Tag Archives: David Crystal

In the Wonderland of Mind

You cannot touch the clouds, you know; but you feel the rain and know how glad the flowers and the thirsty earth are to have it after a hot day. You cannot touch love either; but you feel the sweetness that it pours into everything. 
Annie Sullivan quoted in Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life (16)

IMG_1381Two unrelated things occurred this week that led me to read Helen Keller’s early autobiography. The first was that I happened to come across the book on my children’s book shelf as I was enlisted to find something for my eleven year old to read (he chose Robinson Crusoe). The second is that I attended a lecture in which the topic of Wittgenstein’s private language argument was discussed.

To know the thoughts and deeds that have marked man’s progress is to feel the great heart-throbs of humanity through the centuries; and if one does not feel in these pulsations a heavenward striving, one must indeed be deaf to the harmonies of life (55)

The question asked in the lecture was: is language essentially social? As language is an agreed upon  set of sounds and symbols, what is its function when agreement (with another) is taken out by virtue of isolation? Can we really imagine it? I wondered if Miss Keller might have some insight into the question.

Each individual has a subconscious memory of the green earth and murmuring waters, and blindness and deafness cannot rob him of this sixth sense – a soul sense which sees, hears, feels, all in one (65).

In the case of Keller, she, in fact, did have sight and sound, as well as some language acquisition for the first 19 months of her life, so she is more of a, (as the lecturer coincidently stated)  “Robinson Crusoe type” whose isolation comes only after language has (more or less) made inroads into the mind.

Many scholars forget, it seems to me, that our enjoyment of the great works of literature depends more upon the depth of our sympathy than our understanding. The trouble is that very few of their laborious explanations stick in the memory. The mind drops them as a branch drops its overripe fruit (53).

Keller describes stirringly and with aching beauty the effect her reacquaintance with language, bursting with shared meaning and human contact, had upon her. Her thoughts regarding literature, learning, and life are lovely and true. This early autobiography is wonderful to read, not least of all for the  glimpse into Keller’s towering intellectual mind at its inception.

We should take our education as we would take a walk in the country, leisurely, our minds hospitably open to impressions of every sort (55).

As I wrote in a response to the lecture, according to David Crystal’s book How Language Works, it is the “duality of structure” (Crystal 11) that differentiates language from communication. He describes the two different levels of language: the first: sounds and symbols which are the structural architecture and have no intrinsic meaning, (one doesn’t ask what “s” means, after all) and the second: combining, recombining and inventing ever new ways to use these sounds and symbols to communicate (Crystal 9). This makes it different to as well as a more narrow definition of communication, (which could be animal communication or body language -a smile or gesture of limited variability – even if there are hundreds of gestures, they can hardly be compared to the thousands of words, and thousands more word combinations as well as the rate of new word development). It would seem to me, a duality would be unnecessary for an isolated individual. But it also seems important, to me, to consider what we mean when we say, “isolated.” Anyone who already has language acquisition pre-isolation would naturally use it. Anyone who was profoundly isolated from birth would most likely not survive (or at the very least be severely compromised). Humans don’t thrive without others. How does “private language” fall in between those two points?

I find the more I think about it, the more I see language as a secondary issue of our humanness. Humans are inescapably social, language is a function of our essential sociability. Might not language then be by default essentially social because we are de facto social? Whatever its qualities, it seems an easy thing to agree with Keller when she writes:

There is nothing more beautiful, I think, than the evanescent fleeting images and sentiments presented by a language one is just becoming familiar with – ideas that flit across the mental sky, shaped and tinted by capricious fancy (42).

Indeed, one hopes we never lose our capricious fancy.

*title from page 51: In the wonderland of Mind I should be as free as another.

** All quotes fromDover Thrift edition of  The Story of My Life unless otherwise noted

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Difficult to Locate, Easy to Distinguish

The contrast between what counts as language and what does not is usually clear enough, once we look for evidence of productivity and duality of structure in communicative behavior.
– David Crytal, How Language Works (11)

IMG_1208How Language Works is a comprehensive book on all aspects of language. How we speak, hear, read, write, communicate and conversate. Hmm, that last one is not a word, but why shouldn’t it be, or why shouldn’t I use it? After all, save official sanction, it has the features required – recognizable phonemes, and plausible meaning. And as Crystal will confirm, and I will second, (exhibit A that I am) spelling is a function of multiple skills which have little to do with reading. Therefore, lacking (at least) one of the said skill sets, hell, conversate looks good to me!

We think of our fellow-speakers as using the ‘same’ sounds, even though acoustically they are not. (67)

Taking the first- the recognizability of phonemes, Crystal explains the unique ability that our ears, throats and brains have to do this thing we call language. Not mere communication- but language. Broken down into as many parts as science has been able, the process is fascinating. In the same way that visual perception both aids and distorts what we see, auditory perceptions has its own modifications for better overall use even at the risk of obfuscation of reality. Just as in visual perception: repetition, constancy, and closure dominate. Our ability to pick out words, particularly familiar ones, such as one’s name, in a crowded room defies the decibel level and chaos of noise.

The fact that our unconscious brains find order while our conscious brains try to instill order is an interesting collision of consciousness. But our conscious system is nothing if not incomplete: while in English we have five written vowel sounds, in speech we have twenty. And don’t even get me or my son Augie started on the sad lack of written punctuation.

Why is it that in English the ‘l’ sound in ‘fall’ and ‘leave’ is considered the same, when everyone can feel that they are produced in very different locations in the mouth and throat? One language will make the conscious distinction, while others will not. Every language makes use and organizes its own sounds, but no language makes use of all the sounds we are physically capable of making.

The word meaning, Crystal tells us,  has upwards of of twenty meanings. Twenty meanings of meaning. Oh Dio. Without these multiplicities we would not have the spectacularly creative and wonderful experience of language, but I have a feeling that the misery too is contained within. Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood…

How did this all begin? I’m going to have to side with the Danish linguist Otto Jesperson who listed all the possible theories of language origination, but favored one: the ‘la-la’ theory. Such a lovely name I hardly feel the need to say more. But here it is:

Jesperson himself felt that, if any single factor was going to initiate human language, it would arise from the romantic side of life – sounds associated with love…(351)

Typically, our extended efforts to maintain order create their own complications. So much starts to seem arbitrary and then some French deconstructionist comes running in and blows the whole joint up, making matters worse! In the end, and yes, I’m talking to you grammar police out there, clarity and sincerity is all that counts. If you understand me, and if you believe in me we are experiencing linguistic communion of the highest order. And it’s lovely (regarding lovely: apparently it is a word that women make much more use of then men…).

The unconscious order is wondrously, marvelously complex, yet also, intensely directed towards purpose…of course, the meaning of the purpose is the real mystery.

*Title from page 56: Distinguishing vowels and consonants