Parsing the garden

To parse is to analyze components–in linguistics, we parse a sentence, in computer science, we parse coded commands. In the literary analysis of a poem, a reader may divide a line or phrase into its parts of speech and then analyze the components (or look at an unusual expression or syntax in a line) to try to interpret meaning or to expand on possible readings or meanings…the semantics behind the tokens of image, grammar, metaphor, allusion, sound, punctuation, placement upon the white space of the page.

Today, I pushed the metaphor by parsing my garden.

The weather from July onward has been hot, humid, and unusually wet. The corn and the beans in local fields were happy; but much in my vegetable garden reveals, with parsing, specific summer details of stress and the gardener’s neglect.

IMG_5601.jpgToo much rain during ripening time led to cracked tomato skins and viruses in the vines. The zucchini did well for a time, then succumbed to powdery mildew. The beans didn’t mind the weather, but I had a plague of voles whose small depredations worked some cumulative damage–they nibbled a number of plants at the stem base, which meant a slightly less abundant yield, of course. Cucumbers offered lots of fruit initially, then downy mildew set in. I harvested one of the two cabbages with only minor slug damage, and the fat variety of carrots grew well (with no sign of whiteflies); but there were lots of bugs on the kale this summer and, given the intense heat, I had a short lettuce season.

And then, there are weeds, which offer many details about the weather conditions…and the fact that the gardener gave up and stopped pulling weeds when the soil devolved into heavy mud and who then refused to brave the task in the numerous over-95 degree F days that weren’t rainy. Today, I began a list: nutsedge; crabgrass; English plantain; pigweed; puncturevine; bindweed; galinsoga; creeping thistle; multiflora rose; horseweed; knotweed; spotted spurge; rabbitfoot clover; virginia creeper; japanese stiltgrass; wintercreeper; mugwort; solidago; wild aster; chicory; poison ivy; not to mention various sorrels and clovers and Queen Anne’s lace…and others I have yet to identify.

If I were to parse each weed, I could detail its likes and dislikes as to soil, growing conditions, root systems, pollinators & pollination strategies, seed dispersal methods, attractiveness to birds or rodents (see seed dispersal methods), and eventually could compile a meaningful ecological and environmental semantics for the little plot that is my backyard truck patch. No doubt I’d learn a great deal about the garden, but no doubt I have done so already–if less exhaustively, less “scientifically.” Would the garden then become more meaningful to me?

It’s a thought experiment; I’ve no intention of trying it, though I do think it would yield interesting results. In the many years I have worked the soil, I have written poems that, perhaps, do parse the garden. That will have to be interpretation enough for my part.

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Interesting sky above the garden.

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Grammar

 

Steven Pinker‘s early book, The Language Instinct (1994)–controversial among linguists, psychologists, social anthropologists and probably semiotics philosophers–is nonetheless relatively easy for the interested non-scholarly layperson to read. Pinker has since become well-known for his best-selling books, TED talks, and willingness to engage in lively debates on controversial topics such as violence in society and his claims for the embodied brain, scientifically-supported atheism, and rational culture. [Totally off topic, but I’m a great fan of his current wife’s novels and philosophy books–Rebecca Goldstein–what an amazing mind she has! Not that Steve Pinker is a slouch in that department, either…an intellectual power couple indeed. But I digress.]

The Language Instinct got me thinking more broadly about grammar, especially as the semester is about to begin and I’m once again wrestling with how to teach conventional writing skills to under-prepared, newly-minted college freshmen. I harbor no intentions of talking to them about linguistic theories. But I do want them to understand that they can already express themselves perfectly well verbally, with the help of body language (even students who are still learning English; even students who have told me that they have learning disabilities). The tool they need to succeed at the college level is the skill of writing that employs enough agreed-upon conventions–prescriptive grammar–to convey clear ideas to the standard reader.

Lots of assumed definitions there: who is the ‘standard’ reader? How many and which ‘conventions’ are enough, and who is it that agrees upon them? I have to let the students know that the answer is: “It depends.” They are seldom very pleased to hear it, but human beings are nothing if not adaptable.

~

After defending slang, split infinitives, the ‘verbing’ of nouns, and other shibboleths, Pinker–in a chapter denigrating language mavens (hence his Jeremiah example toward the end of this excerpt)–writes:

The aspect of language most worth changing is the clarity and style of written prose. Expository writing requires language to express far more complex trains of thought than it was biologically designed to do. Inconsistencies caused by limitations of short-term memory and planning, unnoticed in conversation, are not as tolerable when preserved on a page that is to be perused more leisurely. Also…a reader will rarely share enough background assumptions to interpolate all the missing premises that make language comprehensible. Overcoming one’s natural egocentrism and trying to anticipate the knowledge state of a generic reader at every stage of the exposition is one of the most important tasks in writing well. All this makes writing a difficult craft that must be mastered through practice, instruction, feedback, and–probably most important–intensive exposure to good examples…a banal but universally acknowledged key to good writing is to revise extensively…Anyone who does not appreciate this necessity is going to be a bad writer. Imagine a Jeremiah exclaiming, “Our language today is threatened by an insidious enemy: the youth are not revising their drafts enough times!”

Indeed, I agree with him here. Taking the time to read good writing frequently, and taking the time to revise carefully when writing pretty much anything (even a Twitter post) would go a long way toward improving anyone’s writing.

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Mergenthaler’s Linotype machine

We do need concise, standardized, well-revised written texts, especially when we are relaying new information, instructing others how to do something, or convincing our professors that we comprehend the fundamental theories of the coursework. That’s not “grammar,” the magical tool that my students think they somehow missed learning in grades K-12, it’s craft, attention, and revision–with a few prescriptive rules, enough to level the ground on which the we lay our communicative foundations.  The rest is work.

 

 

Back to metaphor

I recently read James Geary’s entertaining book I Is an Other–The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World. Geary takes his title from one of Rimbaud‘s letters, calling this phrase metaphor’s “principal equation”:

Metaphor systematically disorganizes the common sense of things–jumbling together the abstract with the concrete, the physical with the psychological, the like with the unlike–and reorganizes it into uncommon combinations.

I like this definition because it feels more complete than the typical definition of metaphor as a comparison without the use of the adverbial comparative (i.e., no “like” or “as”). Indeed, metaphor probably forms the basis of language itself; while that conclusion’s much debated in semiotics, linguistics, and other scholarly disciplines, common sense and common usage strongly suggest that even thought itself–in terms of how we think internally about the world–employs metaphor as an underpinning.

Maybe I believe so because I’m a poet. Geary, as it turns out, has written some poetry, though he’s best known for his books about words, word origins, wordplay, aphorisms, witticisms, and the like. (He’s also got a TED talk…everybody’s got a TED talk…)

As to poetry, and how metaphor behaves in the poem’s context, I like what Geary says here (although in this excerpt it’s not actually poetry he’s discussing, but rhetoric):

Readers actively retrieve a metaphor’s meaning, just as a punch line requires listeners to resolve a joke’s incongruities for themselves…though the speaker may make the metaphor, the hearer makes its meaning. Hearer and speaker are accomplices; the one unpacks what the other presents. In terms of creativity, producing a metaphor and penetrating one are almost the same act.

I think the above lines go far to explaining why I love to read poetry and also provide implications as to why poems can be so damned difficult to compose. The poet endeavors to create a context and container for an often-unknown audience who will nonetheless need to invest, one hopes willingly, in the process of reorganizing the surprising (metaphor) into the recognizable.

And what a fine task that is!

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Untranslatable

Speaking of difficult books…and I know I told myself to read more poetry (and I am, really, most recently Michael Burkard’s Fictions from the Self)…I am entranced and overawed by Barbara Cassin’s amazing Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon. Here’s a thorough and intelligent review by Michael Kinnucan, going into more depth than I have time to post on this blog. What I want to mention about the text is its beauty and its acknowledgment of ambiguity, a quality that translates (ha!) into every aspect of human existence: our ambiguous relationships with our environments, with other humans, with our foods and our governments, our psyches, our cosmos.

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We cannot write about the act of translation without encountering ambiguity. We cannot really address philosophy without acknowledging that differing perspectives [context, culture, era, psychology, and of course, language] pose serious complications to understanding across languages and cultures. And even within a culture! For jargon and specialized terms can make understanding by even the most educated layman very, very difficult indeed.

While Cassin’s tome–and it is a collaborative work, with many brilliant people as contributors–presents itself as a philosophical lexicon, the connections with other disciplines (psychoanalysis, for example, with Freud’s famous coinages, and certainly poetry) are unavoidable. It may be challenging to translate the German Schicksal, a Kantian form of the idea we call in English fate, but in such cases the reader is generally going to be familiar with Kant and perhaps aware that the subtle connotations may vary. Take the word sign, however, and each reader–even those who have linguistics or anthropology or philosophy as a background–brings his or her own connotations to the definition and to the problem of translating what any individual author means by the use of the word.

Maybe this doesn’t sound fascinating to you. I relish it! And who knew (I sure didn’t) that even the word reality is a neologism, “coined by Duns Scotus” in the 13th century?

At 1200 pages of small type, this text is a tool, not a beach read. What a find, though. I have no doubt I will be referring to it for years to come, and that it will keep me wallowing in marvelous ambiguities.

 

Maximally bent & broken

bent and broken

bent and broken

The linguist/scholar David Crystal writes that “Poetic language is the domain where linguistic rules are maximally bent and broken.”

The context here (in his book The Stories of English) is an explanation of how historians of language accomplish their sleuthing; Crystal notes carefully the differences between written and spoken versions of the same language, not to mention dialects and artistic expression and diversified diction based upon the intended audience, and uncertainty as to region, origin, and date of the manuscripts and texts under scrutiny. He cautions readers not to take linguistic theories and received stories about language evolution too readily; the story is a multitude of stories, examinable from a variety of disciplines and perspectives. Much of the story is ephemeral, being oral/aural and carried on in dialects. A fascinating puzzle, really, full of lacunae and contradictions…and a reminder that when I am in my teaching role, I should remain mindful that Standard English is something of a misnomer. A living language, as Crystal demonstrates, operates on many levels and evolves concurrently with social, economic, religious, and technological trends.

I fervently agree that poetry offers language new routes of expression, a place to expand, warp, and break rules while managing all the same to convey information. The information may be conveyed in surprising ways, though, non-standard ways: neologisms, compound words, old words used in a new fashion, or as a different part of speech. Poetry is a major arena for this sort of experimentation, though not the only one. Further, I am inclined to follow a non-prescriptivist approach to writing  even though my job at the college is to impart the basic rules of Standard English, a task which (alas) tends to involve judging things as less-than-correct or “in need of improvement” for the sake of clarity and general comprehensibility.

Should I therefore be more tolerant of non-standard use of the apostrophe? I’m not quite ready for that, because the resulting texts are still so frequently confusing. The point of good writing is, most often, to convey information–though that could be argued–

~

Crystal points out that much stereotyping of speech patterns and much arbitrary standardizing (to the degree possible) has been due to our creative writers, and compounded by writers’ love-hate relationships with printers (and, later, editors) who rely upon codification. A widely-literate audience benefits from generalized written standards, he notes–but there’s no need to become “Grammar Nazis” despite human beings’ natural inclination to be conservative and, let’s face it, contentious. He takes a sociological all-embracing stance about English, welcoming changes.

Having read this text, I am of the opinion that ours is another of those linguistically-transformative periods of messy additions and alterations thanks, largely, to technologies and the sciences but also to media and particularly social media. [viz, meme. What an adaptable coinage!] As long as I have been teaching, I have reiterated to my students that I am giving them a code, a tool, Standard Written English; the way they speak or write is not wrong or incorrect. It is simply not clear and standardized enough for academic work. Get the right tool for the job!

~

Crystal lauds Samuel Johnson for his zeal for language and languages and dialects, even as Johnson sought to “stabilize the disorder” of English in the 18th C. The author goes on to insert his view that prescriptive, “correct” approaches to the language “prevented the next ten generations from appreciating the richness of their language’s expressive capabilities, and inculcated an inferiority complex about everyday usage which crushed the linguistic confidence of millions” (not to mention enforced class distinctions even further). I need to remember this balance between clarity and variety. I admit I have been a not infrequent eye-roller at the “sloppy, slangy, abbreviated” English of television, tabloids, Twitter, texting, and my students’ lingo. It is refreshing to think of these annoyances as potentially enriching–rather than degrading–to the language I love to read, speak, and write.

When I read poems, I know there are writers who employ archaic words, dialect words, slang words, colloquial syntax, interrupted syntax, irregular capitalization and punctuation, neologisms, invented compound word-phrases, curses, technology terms, scientific jargon, Latin, Spanish, Spanglish, Chinese, obscure place names, alternate spellings (orthography)…and on and on. Some are looking back; others look ahead. Some are encapsulating the moment–now–in the framework of a verse. They bend and break the language in startling, haunting, beautiful, memorable ways. This they can do because a living language allows them to.

Language & teaching

I’ll be teaching a new crop of freshman writing students tomorrow morning. A thought lingering in my mind as I prepare myself mentally for the first classroom contact with these 17- to 19-year-olds concerns language, and an ongoing argument about its uses and origins. The argument is part semiotics, part linguistics, part sociological, part neurological, part cultural, part philosophical: what is the relationship between language and the human thought process? It’s sort of a chicken-and-egg question. Bruner, Goodnow & Austin, in 1956, characterized the two main theories at that time as “mould theories” in which language is “a mould in terms of which thought categories are cast” and “cloak theories” that hypothesize language is “a cloak conforming to the customary categories of thought of its speakers.”

In other words, does the language make us who we are/how we think (culturally), or does our culture make our languages reflect the cultures in which we live?

The famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis theorizes that we experience the things we do, and speak about them to others in our community, because our language habits incline us towards certain interpretations. It is therefore a mold theory. Whorf wrote, in 1940, that “We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages.” Ie, if our culture values, say, coloration, our metaphors and cliches and descriptions would be largely based on color-values. In a more recent essay by David Chandler,* the author points out that this sort of interpretation of what language is can be interpreted in so relative a fashion that every form of linguistic communication, even with in a culture, becomes a kind of translation. Chandler finds this situation “problematic.”

Problematic, perhaps. But incorrect? I’m not so sure. It seems to me that our very individualist U.S. culture offers so many personal and sub-cultural perspectives that even everyday commerce and chit-chat involve constant translation. One of the most challenging things I have to teach to my students is how to understand what their college professors want from them, which is largely demanded in terms of a vocabulary that is not necessarily academic jargon but which is connotative in ways most incoming freshmen cannot know; they have seldom or never been exposed to that perspective. It is not part of their culture.

So does that make language a cloak or a mold?

Probably–as in most things–moderation serves best. The answer is not either-or, but a bit of both, because the human brain–and human culture–is so commodious and adaptable and complex. Chandler promotes “moderate Whorfianism.” That’s another one of those rather irritating academic –isms, but what he means is: “Meaning does not reside in a text but arises in its interpretation, and interpretation is shaped by sociocultural contexts.” This theory affects my role as educator even when I am teaching the introduction to academic writing and rhetoric class rather than some higher-level analysis course. More so, in some ways, because the introductory course is where students learn to question their socio-cultural assumptions as they read and write. I have to learn their slang, their habits, their leisure activities and distractions in order to make compelling analogies that work for them. They have to learn to transition into academic and business-world conventions from their peer-oriented and narcissistic teen environments.

It is a form of translation.

It is also an opportunity for new perspectives, for my students and for me. Wish us luck!

~

*David Chandler, “The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis” UWA 1994 (from The Act of Writing)