30 September 2005


I'm going to take a swing at the dictionary as Tom Bazan commented last time around to the effect of "The words have a meaning beyond their (traditional) Webster's meaning." Now, I like Tom a lot, but also because he gets me thinking. This time he got me thinking about the dictionary. I find the idea of a dictionary very interesting because the dictionary assigns meanings to words with other words. It's like a merry-go-round.
From Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers, a required text for my course: "Discourse organizing words are best presented and practised in their natural contexts. Simply looking them up in a monolingual dictionary can lead to a circularity of abstract definitions." (McCarthy 84)

McCarthy uses an example from the dictionary and I will mimic his method here. Note this (from www.dictionary.com):

prob·lem (prblm) n.

   1. A question to be considered, solved, or answered: math problems; the problem of how to arrange transportation.
   2. A situation, matter, or person that presents perplexity or difficulty: was having problems breathing; considered the main problem to be his boss. See Usage Note at dilemma.
   3. A misgiving, objection, or complaint: I have a problem with his cynicism.

If we chase down the meaning of the first open word in this definition “question,” we find:

ques·tion  (kwschn) n.

1. An expression of inquiry that invites or calls for a reply.
2. An interrogative sentence, phrase, or gesture.
3. A subject or point open to controversy; an issue.
4. A difficult matter; a problem: a question of ethics.
5. A point or subject under discussion or consideration.
6. A proposition brought up for consideration by an assembly./ The act of bringing a proposal to vote.
7. Uncertainty; doubt: There is no question about the validity of the enterprise.

Please note the definition of "problem" appeals to an understanding of "question" and the definition of "question" appeals to an understanding of "problem."  Now, you might argue that given enough words, we are able to pin down the meaning of one particular word, but if you continue to dig and chase down all these words, I suspect, in the end, they are all, in one way or another, dependent on an understanding of another related word. If you feel dizzy, you're not alone. It's called circular reasoning, and it's a problem.

Imagine for a second that you were handed a dictionary for another language and told to learn the second language. Could you do it. Of course you couldn't. Your dictionary would just point you to other words that would be defined by the same word you originally didn't understand. Believe me, it's happened as I try to use my good old Japanese dictionary for terms that don’t appear in English. All you get is Japanese examples and other Japanese words that bring you back to the same word. The "code" of language is so oddly inter/ self dependent that it makes any kind of real definition impossible. You must appeal to something outside of language if you want any real meaning to your words.

This intrigues me as an artist and a Christian because I think we gain meaning through art and imagery. For example, a new question: define love. That’s a bitch, right? Almost impossible. Think now of 1 John, a book of the Bible dedicated primarily to the idea of love. "This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins." (1 John 4:10) John chooses to define love not as sacrifice, he appeals to the act of God sending God's son as a sacrifice. Suddenly, the word is not a word but the concept of an action. And from the action or concept of the action we can find meaning.

One more, again from Kanye West: what is a "gold digger"? It could be any number of things: a person who actually digs for gold, etc., etc. But West uses imagery to define the word:

"Cutie the bomb
Met her at a beauty salon
With a baby louis vuitton
Under her underarm
She said I can tell you ROC
I can tell by ya charm
Far as girls you got a flock
I can tell by ya charm and ya arm
but I'm lookin for the one
have you seen her
My psychic told me she have a ass like Serena
Trina, Jennifer Lopez, four kids
An i gotta take all they bad ass to show-biz
Ok get ya kids but then they got their friends
I Pulled up in the Benz, they all got up In
We all went to Den and then I had to pay
If you fuckin with this girl then you betta be payed
You know why
It take too much to touch her
From what I heard she got a baby by Busta
My best friend say she use to fuck wit Usher
I don't care what none of yall say I still love her."

I won't take time to talk about what West accomplishes here, except to point out that we begin to understand the term "gold digger" through descriptions of women who are "gold diggers." They seem to be women interested primarily in money and status. Suddenly, we have meaning that goes beyond words because we can conceptualise this sort of situation and recognize that the word and the image are a pair.

We've been doing this unconsciously our whole lives, being told to assign certain images to certain words, but who is controlling the stories and images we hear and see that define our words? What happens when new images and stories redefine words we have been accustomed to using in one way or another?

This is only Day Eight. More to come, I'm sure.

29 September 2005

Gold Digging

So let's consider Kanye West in relation to our little grammar question. Does the Kanye West listener suffer as a result of West's poor use of grammar?

Think about the song *Gold Digger* and this particular couplet: "I ain't saying she a gold digga/ but she ain't messin' wit no broke niggas.*

If we choose *fix* this couplet to correct the grammar and lexis to be more clear, we might say: *I am not implying that she only dates and (or) has sex with [black] men who have money and status/ but I am certainly saying that she does not date and (or) have sex with [black] men who have little or no money and status.*

West's grammatical and lexical choices are interesting (and be assured that these are choices, not an inability to speak in grammatically correct forms). Why does he choose the words that he does? This is, of course, a question of discourse--that is, West is doing his best to speak with lexis and grammatical patterns that are best understood by the listeners he either perceives or would like to attract and which he perceives to be the most clever. The question is, do his choices make his lyrics harder to understand?

Well, yes and no, depending on who you are. My father would have a very hard time understanding the first couplet, but would understand the second much more easily. Conversely, the young, black market that West is presumably targeting understands the first much more clearly because they negotiate this structure and lexis on a daily basis. I also find it interesting that this song has enjoyed a great deal of mainstream success, proving that even suburban white kids and their parents, from the looks of the Billboard charts can understand West quite clearly.

This seems to show that improper use of grammar doesn't necessarily mean a lack of understanding on the part of the listener. Moreover, it could be argued that this more vulgar or incorrect use of grammar conveys West's philosophy/ thesis much better than proper use would.

A quick question of translation: would you translate the n-word in this case to mean *men* or specifically *black men*?

28 September 2005

Words mean things

Since I've started my first class at Birmingham, I've got a lot of linguistics on my mind and would like to talk about that with you all. Aware that this subject is not all that sexy, I've decided to write this entry while wearing only my underwear. So my first class is composed of two units, one on written discourse and the other on spoken discourse. Discourse is all about trying to understand words in context: how words gather meaning based on how, where, when, etc. they are used. It's all much more complex that you might imagine at first glance and it's a wonder we can communicate at all, in my opinion.

This had me thinking about our good friend Rush Limbaugh, who I used to be a big fan of back in jr. high. Putting aside how shocking that is — and it is shocking — I remember being struck by a quote of his "Words mean things." I liked it so much that I put on an index card and pinned it up on my cork board with a bunch of other admittedly dumb quotes. Still Rush, even in saying these simple three word statement didn't realize how much he relies on your interpretation of the statement to make sense. For example, the word "things" is rather ambiguous, actually. Does he mean ideas or actual physical objects? If he means ideas, does he mean that each word has a set idea that it "means" or can that be changed? What does he mean by "means" anyway?

Let's try this, Rush: "Words, when spoken or written in a particular socio-political setting and era, represent meaning through certain signified elements understood and negotiated by both the reader and the writer/ speaker and listener."

This has so many implications spiritually, socially--in literature, translation and translation theory, ESL — your relationship with your girlfriend, parents, spouse — second language acquisition. It goes on and on.

My girlfriend, who is a graduate student in occupational therapy and is taking courses in statistics and estimation this term, has studied English in the Japanese school system for some 8 years, but had no reason to ever speak English until meeting me (I know, I know, I am a damn good reason, aren't I?). Anyway, after two months of solid Japanese only communication, she's started speaking English to me and it's incredibly interesting and cute. Note the following email she sent me: "Please tell him -thanks to you, about stephen is getting to bye bye coke-" then in Japanese "Banzai!"

This sentence made sense to me after I thought about it (I have given up coke after my friend Neal told me that it was killing me and Yoko is happy about this and wanted to thank Neal), but that meaning didn't occur to me suddenly. I had to re-read the sentence several times to make sense of it. That said, when I go back and try to correct it, I find it more difficult than I expected to explain why it doesn't work.

Most of the mistakes, in retrospect, are simply what happens when you try to speak Japanese in English or English in Japanese. Translation is more than translating words especially when you have languages that are so different.

Also, think of how often you see grammar mistakes on this site or dropped words, but still can deduce what I meant from the context? How do you do that?

Well, this is just day 5 so I'm sure they'll be a lot more on the plate in the future. But please, don't let our homely friend, applied linguistics, scare you. Under that unassuming exterior is all sorts of delight.

25 September 2005


Well Kotooshu's loss today took many of us by surprise, but not me. No, I knew it was going to happen when Tochiazuma, who is not winning any points in my book lately, basically fell on his ass and forced the match you see above. Anyway, next tournament, boys. Next tournament.

Yoko says I can be fat like Kotooshu and that would be okay. I think he has a nice ass.

24 September 2005


Would you consider it a major strike against me if I admitted I kinda like Maroon 5? I mean, would that totally make me like the biggest loser ever? I imagine for a second old friends asking me this same question, and I have to be honest that if either of them were asking me this question, the answer would be quite obvious.

You know what's interesting? The game Risk. You all remember the game Risk, right? We played the hell out of it in college: Lots of shouting at my roommate and talking advice from a wooden duck umbrella handle. These were good times: Jesus' cherry coke, Jimmy Eat World, that $25 couch, the infamous "Okay, no more gay jokes" summit...

I have played Risk twice in Japan (with other expats), and I'm always surprised about the reaction I get from Japanese when I give a brief explanation of the game. The Japanese don't play games of world-domination, you know, given the bad connotations. I wonder if there is another country where this game is popular. Anyway, playing Risk makes me feel especially American and I don't like feeling especially American. Also I get very angry when people break their agreements with me.

I'm sorry that this picture is now replacing the picture of Yoko as she has a lot more on me as far as the attraction goes. A lot more... ::sighs:: Plus, she doesn't shout at Ben (as far as I know). Oooo, he pisses me off.

You know, everybody mocked Tom Cruise when he hopped up and down on that couch, but I gotta say, I sort of feel it brother.

I started the Birmingham program on Thursday and despite having to sink another 25,000 yen on books, I'm pretty happy about my study of Written and Spoken Discourse. It looks like the shit. One of the ten options I can write on for the first unit is: "Compare and contrast the ways that clause relations are signalled in English and your students', or you own mother tongue, or another language in which you are proficient. Discuss the pedagogic or translation implications of your findings."

I'm going to play some Kanye West in class next week. Stay tuned...

19 September 2005

16 September 2005

Love is watching someone die

So I've had my share of girlish giggling about the new The Death Cab for Cutie's record, because yeah, okay, it's nice: I'm not saying it's not nice. But I can't suffer another compliment about hottie Ben Gibbard's lyrics. Come on, kids, "Love is watching someone die"? Let's think about this instead of sighing and hugging someone.

The statement "Love is watching someone die" is wrong in its current grammatical form. Plenty of folks watch folks that they don't love die. Here, I cite the great Johnny Cash who you might recall "killed a man in Reno just to watch him die." Mr. Gibbard is missing two small but important particles. Any takers? Ms. Ishida? That's right, the correct answer is: "Love is watching over someone while they die." To watch over is the image I think Mr. Gibbard is trying to get us to render up. But "Love is watching over someone while they die" is a little too long and it's probably not what Sarah said anyway. If you're interested in learning a little something about death in music not from someone in their twenties I would suggest Johnny Cash's "America IV" or Warren Zevon's "The Wind," both records that are really, actually about death. But whatever, Ben Gibbard makes the big bucks.

Oh, so I also started working out. Yeah, no shit, right? I decided it was time to no longer be fat. I am tired of it. Working out is fabulous so far. I feel great after 20 minutes on the stair machine. Plus, my ass is going to be hot. No results yet, but Neal says we need to wait three months. So I'll keep at it.

Finally, I'd like to state publicly that I like John Roberts. Anyone who is able to upset both the left and the right at the same time, while getting unanimously confirmed by the senate is my friend.

09 September 2005

Saying the wrong things

A one week absence can only mean one thing: that's right, I found meaning in life. No wait, wait. That's wrong. Very, very wrong.

I want to start by partially recanting on saying that Bush was a good dude because of what I saw on the TV. So yesterday, I was reading an article in Time, and I was sort of reminded that if I am seeing an image of the President on TV, especially in this sort of situation, it's PR. And the President understands this, I'm sure. So even if he is genuine in hugging whomever or consoling whomever, it's on the TV. And if there's anything I've learned about the TV, you can't trust it.

But in more important news, I started reading Esquire. What a great magazine. Finally, I can read about shoes and not feel guilty. Seriously, I spent like 30 minutes looking at shoes in this magazine and thinking, I'd love to have those shoes. I look at all the fashions. In high school, I was fond of saying, If I had money, I'd only shop at the Banana Republic. Now, I sort of have money, but it's all going to the University of Birmingham on Monday so I can start learning about "Pedagogic Grammar." I'll let you know what that means once I figure it out, but I can tell you now that it means no 40,000 yen shoes this year.

On the upside? This new job is the shit. It's great. I feel like an adult again. The kids are nice for the most part. I work a lot less and am making more money. The woman who sits next to me in the teachers' room is like the sweetest woman I have ever met.

Well, I found the responses to my contest pretty disappointing. I was hoping to hear something I forgot about. I'm still not over saying stupid shit, especially about my friend Neal. These two gems from the bar on Saturday:

Talking about Neal trying to give up smoking and replacing smoking with another habit, I said, "Well, how about masturbation? You could just masturbate every time you want to smoke." Or worse, when this weird guy from Florida who makes ice for Disney on Ice, the Japan Tour showed up and sat down at our table, the weird dude said, "Man, I love this song! It's like Duran Duran or something." And I said to him, "Yeah, this is the song that Neal lost his virginity to, right Neal?"

That's right, everyone. And I'm still single. Imagine that.

To wrap everything up today, I will end on a serious note: A woman from my church at home died suddenly last week. She was 26 or something and was supposed to get married tomorrow. This had me thinking about dying young and whether or not it is a tragedy. I didn't come to a conclusion about that, but did decide that if I were to die tonight, I would be content with the life I lived and not feel like I missed out on anything. Everything from here on out is cream: I've experienced love (including kissing a girl in the rain), learned a second language, spent the night on bench in any number of odd places, swam in the Sea of Japan, and eaten like 400 popsicles. What else is there?

03 September 2005

Praising the President

Alright, listen up, I'm saying something good about the President: So I've said many times that I think the President is a good man, with real compassion for people. I watched him with the people in New Orleans and I thought, yeah, I think I might understand why people like him. He's genuine. He's a genuine dude, and though that genuineness in punishing evil-doers is frustrating, his genuine love for people in pain is also very admirable.

Kanye West said the other day, "I hate the way they portray us in the media. You see a black family and they say we are looting, you see a white family and they say they are looking for food. America is set up to help the poor, the black people, the less well-off, as slow as possible."

And I was surprised by how much racism is still in me when I see a group of young black men looting a store.

01 September 2005

Bob was right (!)

Count this as a rare moment kids — I am publicly admitting that former roommate Robert Allen, was right about Desperate Housewives. Now that I've got over the initial humiliation, I think I can, you know, live a healthy life as a well-adjusted fan of the show. I'm glad to have said that.

My first day at the new job went on without any serious problems. The thing that could do me in is ¥70 strawberry milk in the school vending machine. Also, although I was complaining about the schedule, it turns out the sixth day will be canceled 50% of the time and other classes will be routinely canceled as well. Like next week, I think I have to work a total of 12 hours. Yeah, it's a nice gig if you can get it.

Also, by the way, what the fuck is happening down in New Orleans? I just read this and then having heard earlier that the President basically told the National Guard to mow down looters and then the 6 dollar gas and then the continuing problem that the ocean refuses to give back the city... Seriously, I think President John Kerry would have had the answer to all these problems: that's right, two purple hearts.