The Way of Words [Language]

or, Something from Nothing

Last week, I attended a presentation by Dr. Kim Yong-Taek, my professor for Japanese 302 during winter quarter, called “Linguistic Descriptions of the Same Event in Japanese, Korean, Chinese and English.” A talk about how we do things with words! Okay, so it wasn’t about performatives per se, but it did make me think a lot about language in general, and continue to pester me with thoughts of linguistics study even though most of it makes my eyes glaze over.

The crux of Kim’s presentation (and the focus of his dissertation, whence this presentation was derived) was that speakers of different languages often describe the same event in completely separate ways. For example, when American students were shown an aquatic scene as part of a cognitive psychology experiment, eye-tracking software revealed that they looked at the fish (the subjects) first and the other stuff (the setting) last. By contrast, Japanese students shown the exact same picture looked at the fish last, only after they had glossed over the setting. This difference goes as deep as language. Compare:
English: Where am I?
Japanese: これどこですか。(lit., “Where is here?”)
In English, we focus on the subject (I), and in the case of that sentence, the self. It’s the genuflection of body-based narcissism, yeah? Whereas in Japanese, identity can take a back seat to the sensurround—there’s not even an active verb, really; just a bland copula. Extend this to the culture level: America, e.g., is much more individualistic than the collectivistic Japan.

It got more interesting when he started talking about grammatical constructions, which gain meaning in addition to their constituent words. For example, [VERB]+away, as in “chip away,” “talk away,” and so on. This adds a connotation of heedlessness and incompletion, such that whoever is chipping away is still chipping and whoever is talking away is still talking, with little care as to what else is going on around him or her.

In the same way, [VERB]+out, as in “lash out” or “strike out” (not the baseball phrase). The connotation here is one of violence and temporality, and a sense of being “in” the action and not anywhere near its result.

This is the part of linguistics that really interests me. Patterns of language. The creation of meaning from essentially nothing. A word, either symbolized in a series of glyphs or an ideograph, or vocalized with modulated sounds, means nothing when taken at face value. But by the faculties of our brains we begin to apply meaning even from square one. From nothing springs infinities.

Until I blog again, I encourage everyone to think about those value-added constructions that we can’t live without, and what sense we make or unmake with them. Hell, put them in the comments, if you so choose.

This has been me writing away, blogging out at you.