Sunday, December 25, 2005

The Language of Art and Other Nonsense, a somewhat nutty blog.

I've never been a big fan of importing concepts from one discipline into an otherwise unrelated discipline, as when linguists, trying to be as scientific as they could be, imported the notion from chemistry that complex entities (compounds) are composed of more basic building blocks (elements). Within linguistics the sound (phone) was said to be the most basic building block of a language; that these are combined to form morphemes, which are the smallest meaning bearing units; that words are composed of morphemes; that phrases are composed of words; and that sentences are composed of phrases. All of this gives a bottom up analysis of sentence structure. The appeal of such a view of linguistic structure is clear. It seems to fit.

According to this account, each sentence was independent of all the others. Noam Chomsky in his book Syntactic Structures blasted this way of conceiving of language apart, arguing that there exists a set of basic linguistic structures in any language, called "deep structures" and that there exists a set of transformations that map these deep structures into the more complex surface structures that underlie actual sentences. The deep structures were said to be semantically interpretable and consisted of a "tree like" top down structure not so different from the earlier model that terminated in morphemes. Surface structures were also tree like and transformations were therefore viewed as devices (mathematical operations) that map trees into trees.

This allowed linguists to account for the obvious linguistic similarities that exist between sentences like John will leave, Will John leave?, and I know that John will leave. This intuitively very satisfactory model of linguistic structure was taught to introductory students for some years after most linguists had abandoned it. Naturally, a variety of fields imported the "deep structure" - "surface structure" model into their very different disciplines. Check out this page from a search I made at Amazon.com, for instance.

Such importations of concepts from one discipline which seems to be successful into another less well-understood discipline may be a useful, possibly even necessary way of trying to gain a foothold in less well-understood disciplines even though the models imported are usually, probably always, abandoned by their creators. Chemists no longer look at compounds in the way they used to and linguists no longer employ Chomsky's distinction between deep structure and surface structure.

There is another kind of importation of concepts from one discipline into another that I have also never found particularly enlightening. This arises when people talk and write about such things as "the language of mathematics" or "the language of music" or "the language of art." Not surprisingly, one can also find "the mathematics of language," and "the music of language" I haven't found "the art of language" but "language arts" is a commonly found class-room topic.

Talk about the language of music or the language of art comes from those that are professional or amateur observers or teachers of the disciplines involved, perhaps to give it greater cachet . Of the three phrases mentioned earlier, the first, "The Language of Mathematics," fails to be interesting on the grounds that there are a lot of different sorts of mathematics and there would be no single "language" of them. A notion like "the language of algebra," on the other hand, makes perfectly good literal sense though, of course, one must jettison the phonetic and morphological sides of language to do so. Propositional logic, which is a species of algebra, has a syntax (rules for forming well-formed constructions), as well as a semantics in that the connectives (and, or, if...then, not) have fixed interpretations. Obviously the propositional variables ("P" and "Q" and the rest) do not have fixed interpretations. So propositions of the form "P and Q" are open sentences, so to speak.

The notion that there exists a language of music, where we are using the word "language" literally, can be made a little bit sensible in that one must follow certain rules to form "well-formed" music, for instance, rules to avoid the creation of atonal music or rules to ensure that music is harmonic. Singers who do Barbershop Harmony, which is so bad that it ought to be outlawed, are surely following very strict rules. In these cases, to make sense of "the language of music" one must strip most of what is interesting about language away to make the metaphor work. For instance, musical phrases and sentences (if there are such things) do not have literal meanings.

Which brings us to the concept "the language of art." There is simply no way to make literal sense out of the idea that there is such a thing as the language of art and if one cannot make literal sense out of the notion, why in the world would anyone find it useful. However, it is fun to talk about "the meaning of meaning in art," which I shall blog on shortly.

[I have revised this blog because it was a mess due to the fact that I was still in recovery from the holiday football games which kept me up way past my bedtime.]

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Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Language and Women's Place (A Personal Blog)

Some years ago, a buddy of mine whom I haven't seen for a long time, Robin Lakoff, published a book Language and Women's Place that made a number of claims about differences in how men and women talk that reflect differences in the statuses and roles of women in society [my characterization]. This book was not based on any actual research. They simply reflected her experiences as well as common stereotypes. Although the evidence supporting her views was anecdotal at best, this didn't stop Robin's book from being powerfully influential.

Another friend, Deborah Tannen some year's later wrote a book
You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation which I critiqued chapter by chapter before publication, a fact which was acknowledged in her preface. In this book, Deborah argued that men and women have different speech styles reflecting differences in how boys and girls are raised and these different speech styles can result in men and women failing to understand each other. This book was also based on anecdotal evidence and some taped conversational data but this didn't stop it from being powerfully influential as well. In the several years after publication some 3 or 4 men came up to me complaining about how their wives had used the book as a weapon, demanding that they read it. The implication was that the failures in communication in the marriages was the man's fault. I complained to her in my critique that she was presenting a one-sided picture and she did try to even things out a bit. In general, howeverm Deborah has taken the position that when gender or ethnic or other differences lead to failures to communicate it reflects differences that result from how people are raised. It is my understanding that she took some heat for this from feminists for doing as much as she did by way of not laying blame on failures to communicate on men. The reality is that sciencewants objectivity and feminists don't.

There is some truth in both women's books but another friend, William O'Barr, has shown that men and women who enjoy equal statuses tend to talk in similar ways when in the some sorts of contexts, which falsified many of Lakoff's results at least to the extent of showing that they don't hold in every context. This would hardly be surprising considering that context always affects how we talk. Always.

Way back in 1962, Martin Joos wrote a paper called, “The five clocks”, which came out in The International Journal of American Linguistics in 1962, a paper that argued pretty persuasively that there are at least five speech styles that are employed in different contexts ranging from formulaic (the language of wedding vows, for instance) to formal (as when speaking with some dignitary at a formal gathering), consultative (the sort of talk one finds in business meetings), informal (how one might talk to an acquaintance on the phone), to intimate (how lovers and very close friends talk). I can't find my copy of this paper and am going by memory so don't hold Joos entirely responsible for what I have just written. In any event, as contexts become more formal, we find greater leveling of language differences whether these are gender based differences or dialectal differences.

O'Barr and his colleagues found this similarity in how men and women talk to be true, for instance, in how they talked when given testimony in court and concluded that men and women of equal social power will talk in similar ways. I once served as the outside examiner on a dissertation that showed that there were few differences between how male and female hosts of morning television talk shows spoke and how their guests spoke as well. One reasonable inference is that it is the speech context that is leading to the leveling of differences in how men and women talk. But, as I noted, these results argue less against the view that men and women have different speech styles and more for the view that the more formal speech is the fewer differences will be found -- that differences are leveled. Testifying in court and hosting and appearing on national television shows bring out a relatively formal, usually consultative, speech style. Anyone who has traveled to an English speaking country will note that the speech of the natives when talking to each other can sometimes seem not even to be a species of English it is so hard to understand but when talking to our touristic selves they magically become understandable because they (and we) move to more formal speech styles that tend to level the differences.

The work by Tannen, as I noted, has tended not to cast blame on speakers who have different speech styles whether the basis is gender or ethnicity or geographic in nature, just to cite a very few such bases. Boys and girls are raised differently and Tannen, a sociolinguist, noting this saw differences in how males and females talk as akin to cross-cultural differences, which, to a large degree seemed to let males off the hook for tending to try to dominate females by ignoring topics introduced by females, interrupting females more than males, and valuing the views of males over females. After all, boys are raised to be competitive and to dominate whomever they can. As feminists have noted this can't be right. Men can moderate their tendencies to dominate females if they try and should be chastised when they don't. Though I have always been very aggressive and therefore might have been (and maybe sometimes still am to some extent) one of the worst of the worst in regard to dominating whomever I could, I have spent a good deal of my life struggling to rid myself of these tendencies. Fortunately, my mother was a professional and when I went to Rice I learned to value intelligent women and these sorts of women are hard to push around. This was followed by being in graduate school and later in academic departments with very smart and accomplished women which discredited any assumptions I might have brought to adulthood bout male superiority. The last two experiences that helped me to change me was marrying a Phi Beta Kappa wife (an honor I was so far from reaching it is embarrassing) and finding that women students were much more pleasant to teach since they performed at a higher level than males in general.

Gender differences in speech style is a topic I have only a passing professional acquaintance with though I have dipped into the literature from time to time so I won't try to say much about the claims researchers into gender differences have made. I tend to think that the differences that do exist reflect differences in how males and females are raised but the less attractive features of male interactions with women need to be defended against by females to the point of kicking a little male butt when required. One thing is for sure -- any male who thinks males are superior to women in any way other than a few physical respects is laboring under a very unhelpful falsehood. It is in any man's interests to marry above himself intellectually. You will be much better entertained at home than you would be by marrying some bimbo with bit breasts.

I will conclude by noting a joke Rita Rudner used to tell. She said that women had once thought that they should marry older men since they are more mature but then women realized that men don't mature so they might as well marry a younger one. This is my all-time favorite joke.

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Monday, December 05, 2005

Sexism in Language -- II

In my first post on language and sexism, I noted that all too much of our language makes females invisible and treats males as the norm. These are fairly pernicious influences. Our language is also biased in how it characterizes the roles of males and females. But before going on I must make this a disclaimer: highly general claims about how we use language are always dangerous since usage can change very quickly and there is always variation in usage at any given time. I hope that commenters will free to comment in variations they are familiar with.

We have only once had a woman as a major party Vice Presidential candidate, namely Geraldine Ferraro, and we have never had a woman as a major party Presidential candidate. It would be interesting to see how our newspapers would characterize a second female VP candidate today. The first trime around they didn't cover themselves with glory. The Wall Street Journal, a respectable, even if conservative paper started off their main story with the heads and sub-heads:
Mondale's Choice Ferraro
Spunky And Natural, Moves Into a
Tougher League
The reference to Ferraro as being "spunky" and "natural" are so sexist that no editor of that paper today or any other respectable paper would describe a female candidate that way. It reflected our background presuppositions about women -- assumptions that were subconscious in nature. The term "spunky" is normally reserved for old men, women, children, and small dogs -- in short humans and animals that are not seen as strong by nature. We would laugh at anyone who described Arnold Schwarzenegger as "spunky" in The Terminator. But the kids in the Home Alone series of movies could fairly have been said to have been spunky. Rottweilers are not spunky but Pekingese can be. "Feisty" is another term that is reserved for the more aggressive humans or animals on the bottom half of our potency scale.

Even more telling about our attitudes toward women was the use of "Natural." This term made clear that Ferraro was seen as playing a role that one would not expect a woman to be able to pull off in a natural way. She was, in short, acting "out of role"as a VP candidate as sociologists might say.

At the site associated with the Title link it is said
he gender stereotype of women as warm, nurturing, and caring and the corresponding stereotype of men as cold, competitive, and authoritarian may have contributed to a popular perception that women are less effective than men in leadership positions, though in fact they are equally effective.
This suggests that male views of women have been changing very slowly where they have changed at all. What has changed is what men write and say for public conception. My book on the Language of Politics has some other examples of how newspapers presented this news item.

Where do we get these differential perceptions of men and women? I suspect we get them from every kind of source -- from children's commercials where boys are treated as leaders and girls as followers, from the toys and books parents give their children, from nursery rhymes, and from what they hear at school and at home, and from their friends say, etc.

In regard to school, our daughter came home when she was quite young chanting a little ditty that concluded.
boys have the mussels
and girls have the sexy legs.
My wife (a professional with a Ph.D.) and I were amazed -- fortunately, the role model presented by her mother and my own aggressive nature (my daughter when about 6 or 7 said "I like your style" to me to explain why she wanted to be like me) kept her safe from this sort of crap. Of course, we also had to battle the differential representations of boys and girls in the nursery rhymes, commercials, and her friends.

Many of the influences mentioned that operate to differentiate the roles of men and women are quite overt. Some are more subtle. The most effective would be the influences that we are scarcely aware of -- that are, in a way, subconscious or out of explicit awareness. IMO, how we characterize males and females through our use of language can have this sort of "subconscious" effect on the perceptions boys and girls acquire as to who and what they are.

Women are still seen primarily as sex objects (in the heterosexual world to which I will restrict myself) and this shows up linguistically. In the wonderful movie "When Mary met Sally," Billy Crystal tells Meg Ryan that males cannot be with an attractive woman, even one who is "officially" just a friend, without wanting to have sex with her. He -- or rather, his character -- is very probably right about most of us. To our everlasting disappointment all too many women "friends" don't feel that way about the males they hang out with.

Suppose someone says of some person, Terry, whom you had never heard of before, tbat this person was a virgint. I am betting that most of you would think instantly of Terry as being a female. Note that the very recent movie "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" was about a man who had not lost his cherry, not a woman. His friend's see his virginity as a problem he needed to rid himself of. No one would make a movie about a 40-year-old female virgin whose friends try to help her get laid for the first time though movies about women who are struggling to become active socially after a divorce or death of a husband are not uncommon. This asymmetry speaks to the asymmetry in roles of males and females sexually. Males are looking to get laid for the most part and women, while obviously not uninterested in sex, are looking for something more more substantial.

This asymmetry pops up throughout our language about sex. If I say, "Terry is a slut," most of you will see Terry as being female though one sometimes hears promiscuous males being refered to as sluts. That is a double put down since it equates the male with having a quality normally associated with females. Before Aids being a promiscuous male was seen as a good thing by many or even most men. In my day, this made you a "cocksman" or "stud." My dad actually said one time, "You cut a wider swath than I did," which he meant as a compliment. I can't see my mom saying that to one of my sisters.

Aids has changed things but I suspect that our attitudes about male and female promiscuity have not. Back in the "bad old days," being a whore was a bad thing but being a gigolo was not nearly as bad. I had thought that "gigolo" had dropped out of the language until the Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigalow movie came out. ("Male" was redundant in the movie title, of course.) But "whore" has definitely not dropped out. These days, one finds many references to "male whore,"suggests that being a whore is quintessentially a female vocation with male whores being the non-normal or exceptional cases.

The worst instances of the use of language to put women down are the pejorative terms used by men (normally) to refer to women. Some fifteen years ago or so, I went on a camping trip to Canada with three other men where we planned to do a lot of canoeing. One of the men used the term "bitch" and its plural virtually every time he referred to women. This drove me absolutely crazy but it illustrates a point. The negative terms that we use with women are great in number and are much too frequently used by men in talking to other men. I have in mind the use of terms like "slut," "whore," "cunt," and "bitch," and the like. Little boys who hear this sort of talk, as we all did in my time and as boys surely do today as well, cannot help but derive some fairly negative images of women. It is hard to see how boys would learn to respect women when they hear that sort of talk.

And, men use female terms to put other men down, as when they say things like "John's a pussy," or "throws like a girl," and the like. In comments to my first blog on sexism in language, some examples like this were given. Answers.com says of "bitchy" that it can be used offensively in reference to "A woman considered to be spiteful or overbearing" or "A lewd woman" or "A man considered to be weak or contemptible." The notion of females being the "weaker sex," if only because women are generally physically weaker than males, is likely to be with us for a very long time. The sad thing is that physical strength is not much of an asset in a world in which being smart and educated is of critical importance for success. And we will surely also put men down by using terms suggesting that they exhibit properties normally associated with women. Only if we use our brains are we men of much value in this world except to chop firewood and other mindless physical tasks.

One last note, which I find very funny. Mothers and fathers have have very different roles in our lives normally. Interestingly, when used as verbs they also have very different interpretations.. One can say "Terry mothered the children of the village" even when she was not the biological mother of any of the children. However, "Terry fathered the children of the village" is way different and is consistent only with his being the biological father of all of the children. Where it gets quite funny is when one contrasts "Terry mothered her kittens" with "Terry fathered his kittens."

I have noted in comments to the other blog that there are women who are comfortable with sexism. That is too bad. It doesn't do women or men or the society at large any good.

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Saturday, December 03, 2005

A Note on Intelligent Design

A few days back I saw a show on Sir Issac Newton on the High Definition broadcast by my local public television system that afforded an ironic picture of what a substantive theory of Intelligent Design might be. Newton, the quintessential empirical scientist did believe in God. On the web I found an article on Newton and Socinianism in which Newton is quoted as saying:
“This most beautiful System of the Sun, Planets and Comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being.”[i] The final line of the theological portion of the General Scholium concludes: “And thus much concerning God; to discourse of whom from the appearances of things, does certainly belong to Natural Philosophy”.[ii]
What we have here is an intellectually responsible theory of Intelligent Design -- it is a part of Natural Philosophy, which is to say, a part of physics, chemistry, biology, and the rest. Thus, according to Newton, Intelligent Design is not an alternative to science, it is what science is about.

Of course, Creationists and advocates of the irresponsible theory of Intelligent Design are so wedded to their neurotic view of what the Bible "means" that they cannot accept this view since they are wedded to the thesis that the world we live on is only a few thousand years old, some 6 to 10 thousand years (which is unlike most elements of Intelligent design refutable and has in fact been refuted), and that humans were posited on the earth in all their glory, replete with speech no less, which is at variance with Newton's insistence that Natural Philosophy be restricted to hypotheses that are subject to verification through replicatable experimentation. The thesis that humans were plopped onto Earth full grown and speaking some language -- Aramaic? -- falls in the realm of magic or mysticism or some other similar domain.

The current issue of The New Yorker, has a very nice report on the trial of Kitzmiller v. The Dover. Over the period of several weeks the advocates of Intelligent Design, especially Michael Behe, took a terrible drubbing. The on line issue of the Magazine has a related interview with Margaret Talbot, who wrote the New Yorker article which you may want to read. Among other things, the pseudo-theory of Intelligent Design was revealed to ignore virtually all of science, choosing to focus entirely on biology, including especially their favorite whipping boy, Darwin. I invite you to read this article. In the trial, the main advocates of ID were subject to rigorous crossexamination representing the first such case in American history.

The Dover school board had ordered a short statement be read mentioning Intelligent Design as an alternative to the theory of Evolution before the section on Evolution and this was what prompted the trial. The judge will give his ruling in January. The voters in the Dover school district have already given their verdict, ousting all Eight Republicans who supported the statement on ID and replacing them with Democrats who opposed them. I am betting the judge will take a similar view.

[i]Newton, The mathematical principles of natural philosophy by Sir Isaac Newton: translated into English by Andrew Motte, 1729, 2 vols., reprinted with an introduction by I. Bernard Cohen (London: Dawsons, 1968), vol. 2, p. 388. For this and the next quotation from the Principia, I use the familiar wording of the Motte translation. Afterwards I employ the modern translation of I. Bernard Cohen and Anne Whitman.

[ii]Newton, Mathematical principles, pp. 391-2. This reading is based on the third edition of 1726, which substituted “natural” for the word “experimental” in the second edition of 1713, thus broadening the claim.


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