Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Empowerment of the Vulgar

I've been thinking a lot about how language can empower the unempowered. Some people call that rhetoric. Of course, language can be text.

"Text," starts Larry Wall in a late section of the article my good friend just sent me. And Wall goes on: "I read that word from a postmodern perspective. Of course, the term Postmodern is itself context-sensitive. Some folks think Postmodernism means little more than the Empowerment of the Vulgar."

Now Wall has developed a computer programming language, with a community of other people. They call it Perl. They call it postmodern. And they call it that because it's so like people language.

Wall continues, noting some big ironies:

But I take Postmodernism to mean that a Text, whether spoken or written, is an act of communication requiring intelligence on both ends, and sometimes in the middle too. I don't want to talk to a stupid computer language. I want my computer language to understand the strings I type.
Perl is a postmodern language, and a lot of conservative folks feel like Postmodernism is a rather liberal notion. So it's rather ironic that my views on Postmodernism were primarily informed by studying linguistics and translation as taught by missionaries, specifically, the Wycliffe Bible Translators. One of the things they hammered home is that there's really no such thing as a primitive human language. By which they mean essentially that all human languages are Turing complete.

When you go out to so-called primitive tribes and analyze their languages, you find that structurally they're just about as complex as any other human language. Basically, you can say pretty much anything in any human language, if you work at it long enough. Human languages are Turing complete, as it were.

Human languages therefore differ not so much in what you can say but in what you must say. In English, you are forced to differentiate singular from plural. In Japanese, you don't have to distinguish singular from plural, but you do have to pick a specific level of politeness, taking into account not only your degree of respect for the person you're talking to, but also your degree of respect for the person or thing you're talking about.

So languages differ in what you're forced to say. Obviously, if your language forces you to say something, you can't be concise in that particular dimension using your language. Which brings us back to scripting.

How many ways are there for different scripting languages to be concise?

How many recipes for borscht are there in Russia?

Language designers have many degrees of freedom. I'd like to point out just a few of them.

Now what I want to point out is how very feminist Text is (as postmodern, as Perl-ish, as linguistic, as liberated by good translation theory, even for translating the Bible).

I am talking about feminism that insists on equal empowerment of women and men. We must say this. And if Wall says "In English, you are forced to differentiate singular from plural" then let's force ourselves to decide whether the "you" in his English sentence is singular or plural. Wall would be the first to agree that we the people decide. So when Yuwei Lin says there's a gender digital divide, then we are forced in English to take that seriously, to make some decisions.

I am also talking about feminism that is Text-ual in a very whole-person way. So when Allison Randal says "know your roots," she's talking about Kenneth and Evelyn and Eunice Pike's tagmemics, which is about as personal-able a language theory for translation as ever invented. Now, that's some rhetoric, some empowering. The Pikes and Wall and Randal never called tagmemics, or human language for that matter, feminist. But we can. Do you know what's vulgar about text? Do you know your roots?


profejeff said...

Thank you for mentioning the name of Kenneth Pike, the author of "Tone Languages" which helped inform my Masters thesis on the function of tone in Zulu. But of even more urgent importance to my own style and manner of the teaching of living foreign languages is his formulation of Tagmemic Theory (Much about his work can be found through Google. One website of interest is It goes beyond what this little note´s contents discuss, but it is a good introduction to the outline of Píke´s thinking.
Pike'sconcept of tagmemic analysis informs my language teaching intimately. My lesson plans are replete with "...and ask Tagmemic-style questions." which means "question every slot in every sentence, and elicit as many fillers as I can." That gives the students the opportunity to practice with all the interrogatives, and frequently leads to the same kernal sentence which, having been heard and repeated several times, digs deeply into the students' minds and imprints the utterance there to be recalled at some later and unexpected time. Not wanting to sound immodest, but speaking from a personal experience that spans 41 years of teaching and of observing others teach, I can say with confidence that my classes are distinguished by the success with which Level I 9th grade students emerge at the the end of the year capable of speaking and understanding a considerable degree of Spanish within the constraints of the communicative topics we have covered.
An illustration will provide some insight as to how this is accomplished.
After reading introductory material aimed at presenting new vocabulary and new grammar, the students must then answer questions which unpack the many slot provided by the text's sentences. For example:
"José salió del cine con una sonrisa en la boca y se dirigió a la parada del autobús." Desgraciadamente, lo perdió.
In English: Jose left the movie theater with a smile on his face and headed for the bus stop. Unfortunately, he missed it.
The questions:
"¿Quién salió del cine?" pries open the subject slot. "¿De dónde salió José?" exposes the slot of the object of the prepositional phrase "del." "¿Cómo salió del cine?" highlights the adverbial phrase "con una sonrisa en la boca."
"¿Qué emoción mostró cuando salió del cine?" elicits "felicidad" as part of the response.
"¿Qué perdió?"
"¿Quién perdió el autobús?"
"¿Qué le pasó?" (what happened to him?) all dig at other aspects of the sentence´s content. And these questions are prying apart just the first two sentences. Imagine what you can do with a 10-sentence story: how much language you can expose and talk about with the students!
I often prepare a list of perhaps 25 or 30 such questions and then, using a piece of software called "Smart Notebook," project them onto the Smartboard. After we have worked through the questions and answered them orally, and after I´ve written their responses onto a paste of the text on a separate frame, I then return to the original frame where the students see only the original questions. They are directed to sit in groups of three or four and to listen as one member of the group directs the first question to her/his neighbor. The latter answers the question and then poses the SAME question to a third member of the group who answers it and then asks the same question to the fourth member who answers and who then ansks the same question of the first member who answers. They then proceed to the next question. Thus, each student has had the opportunity to POSE the question - an extremely important skill that all must master if they are to become competent speakers of the target language, and each has heard the answer and spoken it. They then proceed to the next question and handle it in the same way. By the time they have cycled through all the questions, the patterns of interrogative formation, sentence formation, slot analysis, and slot filling have all been practiced and mastered. Additionally, critical thinking skills have also been stimulated as they deduce from the smile on the subject´s face that he was happy. After a year of this kind of analysis and active practice speaking, is it any wonder that they can speak the language fairly competently?
I provided examples in the past tense, since we do get there by the end of level I. However, before reaching that stage, of course there are many, many opportunities for this kind of unpacking in readings in the present tense. Every single lesson provides the students with 12-15 minutes to ask and answer one another.
As part of their homework, they must study the notes which I had recorded on SmartNotebook - and which I save to my own laptop and then email to the school´s website from which the students download the material at home in order to review everything done in class.
Without Pike´s theoretical structure informing my technique, I would have been a very different teacher, and one who likely would not have experienced as much success and job satisfaction as I have over the years.

Pike is of major importance and his work is absolutely not to be ignored. There is no question about that at all in my mind.

J. K. Gayle said...

El Prof,
Many thanks for your comments, for your personal account of how Pike's tagmemics has been useful to you, and is helpful to your students. I'm amazed by how many of us have been influenced by Kenneth Pike (and yet how few will acknowledge his usefulness to them). Teachers and researchers in more than 20 different disciplines (not just linguistics) use "emics" and "etics." And much more is to be done with Pike's "monolingual demonstration" in which he learns to befriend another by learning from that other the other's language while using only that other's language. Tagmemics, I say, is feministic; it's like Cixous's ecriture feminine and Nancy Mair's woman's discourse and Aspasia's dialectic, which is very different from the masculinistic / abstractionistic decontextualized binarying conception of language of, say, Noam Chomsky or Stephen Krashen.

Thank you also for starting The Linguistics Club. I love your overview that starts - "Language is what defines us as human" - and ends - "Enjoy!" Indeed!