Need a Little Help from the Linguistics Nerds…

Okay all of you Hebrew linguistics nerds out there, I need a little help.  I’m putting together my reading lists for my comprehensive exams, and one of them will be on modern linguistics and biblical Hebrew.  So hit me, your best monograph recommendations, either with regard to general linguistic theory, or to the application of modern linguistic theories to biblical Hebrew especially.  I have a lot of ideas already (more than I probably need), but I thought somebody out there might be able to point me in the direction of something I would never have come across otherwise.  Thanks in advance.

Re: Play-date…

Let me begin with this – no, I’m not making this up.

A friend of mine got a memo today.  She got it from another parent in the neighborhood, and it was written to invite her child to a play-date with a friend from school.  It was an honest to goodness paper memo, with a subject line and contact info, information about pets and allergies, and times and dates and everything.  The only thing missing was the automated Outlook meeting scheduler.

When I was a kid this wasn’t how you scheduled a play-date.  Well, first off, we didn’t have play-dates, we just played.  And if I wanted to play with a friend I either called him and said “Hey, wanna play?” or went across the street and knocked on his door and said, “Hey, wanna play?”  My parents didn’t write memos.

This is what a Hallidayan linguist would call register confusion.  Register is Michael Halladay’s way of describing the constellation of linguistic features that attach themselves to particular social situations.  Say you’re at the till at the grocery store.  There are a finite number of things that you can say in that social situation that the clerk won’t find odd or confusing or totally meaningless.  You can say how many bags you’d like, you can decline their polite request to help you out to your car, you can give two dollars to the charity the store is sponsoring.  All of that works just fine.  You can’t confess your undying love for the stranger running the till, or ask politely about his/her thoughts on Benjamin Disraeli, or talk about your deep-seated emotional issues with your mother.  Well you can, but you’re gonna get a funny look.  You would only do those things if you’d confused the linguistic register that was in operation at the time.

I call the play-date memo register confusion because the person who wrote it apparently thought that you use the same language when interacting with your neighbors as you do interacting with other department heads at the office.

Just to be clear, you don’t.  Well, you can, but you’re gonna get a funny look.

Uh-Huh…

John Hobbins has a great post over on Ancient Hebrew Poetry about comparing and contrasting texts from different cultures (Genesis and Atrahasis are his examples).  Anybody interested in the relationship between the Bible and other surrounding cultures should read and think through what he says there, particularly the bit about contrastive approaches.  And the dialogue with Angie Erisman (whose excellent blog seems to have gone the way of all flesh) is also very valuable.  I like John’s description of intertextuality as a cultural web.  This serves as a corrective to those who use the term “intertextuality” to refer to any and every kind of allusion or reference and who constantly ascribe authorial intention to such connections.  Sometimes allusions are intentional, but a lot of the time they are just a consequence of cultural (or inter-cultural) meta-data, and discussions of intention and ascription and dependence are illegitimate.*

Also John’s notes regarding cultural divisions are very important.  “Culture” is a tough concept.  Where does one culture begin and another end?  How do we know?  Are these divisions simply arbitrary?  Just heuristic devices we use to keep our questions and answers straight?  I think they are probably more than arbitrary but it’s hard to know where to draw those lines.  One significant corollary for me is the question of the relationship between various levels of social interaction (family, community, culture, etc) and various sub-divisions of language (register, idiolect, dialect, language, etc).  One of the papers I’ll be writing in the near future will explore the possibility of using linguistic markers in concert with literary form in order to help identify and delimit passages in the Latter Prophets.  I still haven’t the faintest clue if it will work, but the problems inherent in inter-cultural relationships that John identifies in his post are the same problems that I’ll be facing as I try to eke out my methodology in that paper (albeit my questions will probably be more intra-cultural).

The moral of the story?  Whether inter or intra-cultural, these kinds of questions are difficult and lend themselves to tendentious arguments.  Great care is required.

*As a brief side-note, there are notable post-modern authors (e.g. Umberto Eco) who do make intentional use of intertextual irony, but even here I think such authors (Eco for certain) would admit that there are significant and important instances of intertextuality that are not a product of conscious authorial intention.  To extend John’s web metaphor, some strands are woven on purpose, and some strands are not.

Deadwood and Deep v. Surface Structure…

I’ve been watching the first season of HBO’s Deadwood.  One of the bits of controversy that has surrounded this story of an old-west town is the use of profanity.  Deadwood is the story of the real historical town of Deadwood, an outlaw settlement in the Black Hills of Montana in 1876.  But here’s the thing, the characters in the TV show swear like sailors.  The language is so offensive that I won’t even give examples.  Of course these words that the writers use are not words that people really used in 1876.  But the profanity of 1876 would sound silly to people in our time and culture, and so the writers decided to import modern profanity as a creative anachronism.  On a visceral level at least, this works very well indeed.

This goes to the heart of an issue in linguistics that I’ve been thinking about lately.  Linguists talk about deep structure and surface structure.  Surface structure is the actual grammatical structure of a particular sentence or phrase or utterance as found in reality.  Deep structure is the so-called “kernel” sentence or essence that underlies the surface structure.  A passive sentence is the classic example.  According to this thinking sentences 1a and 1b have different surface structure but identical deep structure:

1a: Wild Bill Hickok was shot by Jack McCall.
1b: Jack McCall shot Wild Bill Hickok.

Linguists who believe in deep structure say that the semantic value (the meaning for lack of a better term) of these phrases is identical.  Linguists who don’t believe in deep structure might deny this.

In Deadwood the use of anachronistic language assumes that modern swearing has essentially the same deep structure as the swearing of 1876.  Therefore replacing one with the other is actually a faithful way of translating.  But I wonder, and here is where deep structure becomes a problem, if there isn’t something else going on apart from semantics and if that something else might not be the same from 1876 to 2009.  Like I said, I’m still thinking about it.

12 Hours Ago…

I’m just getting ready to pack it in for the day and as is often the case I popped open my browser to check on my blogroll.  I looked down the list at posts I had read earlier, around dinner time, and then I saw the most recent post over on 4712.  It’s a wonderful little question that I found in one of the comment threads and I encourage anybody who is interested to wander over there and check it out.  What surprised me when I was looking at my blogroll just now is that I posted that question 12 hours ago.  Twelve hours ago I was taking a 15 minute break from working on my major linguistics paper (pragmatic fronting of non-Predicate constituents in Obadiah…yeah, I know how to party).  I just now finished working on it for the night.  Twelve hours ago.  This is just silly.  Didn’t quite finish either.  I still have to write the conclusion.  In theory that should be easy, so I’m gonna leave it till tomorrow when I go back to the library and work for another 16 hours.  Two more days, two more days, two more days….

Goodnight.

What Words Do…

I’ve been thinking a lot about language and linguistics lately.  It’s possible that this is a by-product of the fact that I’m taking a rather challenging course in advanced grammar and linguistics.  Just a guess, it’s hard to say why I think what I think.  In any case, one of the most interesting and engaging concepts that I’ve come across lately is related to the question of what language is for.  There’s a linguist out there, a guy named Halliday (I quoted him about a zillion years ago in my last post), who suggests that language has a whole bunch of different functions.  That is to say, language does a lot of things.  Most of these things (I won’t bother listing them all, it’s kind of complicated) eventually clump together as we grow older.  Eventually the most important clump, or meta-function, is the informational function.  Language for adults is mostly about communicating information, about telling something to somebody that he/she doesn’t know (or that we think he/she doesn’t know, whatever).

Here’s the thing, though.  For kids this is one of the least important functions that language performs.  I’m not sure exactly when this happens, I haven’t read all of the relavant research, but early on in life when we are learning language we don’t really think about language as a tool to give others new information.  If you have little kids who have only recently learned to talk watch them and see if this seems right or not.  It works with my son.  If he sees a picture of a cow he says “Cow!”  I’m pretty sure he’s not telling me it’s a cow.  He knows I know that.  What he’s telling me is that he likes cows.  He’s using language to communicate not information, but emotion.  He’s engaging with me relationally.

This is, I think, why we have so much difficulty with poetry.  We are so fixated on what the poem means that we completely miss what it is that poems are for.  Poetry is trying to do something other than give information, it is trying to create an emotional encounter.

Let me put it another way.  If I come home and my wife looks at me angrily and says “You’re late,” she is not using the informational meta-function of language.  She is not trying to inform me of the fact that I am late.  If I assume that her words are being used to communicate information the evening is likely going to go badly for me.

Your words do a lot of things, and though communicating information is an important one of those things, it isn’t the only one.  As an excercise today, try being more conscious of the relational aspect of your language and the language of those around you.  Be attentive to what your words do and not just to what they mean.  It is, at the very least, a fun experiment.