• Monthly Archives: March 2015

The Tension between Grammar and Praxis

March 26, 2015

The grammar of many languages occasionally presents a seeming contradiction between the meaning of its categories and the real-life entities to which the categories are applied. For example, in languages that have gender distinctions, like German, the grammatical gender may not match the biological sex of the referent, as is the case of G das Weib ‘woman, wife’, which is neuter (as indicated by the definite article).

In contemporary English (as has been instanced in earlier posts), there is a tendency to refer to collective nouns that comprise human beings by the relative pronoun who instead of the grammatically correct which. This is increasingly the case in media speech when the word referred to (inter alia) is country, as in “the countries who . . . .”

The underlying cause of this sort of change can be traced to the kinds of verbs that are typically associated with human beings, like love, hate, speak, etc. The use of such verbs with collective nouns whose individual members are human creates a tension between the grammatical category of inanimacy (or non-humanness), on the one hand, and the occurrence of verbs denoting actions that are typical of human beings, on the other. The tension is resolved by reconstruing the inanimate collective as animate via its human members.

From a traditionally normative point of view, of course, this tendency in English represents a latter-day mistake, where grammar has been sacrificed at the altar of linguistic implicature.


Homo habilis and Language: Linguistic Theory as a Theory of Habit

March 5, 2015

The recent discovery of the oldest human jawbone in Africa has pushed the date of Homo habilis, our ancient ancestor, back another million years or so. This particular iteration is defined as ‘an extinct species of humans considered to be an ancestor of modern humans and the earliest hominid to make tools’ (American Heritage Dictionary). The most significant part of this definition is ‘the earliest hominid to make tools’. The Latin word habilis means ‘skillful’ and is derived from the verb habēre/habeō ‘have, possess’, the derivational source of Latin habitus (which is its past participle), alias our habit. The upshot of this definition amounts to the further understanding of a skill as a HABIT WITH MEANING.

The most important arena for the implementation of this idea of meaningful habit is, of course, human language. Moreover, a meaningful habit is necessarily a sign in the sense of Peirce’s theory of signs (or semeiotic). For the most part, linguists have looked on words, including their positional shapes and alternants, simply as artifacts of description which facilitate an economical, mutually consistent statement of distributional facts. But a semiotic analysis differs from this kind of accounting by resting on the fundamental assumption that all linguistic units have VALUES, which vary coherently and uniformly in alignment with contexts and their hierarchies.

The coherence of linguistic units among each other is by no means a static one, for we have incontrovertible empirical evidence that languages change over time. But the fact of change must be correctly understood as a dynamic based on teleology, where the telos is greater goodness of fit (iconicity, coherence) between underlying structure and its overt manifestation in speech. This teleology is always undergoing examination as a language changes and new speech habits come into being as patterned alterations of old ones.

Human language is a body of facts that every new speaker masters (in the absence of pathology) by becoming a member of society. The way in which linguistic units are used involves a mastery not only of the physical side (phonetics) but the notional one as well. Explanation of this mastery cannot be achieved by the prevailing self-confinement to goals that are fundamentally (if unwittingly) non-explanatory. The rule-formalism approach that has driven contemporary linguists into sterile byways (what used to be known as the transformational-generative theory of grammar) cannot ever produce explanations of language use because a theory of grammar is not a theory of knowledge but a theory of habit (in the sense of Peirce). Explanation must focus on why the data cohere as signs, and not on the mechanisms by which grammatical forms can be derived by the judicious choice and application of rules. This requirement removes predictability-via-rules from the agenda of theory. The entire recent history of linguistics shows with great clarity the feasibility of kneading data into a wide number of mutually-compatible formalized configurations (‘notational variants’). What is needed, however, is an attitude toward the object of study which matches the structure of that object. Language is a system, both in its diachronic and synchronic aspects, that is informed by a pattern of inferences, deductive and abductive. The role allotted to interpretation in language as a structure––to its very nature and function as a hermeneutic object––demands that the methods of inquiry into and the theory of language be homologous with the principles of its organization.

It is this very nature of language itself, the inherent organization of grammar as a patterned relationship between form and meaning––of meaningful habits–– that necessitates transposing the theoretical enterprise of linguistics to another dimension, one defined by the subsumption of all linguistic analysis under the rubric of meaning or hermeneutic. As Roman Jakobson put it:  ‘Any linguistic item, from speech sounds and their constituents to discourse, partakes—each in its own way––in the cardinal, viz. semantic, tasks of language and  must be interpreted with respect to its significative value.’


The Pathos of Everyday Life 5 (persona ‘mask’)

March 2, 2015

When one observes people speaking, especially when not participating in the conversation, what comes through is not so much the particulars of speech but the paralinguistic behavior, viz. shrugs, smiles, hand gestures, etc. that accompany speech and which are culturally coded. These body movements define the personality of speakers much more vividly than do the words they utter. It is, indeed, these gestural accompaniments that more than anything contribute to the image that is created in the mind of one’s interlocutors, which is what is meant by the word persona, the Latin forebear of the English word in common use today.

It is noteworthy that in Classical Latin the word persōna meant ‘mask, character, role’, a meaning preserved in the phrase dramatis personae ‘cast of characters’ for stage use. This implies that in speaking we always put on a mask, as it were, play a role, represent a character, and that the “real” self is to some extent always concealed from public view. Perhaps this trait of homo loquens—that of donning a mask while speaking––is an evolutionarily developed one involved in the process of getting along with others, including placating them when necessary. A poker face is not something altogether natural and hence not easily maintained. The expressivity of our face and bodies (especially the hands) goes along with the process of communicating meaning verbally and plays a significant role in the creation and maintenance of meaning.

The etymology of person is a useful backdrop to understanding this aspect of human semiosis. Here is it from the Oxford English Dictionary Online:

            Etymology:  < Anglo-Norman parsone, parsoune, person, persoun, Anglo-Norman and Old French, Middle French persone, personne (French personne ) presence, appearance (c1135), important person (c1140 in Anglo-Norman), the body (c1170), individual human being (1174 in Anglo-Norman), person of the Trinity (1174 in Anglo-Norman), grammatical person (first half of the 14th cent. in Anglo-Norman), juridical person (1481 in Anglo-Norman) and its etymon classical Latin persōna mask used by a player, character in a play, dramatic role, the part played by a person in life, character, role, position, individual personality, juridical person, important person, personage, human being in general, grammatical person, in post-classical Latin also person of the Trinity (early 3rd cent. in Tertullian), appearance, stature (9th cent.), of unknown origin; perhaps a loanword (compare Etruscan ϕersu , apparently denoting a mask). Compare Old Occitan, Occitan persona (mid 12th cent.), Catalan persona (1117), Spanish persona (first half of the 13th cent.), Portuguese pessoa (1267), Italian persona (a1200). Compare parson n. (originally the same word, but now differentiated in form).

Several of the uses of classical Latin (and post-classical Latin) persōna are after corresponding uses of Hellenistic Greek πρόσωπον (see prosopon n.), e.g. in grammar and theology.

In to respect no person the word originally rendered post-classical Latin personam of the Vulgate (which however has in some places faciem ), the corresponding Greek being πρόσωπον face, countenance, person, often in the compound προσωπολήπτειν to accept the face of, rendering Hebrew nāśā’ pānīm to lift up the face (towards someone), to show favour (originally referring to God’s countenance being raised towards a person upon whom he bestows favour; compare Exodus 6:26, Deuteronomy 10:17).

With singular person compare Anglo-Norman persone singuler (a1325 or earlier). With in one’s (own) person compare Anglo-Norman en sa persone (second half of the 12th cent. or earlier), classical Latin in suā personā . With in (one’s) proper person (see compare Anglo-Norman and Old French, Middle French en (sa) propre persone (c1250), post-classical Latin in persona propria (6th cent.), in propria persona (a1180, 1264 in British sources). With in (the) person of compare Anglo-Norman en la persone de (second half of the 12th cent.). With in person compare Middle French en persone (1464).

The primary dictionary meaning of persona is ‘aspect of a person’s character that is displayed to or perceived by others’. Jungian psychology uses the word as a term to designate ‘the outer or assumed aspect of character; a set of attitudes adopted by an individual to fit his or her perceived social role’ and is contrasted with anima. Given the ancient meaning of the latter word, one aspect of the pathos of being human evidently resides in the necessarily mediated character of our true selves.