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.