground or it fails altogether); Steiner says the reader of poetry may face an “epiphenomenal” difficulty, which is his observation of the binary; and Quinn talks about business leaders attempting to affect change by the ineffective “telling strategy.” There are other alternatives, even in language.

      (My parents each were adopted by respective Karo Batak tribes in North Sumatra Indonesia. Up to that point, they had learned Indonesian then Karo and had lived among their friends from whom they learned language. Prior to that, they’d spent a decade living in South Viet Nam, where they’d also struggled as visible and auditory and cultural outsiders. Of course this is all terribly and massively complex in terms of difference and outsiderness.

      The biggest adjustments perhaps for my parents were due to their gospel learned in North America. It is largely binary, or as some anthropologists put it “guilt based.” But among Karo Batak who were “Christianized” in some early post-canibalizing-of-missionary days, the continued difficulties with a guilt based “good news” include the fact that they have cohesive bonds in culture around what several social pyschologists call “fear”; the Vietnamese friends of my parents during wartime had plenty of fear and hear much guilt from the Westerners but lived with “shame” also [nothing as extreme as WWII era Japanese shame, as Western scholar observers observe, but shame nonetheless].

      Dad is still struggling with binary language, which mirrors control and power and abstraction and alienation and attempts to deal with or overcome those by considering oppositions to them. Cancer is a way he’s reconsidering much. Quinn has this little book called Deep Change in which he identifies life crises as sometimes the impetus for such re-languaging, profound changing.)

  7. Kurk,
    I hope this doesn’t push your buttons, but I see the attempt to categorize binary thinking as masculine (pallogocentrism) not as the wonderful insight it’s sold as, but rather as a political ploy — a way to try and get priority in defining the ground of argument. It takes us to a place where it’s hard to make knock-down arguments one way or the other and leaves us in a tyranny of relativism. What’s true becomes what sells well in your crowd. (And it basically strips us of the ability to do effective engineering — something I’m not willing to give up. Like Pike I’m a pragmatist. If it works you don’t give it up unless something better comes along.)

    Besides there’s a basic problem with the whole approach. It’s OK to label binarity as phallogocentric, but that itself is simply a categorization which marks some ways of thinking as “good” and some as “bad”. It’s just another in vs. out.

    Also I have no problem with the fact that many apparently binary distinctions are pseudo-binary. (PIke called the stuff that doesn’t quite fit residue.) But that doesn’t bother me. Come to the edge of a category and things get fuzzy. Not a problem. Certainly not a reason to undermine the usefulness of categorization (as if we could do anything without categorizing).

    I have spent much of my life surrounded by women who are effectively feminists who wouldn’t let the society define them. Not in the strident, academic sense, but in the sense that they have succeeded on talent and have found places to work and built families in which there isn’t masculine oppression. (So much so, that when we lived in a Christian community that demanded men and women occupy distinct roles, they took one look at us and our marriage and exempted us from the rule.) For course, it’s true that the women in question excel(led) at binary thinking. They not only valued it, but took it to the next level. (Wife — PhD in math UMich (Hilbert Spaces), (late) sister-in-law PhD in statistics Princeton (at age 24), Senior Fellow of the American Academy of Actuaries, (late) mother-in-law, BS Physics (very unusual in the 1940’s — she played an important role in the Navy in WWII, using her degree.)

    It’s simply a mistake to assume that thinking in terms of oppositions causes a society to be oppressive to women. The Iroquois and Apache are just as oppositional in their thinking as we are, but in their societies the men are oppressed by the women.

    Apaches and their close relatives the Navajo have an appreciation for things that are hard to categorize, but the mere recognition of that implies a deep understanding of categorization.

    I’d argue that our society is probably as close as any society in history (except maybe the Roman era Celts and Persians) to effective equality of the sexes, but it isn’t our language that’s holding us back. (Again, a claim of feminism that I find naive in the extreme.) If power is to be shared, it has to be yielded, and that’s where the problem lies. Those who have power don’t easily give it up.

    I’d further argue that cognitive science shows that turning analog phenomena into binary perception goes to the very basic levels of life. The amoeba will swim away from certain chemicals released by other amoeba when the concentration reaches a certain level. That’s turning an analog environment into a binary perception. OK, so they “hesitate” when the concentration is near the threshold, but that doesn’t mean there is a real third category or that the difference between flight and approach isn’t the basic opposition.

    Similarly at higher level perceptions, human perceive visually in terms of contrast and outlines — essentially binary terms.

    Now I don’t want to deny that there are fuzzy boundaries, or that in different contexts the same underlying physical reality can be perceived differently. (The frog in boiling water, for example.) But the fact that there is binarity underlying all perception — human and otherwise says to me that pinning your theory on the denial of the validity of oppositional thinking is a loosing game.

    I’d also argue that binary thinking doesn’t lead to guilt-based cultures. Do you know the brilliant but not widely known book from the 1970’s — “Naked and not Ashamed”? It was written by Lowell L. Noble, a missionary anthropologist, and privately published in Jackson Michigan in 1975. (At the time no “real” anthropologist gave a hoot for the distinction between guilt-based and shame-based cultures. He couldn’t get it published for real.)

    Finally, let me address the notion that governing language will fix thinking. (This is implicit in the term phallogocentrism.) Many otherwise really smart people make this mistake. You can be a raging racist and never utter the word nigger. And, as anyone in the African-American community can attest, you can say nigger and not be racist. (Many segments of that community tease or insult one another that way all the time.) At best (or should I say worst) imposing political correctness on people’s usage does little to change their thinking. It simply becomes an artificial exercise — like manners, having the right outward appearance but with no guarantee of sincerity.

    When I say that language and thought are distinct — tip of the tongue phenomena alone should be enough to convince you — I do not mean that they are without intimate connection. The categories that words refer to are categories in thought almost all the time. Of course there are also plenty of categories in our thinking that have no corresponding words. And to be clear, the categories of thought (and therefore of language) are anything but universal.

    So if you change the way you think, you will change the way you talk, but the converse doesn’t hold.

    I hope you’re finding this conversation as useful as I am. And I hope your father finds his way in this difficult time. He’s on my prayer list, if that’s any comfort.

    • Rich,
      I am deeply touched that you would put my Dad on your prayer list! I can’t help but believe in the power of words, especially as they are described in Genesis, in the creation myths, and through the Bible, as people, even the first murderer of the first brother, use words to change God’s mind. Dare we say that the God of the Bible, even Jesus as God, changes his thinking when confronted with human requests? My Dad is changing, and maybe I’ll blog sometime more about that. Sunday, when we were together, he said with all sincerity, “I am not afraid to die. I am afraid to live.” He’s facing things for the first time, certain profound things.

      As for this conversation’s use, I wonder often. “Talk is cheap,” my best friend often reminds me. I think she’s right. The power of words, the power of the binary often, is ineffective. And, as you point out with raced words, metaphors that remind and point to skin color, there can be layers of abstraction, degrees of alienation. In the 1980s, I corresponded with Lowell Noble. This was some of the direction of our conversation. Guilt, fear, and shame are much involved with one another. It takes the binary of language, separations, to start thinking of them discretely. There’s power in such separation. There’s power in Aristotle’s logic. I’m not saying and don’t think I ever will that calling out the binary, and marking unmarked logic, is merely political correctness. What’s PC is often just the binary remasked. Look. For me, language is often about unconscious choices as much as conscious ones. As a little kid, xanh for me allowed me to use a single name for a much broader spectrum of colors and hues than blue or green allowed. But I inherited all three categories implied by those three words. My siblings would stretch those inventively. At my Ph.D. dissertation defense, one of my brothers was there, reminding me of insider jokes between him and me. My committee, the Department faculty, other grad students, my daughter, my spouse, and my Mom and my Dad were in the room. We, my brother and I, had drawn lines, and rearranged the binary, in ways that nobody else “understood” without some arduous explanation. If you’ve read Barbara Kingsolver’s wonderful novel, The Poisonwood Bible, then you get some of that as a reader. She gets us in the minds of four missionary kids, gets us into their minds by their language.

      And one of them is rather inventive with her language; it’s an inventiveness that is not only part of her thinking but is also a consequence of her body. I’ve observed this numerous times. It’s a phenomenon quite apparent among third culture kids, and especially among missionary kids, and most evident when the kids have a physical marker of some sort. When you start giving particular women as examples of what you’re trying to say (or to prove) to me, when you start naming tribes of American Indians, when you write the “n word,” what is entirely unconvincing is that you are marking the other (or have inherited or accepted those marks in your language); but you yourself as you write to me are not so marked (not by your own language anyway). This approaches the power and the problem of the binary. I’m not saying and don’t think I ever will that the power of the binary is inevitably problematic. I am saying that the objectivity of Western language, such as Aristotle’s language, what he actually wrote in texts now extant, is mere pretense. It’s blind hypocrisy. And do know I’m now not trying to punch any of your buttons. Aristotle, in the bits of biography I’ve read, seems uninterested in change when it comes to himself. There are deep consequences to how one uses language to observe the other. I think I blogged on Charles Darwin’s autobiographical confessions about the consequences of his marking the world as unaffected by God; the scientist began to lose his taste for the arts. His capacity and care for imagination beyond the language of binary gave way to binarying, to use of language for abstraction, to use of language for abstraction that put him in a position above (maybe, some more imaginative types might say, above God).

      The alternatives to binarying language are not exlusionary of the binary. I’m not sure (which is a point you seem to want to make with vigor and passion) that any of us can do without the binary, without language for separation. But we can and do more effectively go beyond that with language. Sometimes, nonetheless, we want to separate as language (language qua language) the binary. Gorgias, for example, in his Praise of Helen, says she may have been influenced by language. He writes this as if all the other possibilities (and he gives three other possibilities at least) are NOT language. This is one implication. Aristotle reading might follow what Gorgias writes in such a way. Plato does have his Socrates making fun of Gorgias in such a way. But the very last word of Gorgias’s defense of the women is his confession that he is at play, with words he’s at play; his language plays. When you read Jesus in the Greek, in translation no less, you get similar kinds of play. Sure, we can find the binary, we can read separations right into the texts of the canonical and noncanonical gospels (even the nonGreek ones). But Jesus also comes across as a riddler, a fable teller, whose categories get played with not only by the rhetorical speaker himself but also by his listeners and by his translators and by their readers too. When Matthew has John the cousin of Jesus and then Jesus saying μετανοειτε, he’s getting at more than just “thinking.” Matthew is playing with language in ways that blur binaries. It’s profound stuff. It’s the stuff of language, of human change (divine change perhaps) in inventive and new directions, needed ones.

  8. This is just getting interesting at the point where I’m about to have less time to put into it — classes start next week, we have a family wedding this weekend, and the dog got bit on the trail this morning so she has to go to the vet to get stitched up.

    I hardly know where to start, so let’s try this. I often think that the WWJD approach is completely backward. The real question should be “What Wouldn’t Jesus Do?” and the general answer is: a lot of things the American evangelical church does — and clings to doing. But the thing of relevance here is:

    Jesus wouldn’t give you a straight answer.

    However, I don’t see that as playing with language. I see that as using language to achieve a particular communicative end. Of course what we see is the language, and by putting things in vague, often apparently non-relevant ways, he was forcing his audience — usually the disciplines — to work on how they think — μετάνοια (which will change them as people in profound ways, and hence change how they act, and that in turn will change how those act around them), but the real work starts in the mind, triggered linguistically, but essentially non-linguistic.

    There’s another way in which, in spite of the fact that I often talk like a linear thinker, my thinking isn’t linear. I’m a great believer in systems. It drives me crazy, for example, when my libertarian friends talk about the wonders of the free market in terms of simple examples and then are puzzled as to why I don’t buy the concept that the market will take care of everything on its own at a state/national/international level. My answer is that economic activity is a system. It isn’t just the sum of its parts. And small irregularities — like flow of information — that are barely noticeable in the homey examples play disproportionately huge roles in large systems.

    Language and thought is analogous. Almost no utterance of any real world interest is simply the sum of its parts. You always have to bring something else to the table. But you can’t see that that gap unless you do your reductionist homework — or at least I can’t. And native speakers are particularly bad at noticing the gaps, even when you confront them with it. It’s much easier to see the gaps as an outsider, or preferably a semi-outsider.

    … which brings us to the MK issue. OK, I’m not an MK. But I have an appreciation for the problem because:

    a) I know more MK’s than I can count on my fingers and toes twice over — comes from hanging around with SIL types for 40 years — and I’ve seen them go through the problems of belonging and not belonging. Some crash and burn — very sad. Some learn to use it — like you have — to achieve significant success in life.

    b) because I’ve been effectively adopted into a Native American family for just as long. I’ve had the experience of waking up in familiar surroundings and realizing that I’m on Mars. Nothing is what it seems. I’m not the same on the inside as people are treating me on the outside. … and

    c) because hanging around with Native Americans for decades means that you know no small number of mixed race folks, who, like MK’s belong in two worlds at the same time they belong in neither. Again there amazing successes (PhD’s and successful business men and women — one fellow I knew as a kid, half-Jewish, half-Ojibwe, is now a multi-multi-millionaire stockbroker in Singapore) and people whose lives have been complete disasters — some dead before 30.

    There’s a great East Cree story about the Beaver Wife that I’ll have to share with you some time. It’s about a man raised by beavers who isn’t who he seems to be and how it comes about that his inner reality becomes his outer reality. (I can’t seem to find the text on this computer.)

    Finally — before I head off to the the dean’s office to deal with needy students — we haven’t gotten to the bottom of the question of play yet. My basic position is that there is a norm of communication and that if you deviate from that norm you get extra communicative effects, play being one of them. But the point is there is no play if there is no norm. I can only know that Matthew, or Luke, or John, or Paul is playing if we know when they are not playing. My argument here is that there is plenty of evidence lying around for what normative eastern Mediterranean Koine usage is. That’s why I balk at the assertions of play. There are places in the NT where there is non-normative usage. Some of it frames quotes in Biblish Greek; sometimes Paul (especially) works the (folk) etymologies; sometimes there are allusions to Semitic, but by and large the NT reads like the papyri, and the theologians are 50 years behind on what that means.

    I’d like to say more about in implications of how dead languages are taught, but I have to run. More later. (But, of course, don’t wait for my more to respond.)

    • Ah, the dean’s office and students and such! Yes, my semester’s starting to wind up in similar, busy ways. Thank you, Rich, for taking time to talk here!

      You say: “Jesus wouldn’t give you a straight answer. However, I don’t see that as playing with language. I see that as using language to achieve a particular communicative end.”

      And I’m watching you yourself do something you may not intend. You’re reducing language (at least in Jesus’s case) to a means towards a goal. To do that, you have to make separations, to use the binary again. What I’d love for you to admit is that your discriminations here are arbitrary (to borrow from de Saussure’s “l’arbitraire du signe”); there’s nothing in Nature that requires the language of Jesus to be one thing, on the one hand, and his communication an entirely different thing altogether, on the other hand. You yourself are making these observations. I’m not saying the observations are not valid or true or fair or wrong or illogical or unrational or anything of the sort. But I am insisting that you are using language yourself in writing to me to divide the communicative end of Jesus from what merely he intends to use as a means to this end, namely his language.

      Likewise, you separate what Jesus would do from what he wouldn’t. And you separate his “not giving a straight answer” from “wordplay.” (For the moment, we needn’t talk about Jesus’s riddling, his fable telling, his use of hyperbole, his writing ephemerally (i.e., impromptu with his finger in the dust), his not writing in a way that preserves his words at all, his mentoring that presupposed his words would actually get translated into a goyish lingua franca, and so on and so forth). I’m really interested now in how you yourself are insisting on these “helpful” distinctions and presuming that they are natural distinctions to make (even if you first didn’t make them but inherited them from someone else unattributed). I think you got the means of this logic from Aristotle. Although, I’m sure he only formalized the principles much better and more clearly than others before him (and perhaps after).

      I see you also find convenient to use language to separate language from thought. You’re starting to apply this distinction, it seems, (a) to us MKs but also (b) to your own experience as an outsideinsider among others and similarly (c) to mixed-race peoples. We play with language, but by your thinking, as you write that here, this has nothing to do with thinking? I get you point about how not-play shows play better in language. And yet, I get the sense that you’re marking wordplay and leaving it’s opposite as the dominant mode of non-play unmarked, against which the lesser mode (of language play) gets marked. To me, the analogy is Aristotle looking a the sexes and deciding that males are normal, are default and that we can see that females are actually the variant, which he calls the different and deviant.

      There are others, of course, who turn upsidedown your whole notion of the prominence of communication as the end game with wordplayful language merely as a means to that end. I’m thinking of the professional communicator, G. K. Chesterton, who in Orthodoxy wrote about the difference between the logic of prose (as closer to thought and the end game of communicating a message) and of poetry. Chesterton said, “Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion.” I think he might be talking from experience. He adds “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens,” and goes on saying, “It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”

      Okay, now I’m running to a meeting. Looking forward to your response whenever you like.

  9. Pingback: Como misioneros para Verdad | Mind Your Language

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