SBL Presentations and Functional Linguistics…

As some of my recent posts have indicated, my first time out to the SBL annual meeting was very enjoyable.  I learned an awful lot, and I met some new people, some of whom I’d been hoping to meet.  I also didn’t do enough fun things or meet enough new people, which is a problem I intend to remedy next time.  I did see many, many sessions, and one of the things that I have often been told about SBL presentations was entirely true. Though some of them are very good, and entirely engaging, some of them are very, very, very boring.  I’ve been reading some Ruqaiya Hasan this week, and she’s given me some language to help pin down why, from the perspective of functional linguistics (SFL particularly), that is.

The presentations that I saw at SBL that were poor were not poor due to mediocre research or specious reasoning.  In fact very few of the presentations I saw suffered from plain old crappy scholarship.  Instead they suffered from problems related to register.*  In some cases this was unavoidable.  This isn’t because those presentations were bad.  The problem was a breakdown between Field and Mode.

Briefly, Field is an SFL term used to describe “the nature of the social activity…the kind of acts being carried out and their goal(s)” (Hasan, Language, Context, and Text, 56).  In the case of the presentations I’m thinking of, the kinds of acts being carried out were just too much for the Mode, or the way in which they were being carried out.  Mode is essentially concerned with the way language itself is being used in communication, including the idea of Channel (phonic or graphic) and Medium (Spoken or Written) (Hasan, 57-59).  The semantic content and rhetorical drive of these presentations were too heavy for a phonic channel (something spoken aloud).  The latter could not bear the weight of the former.  The weight of the information that was brought to bear simply overrode what was possible for the social situation of an oral presentation.  It was like watching a hippo sit on a folding chair.

The other kind of breakdown that I saw was related less to a conflict between Field and Mode, and more to a conflict between two sub-categories of Mode.  As I just indicated, Hasan differentiates between Channel (phonic/graphic) and Medium (spoken/written).  At first this seems redundant, as it seems that a phonic Channel should always have a spoken Medium.  But she uses this distinction to illustrate that some kinds of communication involve splitting this expected pairing.  Think of a personal letter (Hasan, 59), where the Medium is words written on paper, but the Channel is much more like phonic communication, like speaking aloud in a conversational tone.  One is writing, to borrow Hasan’s term, “as-if” one were speaking.

That as-if is very important, particularly for oral presentations.  What happened in many of the SBL presentations I attended is that the presenter wrote a scholarly paper, and then when presenting it, spoke as-if he or she were still writing a scholarly paper.  Spoken Medium but Graphic Channel.  This is backwards.  One can split the expected Channel-Medium pairing, but it has to happen in the other direction.  Thus one would write the presentation as-if it were an oral presentation meant to be heard by the audience and not a paper meant to be read by the audience.  There is no need to dumb things down to do this.  All that is required is that one writes as one would speak in, for instance, a classroom setting.  Use the first person personal pronoun (for shame!), use contractions (sir, I protest!), even the occasional colloquialism isn’t out of the question (the very idea!).  What you present at a conference can’t possibly be a full paper in any case, as there simply isn’t the time (average journal articles being 25-30ish pages).  It is only sensible, then, to try to line up your Channel with what will have the maximal communicative effect for your audience.

———————-

* Yes, I know I talk about linguistic register a lot.  In case you haven’t cottoned on yet, it’s part of my dissertation research…in theory at least.

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.

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.

Surprised by the Successes…

Michael Halliday, the renowned linguist, once wrote: “[Rather] than being surprised at the failures [of language], given the complexity of modern cultures, it seems to me we should be surprised at the successes.” – Language, context, and text, pg. 9.

We so often become upset, even angry, that we are misunderstood.  The fact is, it takes only a very little time studying the theoretical structure of language before one starts to realize that it is a miracle of the most profound order that anybody understands anything said by anybody else at all.  Human language is a cultural sign-system of such monumental complexity that studying linguistics (that is, studying the nature of language) is one of the more difficult philosophical and socio-scientific tasks out there.  But for all of that, the fact remains that language works in the world every second of every day.  You are using language right now, in order to read this post.  Though you, whoever you are, are nowhere near me right now, you understand me.  Even the errors of grammar that are likely present in this post matter very little.  Your mind is simply too fluent, to magnificent, to be stopped by what should, by all accounts, be an all but impossible task.

So perhaps we should be slower to anger when we are misunderstood.  Perhaps we should be more joyful when we feel that another person has grasped what it was that we meant.  Let us not be surprised by our communicative failures, but let us be surprised, and delighted, by our successes.