Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Seriousness of Wordplay

My most serious mentor in linguistics was one of the most playful people I know.  This post is to express a few thoughts about wordplay, linguistics, rhetoric, feminisms, and about two people who've taught me playfully, seriously -- Kenneth Pike and Cheryl Glenn.  This post will meander and use technical (academic) jargon, which for some is a paradox and for many others is just a reason to stop reading now.  I'm writing because of the personal stuff, for me.

Many of you who studied with Kenneth Pike laughed involuntarily when hearing him read a poem, or whistling a sentence, or making a mistake - a tongue-in-cheek-mistake - while performing one of his "monolingual demonstrations."  And one of my blogger friends, Wayne Leman, confesses yesterday:  "I prefer the richer approach to language that Pike advocated."  To be clear, Pike perceived language in multiple dimensions.  An element of language (such as a word), Pike would say, can be viewed as a particle (with sharp boundaries), and as a wave (with fuzzy and indeterminate and dynamic qualities), and as a field (as the backdrop for something else or as something relative to something else).  It all gets rather complex, the multiplicity.  One of my other linguistics professors confessed in Pike's heyday :  "Just when I think Pike's theory sounds clear and simple, it gets complicated."  Pike approached language the way Einstein approached physics:  particle and/or wave and/or field.  More than that, he approached translation the way Heisenburg approached physics:  "person above logic" and "the observer not only changes the observed data but is also change by the observing."  I remember Pike telling the story of when he was a student; he heard his teacher saying, "Language ideally has one and only one meaning per word."  The young pupil replied, "But, sir, how would we learn language."  Pike understood that the multiple perspectives on language (or "talked about reality") led to learning and to change.  His most famous rhetoric and composition textbook was entitled,  Rhetoric: Discovery and Change. Pike would love to quote Nelson Goodman, saying "What we need is 'Radical relativism within rigid restraints."

To be sure, Pike's most serious followers would focus all too often on those rigid restraints.  They would chart everything into tagmemic boxes; and Pike himself got hung up on what he himself intended by his own coined words for things.  Words like tagmemics and emics and etics.  Pike got into a big public debate with an anthropologist over meanings and uses for the latter two terms.  Maybe it's this complexity masked by abstraction that has caused the biggest bible translation organization in the world to abandon Pike's theory.  Maybe it's the same peculiar nature of a word like "tagmemics" that has led to the academic disciplines of rhetoric and composition to abandon tagmemics as a theory.  And yet, toward the end of his life, Pike would show increasing concern over what he saw as postmodernism, deconstructionism, and the death of the rights of an author and his or her intentions.  He wrote, and published twice, a poem called "Inkblot Poetry-A Query."  I think it's funny, and rhetorical, that Pike chose poetry to protest an author's rights.  Pike would recite his own poetry after lecturing on a monolingual demonstration -- and I always thought he was emphasizing just how limited a lecture can be in getting all the meanings, the dimensions, in listening to another in her or his own language while assigning it etic then emic categories. 

My friend Wayne not only invoked Pike's name yesterday, he appealed to Pike's "richer approach to language."  I thought that was rather ironic given points Wayne went on to make.  I'd presented to him a sentence I thought was playful and was asking if it was unnatural and contrived.  Here's Wayne's response:
I think it depends on the intentions of the author. If the intention is to be humorous, playing off the parallelism of the “have” verbs, then, yes, it is contrived. Language play is contrived. But most of language (to my chagrin) is not language play, nor is most of the biblical language texts. There *is* language play, especially in the Hebrew Bible, but most of what the authors wrote was not intended to be ambiguous nor linguistically playful. Too high an amount of playfulness with language tends to decrease how seriously people take us. I know, as someone who sometimes overdoes it with my spontaneous punning.
I am struck by how Wayne is concerned over people taking him seriously.  We all want that, and yet he betrays an assumption that wordplay is not serious.  That it's contrived only.  That it's always (and perhaps only) intended by the author.  That what "most of what the authors [of the biblical language texts authored] was not intended to be ambiguous nor linguistically playful." 

And I hear Kenneth Pike protesting, "but, sir, how would anyone learn?"  The professors I've studied under more recently have been rhetoric and composition experts, per se.  As if linguistics and rhetorics and composition studies do not mix (even though Pike published in all these areas, and so have many including Kenneth Burke and Cheryl Glenn).  So I want to talk some about Cheryl Glenn.  I first met her work teaching in the university, when I was trying (as a linguist) to adapt one of her brilliant composition handbooks for use by college-level ESL writers.  A couple of decades later, I began formal study of composition and rhetoric, and her history of rhetoric was one of the first textbooks assigned.  Only this year, did I learn that Glenn was not only a compositionist and a rhetorician but that she is also a linguist by formal training.  What she writes in her feminist retelling of the history of rhetoric, now, has new meanings to me:
Even though gender is merely a concept borrowed from grammar, it, nevertheless, continues to have far-reaching effects on cultural notions of the relation between the sexed body and its behavior.
Now, whatever author rights Glenn has, let me assure you she did not intend for me to read the above sentence one way in one year as a linguist entering rhetoric studies and then another way this year as someone grappling with how words can silence the disadvantaged and can imprison women and can mark the unreligious and can disparage people whose race is marked as darker or whose sexual orientation is different.

gender.  When "grammar" is "natural" and "serious" and "rigidly restrained," then analogously so is our "talked about reality."  Gender beyond language, somehow, some think likewise, must be as natural and as serious.  Aristotle, for example, observed nature, saw "females" and concluded therefore that they were born with fewer teeth and lesser form than "males."

How can we be surprised, any of us who take the time to read history written naturally, - how can we be surprised that Glenn, a linguist, will appeal to language but to serious wordplay?  The sentence above is at the end of her book,  Rhetoric Retold.  But at the beginning she talks about the "various" and "multiple" silenced methods she has to use to regender the male-only history of rhetoric.  Gender studies is just one of a few methods she recovers.  Is anyone taking her seriously?

When we come to the Bible and serious study of the bible, it's mostly men.  Bloggers (many calling themselves bibliobloggers) are finding gender to be a touchy thing as "natural" male dominance is threatened.  The point of issue is usually language.  "God didn't say that," or "that language isn't natural," or "Paul said," or "the Bible must function as light, mirror, and compass" are some of the issues.  Strikingly, the rhetorical moves of bloggers with serious language are conservative, if at times untraditional.  The push is to close down and not to open up.  When we listen to Glenn (the linguist, rhetorician, historian, feminist, and yes woman) speak about rhetoric, it sounds as if she's talking also about scholarship with respect to the bible:
Men have appropriated many public social practices, particularly prestigious practices like rhetoric [and Bible scholarship and Bible translation], as universally masculine; the feminine experience (that of bodies sexed female) has come to represent exceptions, or the particular.
Let me wander now back into the whole issue of "author's rights."  

The objection is always about what the original author intends and whether a feminist is going to rewrite the bible even if her (or his) good aim is more to include women in a male domain.  But I say those who listen always and only to the author's intent aren't listening to all the author says.  An author always says more than he means.  Are we surprised that Aristotle neglected "listening" as a method of rhetoric?  Krista Ratcliffe has studied this very carefully and has recovered a practice she calls "rhetorical listening."  An author, such as Aristotle or Moses or Paul, may not intend wordplay.  But we can listen.  We can overhear.  We can eavesdrop. We can consider, with intent, all that the words authored by males might mean.  Seriously.

author's rights
translator writes
who's right?

Have you stayed with me so far?  I confess these are ramblings some.  I sometimes do intend to play with language.  And sometimes that does cost me my communication with you.  Let me say, many people don't always get everything a teach like Pike or Glenn or Ratcliffe or Junias or Jesus is saying.  Even if they use linear and Western and Aristotelian conventions of writing from time to time.  But even if they do, they always say more than they intend.  Our words are playful.  And that's serious business.  It's the means by which we can learn and change.


Katherine said...

Well, personally, I like your ramblings. I don’t think I particularly did at first, but that’s probably because it required me to use reading, thinking, and feeling muscles I wasn’t as used to using. Still, it stretches, sharpens, startles, and satisfies. So I keep coming back.

I love the words overhear and eavesdrop here. Overhear, hearing over and above what you might otherwise. Eavesdropping (and overhearing) because someone isn’t talking to you, but you want to listen, anyway. Aural crumb-gathering.

I grew up in church, so I got really good at “translating” all the generic male language to apply to me. It felt very natural (still does, in a way). The first time I ever read something that assumed my reader-self was female it startled me to tears.

“the push is to close down and not to open up”. Wow. I think I’m going to have to think about that one. So few words, but it describes so much. It makes me think a lot about the faith community I grew up in.

Keep up the playfulness!

J. K. Gayle said...

it startled me to tears

Hearing this makes me want to cry, again. Thanks, Katherine, for sharing your experienced perspectives. And thank you for encouraging me, and others, too.

J. K. Gayle said...

Overhear, hearing over and above what you might otherwise. Eavesdropping (and overhearing) because someone isn’t talking to you, but you want to listen, anyway. Aural crumb-gathering.

And, Katherine, this is just wonderful! Your wordplay ("hearing over") helps me think in new ways of how communication between us can work. (Krista Ratcliffe and Mary Daly have played some with the word "eavedropping" to bring back to it positive, and practical, connotations for interpersonal dialogue and rhetorics).