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Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

Context determines the meaning of every utterance, and every word of every utterance. Because we exist in time, the context that determines the meaning of every utterance and every word is constantly expanding. Each moment there is more context. What I said yesterday will be understood not only in its original context but also in the context of the events of today. “I am not a crook,” said Richard Nixon, but subsequent events convinced many Americans that he was indeed a crook, and the subsequent events now set the context for the original statement. The ultimate meaning of any utterance is deferred until history is done, until the last word is spoken, until context is closed off once and for all.

But what if that never happens? What if context determines meaning, and context keeps expanding indefinitely, forever and ever without closure, without a last word, without a final judgment, age after age, amen? This is Derrida’s view, and he uses explicitly theological language to confess what he disbelieves. He rejects eschatology, any hope that there will be “messianic” finale to human history.39 Context will expand forever, and therefore meaning, which arises from difference, will be deferred forever. We can never know in fullness what our texts or utterances mean, much less the texts produced by another, because we can’t know how the future context, and future texts, might affect the meaning of what we write and say.

This is Derrida’s concept of differance, which he punningly spells with an a rather than an e to capture the twin notions of “difference” and “deferral.” Meaning arises from difference, but precisely for that reason, meaning is endlessly deferred.

— Peter Leithart, Solomon among the Postmoderns 

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Your third-grade teacher no doubt taught you that you should write well-formed English sentences, employing proper punctuation. If you don’t learn to write with sentences and proper punctuation, she warned, you’ll never get anywhere in life, because everything you said and wrote would be unintelligible. Unless you learn to write well-formed sentences and use punctuation properly, you’ll end up in prison or holding a sign scrawled with “Please help” at highway exits.

Yet even in our day, when the well-formed sentence is officially promoted as the key to sensible prose writing, there are many intelligible uses of language that do not employ well-formed sentences—lists, lecture notes, genealogies, stories told by children. Listen to a sports announcer for a half-hour, and I defy you to locate a single well-formed sentence.

— Peter Leithart, Solomon among the Postmoderns 

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Have you ever noticed that some words sound perfect for the things they describe and other words don’t sound right at all?

I had occasion to reflect on this the other morning when I passed through the kitchen and my wife asked me if I cared to join her in a bowl of muesli.

“Oh, but I don’t think we could both get in,” I replied, quick as anything. The joke, alas, was wasted on her, but it did set me to thinking what a curious term muesli is. It is not a word we use in America. When we sweep up after we have been doing woodworking and put it in a bag with mixed nuts and a little birdseed, and pretend it’s a healthful breakfast product, we call it granola, which frankly I think is a much superior word. To my mind, granola sounds precisely like a crunchy cereal involving bits of grain and chaff, whereas muesli doesn’t sound like anything at all, except perhaps a salve you would put on a cold sore (or possibly the cold sore itself).

Anyhow, it got me to thinking how some words do their job very well and others don’t seem quite up to the task.

Globule, for instance, is a nearly perfect word. It just sounds right. Nobody has to tell you what globule means for you to know that it is not something that you want down the front of your shirt. Scrapie is another excellent word. Scrapie clearly couldn’t be anything but a disease. (Though on reflection it might be a Scottish cut, as in “He fell down and got a wee scrapie on his knee.”) Snooze, likewise, is also first rate, as are chortle, clank, gasp, dribble, and bloat. To hear these words is to know what they describe.

— Bill Bryson, I’m a Stranger Here Myself

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As for language, the philosophes might remind us that the written word and an oratory based upon it have a content—a semantic, paraphrasable content. Whenever language is the principal medium of communication—especially language controlled by the rigors of print—an idea, a fact, a claim is the inevitable result. The idea may be banal, the fact irrelevant, the claim false, but there is no escape from meaning when language is the instrument guiding one’s thought. Though one may accomplish it from time to time, it is very hard to say nothing when employing a written sentence. What else is exposition good for? Words have very little to recommend them except as carriers of meaning. The shapes of written words are not especially interesting to look at. Even the sounds of sentences of spoken words are rarely engaging except when composed by those with extraordinary poetic gifts. If a sentence refuses to issue forth a fact, a request, a question, an assertion, an explanation, it is nonsense, a mere grammatical shell. As a consequence, a language-centered discourse such as was characteristic of eighteenthand nineteenth-century America tends to be both content-laden and serious, all the more so when it takes its form from print.

It is serious because meaning demands to be understood. A printed sentence calls upon its author to say something, upon its reader to know the import of what is said. And when an author and reader are struggling with semantic meaning, they are engaged in the most serious challenge to the intellect. This is especially the case with the act of reading, for authors are not always trustworthy. They lie, they become confused, they over-generalize, they abuse logic and, sometimes, common sense. The reader must come armed, in a serious state of intellectual readiness. This is not easy because the reader comes to the text alone. In reading, one’s responses are isolated, one’s intellect thrown back on its own resources. To be confronted by the cold abstractions of printed sentences is to look upon language bare, without the assistance of either beauty or community. Thus, reading is by its nature a serious business.

— Neil Postman, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future

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What changes in language are being enforced by new technologies, and what is being gained and lost by such changes?

Think, for example, of how the words “community” and “conversation” are now employed by those who use the Internet. I have the impression that “community” is now used to mean, simply, people with similar interests, a considerable change from an older meaning: A community is made up of people who may not have similar interests but who must negotiate and resolve their differences for the sake of social harmony. …

Think of how television has changed the meaning of the phrase “political debate” or the word “public”; or the phrase “participatory democracy.” In his book The Electronic Republic, Lawrence Grossman argues that new technologies will make representative democracy obsolete because they will make it possible to have instant plebiscites on every issue. In this way, American voters will directly decide if we should join NAFTA or send troops to Bosnia or impeach the president. The Senate and the House of Representatives will be largely unnecessary. This, he says, is participatory democracy as it was in Athens in the fifth century B.C. I have no objection to borrowing a phrase from an older media environment in order to conceptualize a new development; we do it all the time. But it has its risks, and attention must be paid when it is done. To call a train an “iron horse,” as we once did, may be picturesque, but it obscures the most significant differences between a train and a horse-and-buggy. To use the term an “electronic town-hall meeting” similarly obscures the difference between an eighteenth-century, face-to-face gathering of citizens and a packaged, televised pseudo-event. To use the term “distance learning” to refer to students and a teacher sending e-mail messages to each other may have some value, but it obscures the fact that the act of reading a book is the best example of distance learning possible, for reading not only triumphs over the limitations of space and co-presence but of time as well. As for participatory democracy, we would be hard-pressed to find any similarity whatever between politics as practiced by 5,000 homogeneous, well-educated, slaveholding Athenian men and 250 million heterogeneous Americans doing plebiscites every week; it is dangerous to allow language to lead us to believe otherwise.

— Neil Postman, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future

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Man invented cooking before he thought of nutrition. To be sure, food keeps us alive, but that is only its smallest and most temporary work. Its eternal purpose is to furnish our sensibilities against the day when we shall sit down at the heavenly banquet and see how gracious the Lord is. Nourishment is necessary only for a while; what we shall need forever is taste.

Pills indeed! Some day, no doubt, the dreadful offspring of that hapless couple will invent flavorless capsules which, when swallowed, will give the user a complete command of any desired language. Let us hope only that when he does, the sane among us will lobby for a law to keep such people from writing poems. Language is no utilitarian abstraction; English, French, Greek, and Latin are concrete delights, relishings by which the flavor of words and syntax are rolled over the tongue. And so in their own way are all the declensions and conjugations of beef, lamb, pork, and veal. Food is the daily sacrament of unnecessary goodness, ordained for a continual remembrance that the world will always be more delicious than it is useful. Necessity is the mother only of cliches. It takes playfulness to make poetry.

— Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection 

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Even at the origin, terms are often not entirely arbitrary. Some words are obviously onomatopoeic. Hummingbirds go “hum,” and the sound bees make really is something like “buzz.” Linguists have also noted that even words that are not strictly onomatopoeic have sound qualities connected with the thing they name. A rock may not be rocky, but the sharp -ck sound seems appropriate to name something with sharp edges. The diphthong fl- is, across languages, associated with fast-moving things: flash, flip, flicker, flap, flop. Sn- is a nose-sound: sniff, sneeze, snout, snuff, snore, snooze, snuffle, snort, snicker. When people are shown arbitrary shapes and asked whether it is a “pling” or a “plung,” they show a remarkable consistency. Shapes with sharp edges are “plings,” whereas smoothly shaped things are “plungs.” Vivian Cook writes that “vowels with high frequencies such as ‘i’ go with small size and sharpness. . . . Vowels with low frequencies such as ‘u’ go with large size and softness”

— Peter Leithart, Traces of the Trinity

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