Tag Archives: linguistics

“What do you read, my lord?”
“Words, words, words.”

words words words

For 25 years, I made my living by writing words. In all, some two and a half million of them, writing an average of three stories a week. Yet, in all that time, I had an underlying mistrust of language, a sense that, even if I could still diagram a compound-complex sentence on a blackboard, the structure I saw in chalk did not necessarily mirror the structure of things I saw around me in the world before it is named. The one was neat and tidy, the other was wooly and wiggly.

A good deal of misery and misunderstanding derives from a failure to recognize that the logic of language and that of the real world are not the same.

tomatoWe find this in simple form whenever someone tells you that, for instance, “a tomato is not a vegetable, it is a fruit.” This is a sorry assertion. A tomato is neither animal nor mineral, therefore, it is a vegetable. But, of course, that is not what is meant. In common usage, we use the word, “fruit,” to name a sweet edible and “vegetable” to name a savory. But “vegetable” is also an umbrella word, describing all things vegetative. To aver that a tomato is not a vegetable is to confuse these two usages, and therefore to make an assertion both pedantic and ignorant.

More importantly, this doesn’t really say anything about the Solanum lycopersicum, but about the categories we use language to establish. It is an argument not about the berry (and that is the technical term for the red globe you slice onto your salad), but about the English language.

Whales GoldsmithOr consider this: “A whale is not a fish.” When such a statement is made, it does not discuss whales or fish, but rather, makes a claim about language. The whale is unaffected by the words and fish swim happily past it. But it is a discussion about the categories of nouns: We choose to make the definition of the two classes mutually exclusive. A whale is a mammal.

But it needn’t be so. Through the 18th century, a whale was a fish. Jonah was swallowed by a “great fish.” Anything torpedo-shaped that swims in the sea by the action of its fins was considered a fish. A whale was a very large fish, who just happened to be one that gave birth to live young and suckled them. It was an idiosyncrasy of the whale, just as it is an idiosyncrasy of the salmon that it swims upriver to spawn.

spinous and testaceous fish goldsmithgoldsmith crustaceous fishIn fact, if you read Oliver Goldsmith’s “History of the Earth and Animated Nature,” the best-selling nature book of its century, the category “fish,” also included many other things that live in the watery parts of the world. Whales were “cetaceous fishes,” flounder were “spinous fishes,” sharks were “cartilaginous fishes,” crabs and lobsters were “crustaceous fishes,” and clams and oysters were “testaceous fishes.” It was a perfectly natural way to divide up the various denizens of the undersea. It wasn’t till Carl Linne decided to slice up the world in a new way, based on a combination of skeletal morphology and reproduction, that the whale was surgically removed from the universe of fishes and told to line up on the other side of the room with lemurs, llamas and raccoons. Did the whales even notice?

The basic problem is that language is an intercessor. It sits between experience and understanding. When we approach language, we see only the intercessor — we mistake the priest for the deity.

Words always distort, they always lie. Yet, at bottom, we trust words more than we trust our own eyes. We judge politicians by the labels they are tagged with, not by paying attention to what they actually say or do: Conservative or liberal — when applied to reality, the labels are close to meaningless.

The case may be a little easier to understand in terms of Greek. The ancient Greeks were the first logarchs, they valued verbal meaning over experiential meaning; they actually thought language was a one-to-one descriptor of reality. Their faith is naive to us now. For instance, Zeno’s paradox is only possible in words. Set a tortoise and Achilles out on a race and see if Achilles can’t catch it. No problem. Set it in words, and suddenly, it can’t be done: The problem is entirely in the words, words, words.

sunspotsIt is the logic of language that frustrates Achilles, not the tortoise. It guided how the Greek thought about the world. Polarity, opposites, hidden ironies and surprising conjunctions,  it’s how the language is organized,  even before you even consult reality. So, when the Greek saw language as a mirror of the reality and language posits polarity, it must be because the world is polar. But is it? Opposites are only a linguistic trick. Hot and cold are just relative points on a single thermometer: Sunspots are “cold” places on the sun, even though they are thousands of degrees Farenheit; liquid nitrogen is “warmer” than absolute zero. Linguistic legerdemain.

Even liberals and conservatives are just guys in the same blue suits. They don’t look like a dime’s worth of difference to the Fiji Islander.

By the logic of language, the world is divided into nouns and verbs; look out the window, however, and what you see is the conflation of noun and verb: something very much closer to Ovid’s Metamorphoses: a constant velocity of things ever growing and changing. No noun is static; no verb without its referent.

Marble statue of the ancient greek philosopher PlatoThe issue I have with Plato — aside from his totalitarian fascism — is his faith in an “ideal” of things. The ideal bed, unlike any real bed, is a stultified noun, not a bed. To Plato, the world is cataloged with nouns, only nouns. The perfect human is a form of arrested development. For Plato, the perfect human form is a male figure, age of about 25, all muscle and lithe, with little fat. But a real person is born tiny, grows, ages, marries, has his own bairns, gains experience, grows feeble and dies. Just as a rose isn’t the pretty flower, but a shoot, a bud, a flower, a rose-hip bursting to seed and once more from the top. Over and over. All the world is at every moment changing, growing, shrinking, spreading, running, molting, squawking, collapsing, weeping and rising. It is a churn, not a noun. “Panta horein,” as Heraclitus says: “Everything changes.”

Language is this thin veneer, the shiny surface, the packaging we are cajoled by. Break open the box, and the reality is something else.

It is much like the belief that geometry transcends embodiment. In other words, a triangle is a universal possibility, no matter if one was ever built. It is one of Plato’s ideals. God himself cannot create a four-sided triangle. But to change this “truth,” all we have to do is change our definition of the word. We don’t need a deity to do that, all we need is a lexicographer.

Or better, we can look at the problem a different way: I have written elsewhere ( that a triangle is a five-sided figure — the three usual sides, plus the top, looking down on it, and the bottom, resting on the desk. You can turn any triangle over from its back and lay it on its belly. triangleIf triangles exist in the world of things, they must have five sides. Language, like the axioms in geometry, pales in comparison to the real world of mud and bricks. There are 300,000 words defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, but that is an infinitesimal number compared with the number of things, acts, colors and sizes in the phenomenological world. There are an infinitely large number of things in the universe for which there are no words.

Take this, for instance. Here, where two walls meet is a corner. But where the wall and the ceiling meet? What is its name? In English, it has none.

Or this place on the wall — it is named the “center.” But this point, just as real, only a few inches from the center, is nameless and so is the one a few inches beyond that.

starsNames are like the stars in the sky, only points, between which is an infinity of space, just as real as the stars.

Language is feeble. It is up to us to see the space between the words, to recognize the feelings between the signpost emotions of hate, joy, anger, sadness — this million slight inflections that are nameless.

Up to us to explore the confusing rush of sense data, the confusing signals of society and nature, the overwhelming input that we censor with our language, allowing only those portions that sport nametags, as if they were Shriners at a convention.

It is up to us to recognize and celebrate all the things, times, places, acts, flavors, feelings, breath and abysses that don’t have names, to enjoy the cold floor and sunlight coming through the window in the morning when the birds haven’t yet begun chattering.

marigolds“Ooooh, language,” Stuart said. “It’s why I hate Plato.”

“Surely only one of the reasons,” I said. “Let’s not forget Plato was a fascist pig,” I said, only half jokingly. “But why ‘oooh, language.’?”Marble statue of  the ancient greek philosopher Plato

“I can’t blame only Plato for this, but most of us habitually think of the world in terms of nouns; we name things and believe we have described existence. Plato’s so-called ‘forms’ are little more than sanctified nouns, nouns privileged as ultimate reality. But truly, nouns are only resting places for things in motion, as if a snapshot could be more real than a movie.”

“I’ve been writing about that for years,” I said. “I don’t know how many times I’ve reiterated, ‘Nature is a verb.’ The Heracleitan flux rather than the Platonic stasis.”

“Yes, yes.” There was a tone of impatience in Stuart’s voice.

“I mean,” I continued, “that Plato would have us believe in an ideal  marigold, say, and any real flower can only approximate the ‘real’ one. But I say, the marigold is not a thing, but a process. Depending on where you start, it is a seed, a seedling, a sprout, a plant, a flower bud, a flower, a fruit that bursts into seeds, which fall and start the whole thing over. A verb.”

“And that doesn’t even task Plato with the question of whether an ideal marigold is a red one or a yellow one, or if there are separate ideal forms for red and yellow marigolds, or whether that is different from an ideal flower, or from an ideal plant, or ideal living thing: Where do you take your category from when positing these damnable ideals?”

“So, nouns are only place-holders, parking spots for verbs. Being Greek, Plato has in mind an ideal human being, which is, of course, male, and young, maybe 20 years old. But a man, like the marigold, is always on the move — an infant, a child, an adolescent, a youth, a grown man, a father, a middle-age man, an old man, a geezer, a corpse. We move through it all. Panta horein.”

“Let’s not forget women, too, with perhaps their own verbal cycle, parallel, but often diverging from the man’s.”

“And let’s also not forget,” I added, “that the hangover from Plato’s noun-based reality is the demotic Christian sense that when we get to heaven we’ll be our ‘ideal’ selves, not the decrepit senexes we have become before we die. Heaven is full of beautiful people, in their ideal perfection — which is defined, as Plato would have it, as ourselves when we were, say 20. Maybe 25.”

“This is all well and good,” Stuart said. “But I have a quibble.”

Stuart always had quibbles. This explained the earlier impatience. He wanted to get on to what he was really thinking about.

“The view of existence — metaphorically of course — as a verb is existence seen objectively, as if we were gods looking at the universe and seeing a vast process in motion. But if we were to look at the cosmos subjectively, from our individual points of view, then the essential word-form is the preposition. The preposition and the conjunction.”

Now I knew the trolley had arrived in Stuartville.

“These tiny words, barely noticed as they whiz by in a sentence, are the key words that describe our place in the universe, and our relation to it. They are the most important words. They create whole plots, whole novels in two or three letters. ‘By,’ ‘over,’ ‘near,’ ‘but,’ ‘and’ — they force us to create at least two nouns — they give birth to the nouns — and make us see those two nouns in a relationship, and what is more, they imply movement, or at least imply a temporal situation.

“In the beginning was the word, and that word was a preposition.

“The Greeks recognized that certain sentence formations had meaning in and of themselves. Like, ‘on the one hand, blah blah, but on the other hand, blah blah.’ or ‘He says blah, but his actions prove blah.’ The sentences can be filled in with various content, but the structure of the sentence carries its own meaning, a description of a part of reality.

“But I am saying that the same thing can be said for the simple ‘but.’ You don’t need the whole sentence. Just a ‘but.’

“It implies a stop sign; a motion forward, but a redirection. There you are, a point in the universe at motion, under the rule of inertia, unstopping unless another force is applied, and suddenly, ‘but,’ and that force is applied. The conjunction has cosmic meaning.

“You can say something similar about ‘and.’ There is something in the universe, and suddenly, there is something else. ‘And.’ point in motion

“The prepositions do the same. You are that point, with no defined volume, mass or blood — at this moment, completely undefined except for your beingness, your awareness, and then, you are driven ‘under,’ ‘around,’ or ‘through,’ and with the advent of the preposition, you have a relationship to that cosmos.”

“It all sounds very, well, cosmic.”

“Yes, it is. Or at least, it is like a thought experiment. You don’t need to have a dog or a truck or a marigold to have the relationship. It is inherent in the ‘if,’ ‘and’ or ‘but.’

“Which is why I say that the verb is a description of the objective, divinely- observed universe, but the conjunction and preposition are the same for a subjectively sensibility-observed universe.”

“But — and I use the word advisedly — you are an atheist.”