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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Blogger concerned citizen said...

I always thought of certain classical music pieces of having language, in that they are about certain things like for instance, Debussy's, 'Afternoon of a fawn'.
or Stravinsky's, 'Rite of Spring'. The fact that these pieces have titles that represent something literal, like the fawn as he goes about his business in the afternoon.
Aren't these types of music ment to have a 'story line' or provoke images, that could be in some sense interrpreted as, language?

1:50 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

In a word, "No." Not even close. No piece of music makes a statement that could be true or false or asks a question that has a specific answer or makes a request/command that somone could follow up on. If it doesn't do things like this it isn't language.

5:22 PM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

But if it isn't 'Afternoon of a Fawn' wouldn't we know it, somehow?

9:53 PM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

Wouldn't we say, "that doen't make me think of a fawn, it's just a jumble of music."

I know what a fawn is like, because I see them all the time, walking through the woods behind my house.

'Afternoon of a fawn' I understand. It isn't just music.
It's music, but also 'poetry'. & as far as I can see poetry & language can't be separated.

I really am not arguing for the sake of argument, but I must argue that in some context it's language.

10:16 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

There is no chance in hell that we would know that the music was either about an afternoon or a fawn. Music, if it communicates anything at all, doesn't communicate specific information. At most it communicates feelins, moods, and other similar things. I can't imagine why you are pursuing this line of argument. It is 100% wrong.

8:13 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

O.K. Jeez.

You are right, it doen't communicate specific information.

I'm just trying to get a feel of the context of the word 'language' that you are talking about.

9:39 AM

Blogger Mrs. Geezerette said...

LG, you say: "In a word, "No." Not even close. No piece of music makes a statement that could be true or false or asks a question that has a specific answer or makes a request/command that somone could follow up on. If it doesn't do things like this it isn't language."

What about sculture? Doesn't Giacometti's emaciated figures in his City Square make a statement: nostalgia for the earth; aspiration for the heavens; isolation from one another?

Aren't there elements of music in language in its active spoken form? Rhythm? Harmony? Timbre?

8:26 PM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

I often forget to be cautious about using metaphors & have had that pointed out to me back when I was into religion.(A hotbed of metaphors)

I wonder if it has to do with how language is approached by a particular individual. I mean L.Guy looks at it in a purely scholarly way & I look at it in a ?(not sure of the right word) romantic way.?

9:16 PM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

Assuming the greeting is still PC, Happy New Year, LG!

I think the (mis)usage you mention has more often blipped my radar in the form "the grammar (or syntax) of X"; I've always simply understood it as saying there's a certain set of primitive elements which are combined using a certain set of rules to produce a certain set of output structures (which may be transformed into alternative forms using another set of rules). That's as far as the analogy is usually taken, so it's ultimately unenlightening. And uninteresting.

I'm far more disturbed by serious claims by Chomsky minions and admirers in other fields that we are genetically predetermined to being able to create and comprehend only a limited range of possible musics, arts, scientific theories, etc.

5:03 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Suzieq, when you say "Doesn't Giacometti's emaciated figures in his City Square make a statement: nostalgia for the earth; aspiration for the heavens; isolation from one another?" you are using "statement" in a very broad and unhelpful way. Unless you can defend the idea that paintings have grammars (rules for generating paintings) you can't defend the use of "the language of painting."

I think part of the problem here is that people are confusing "comunication" with lingusitic act.

9:08 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

I think you are right LG. Most of us don't think about the lingusitics of language. Truthfully, I find it difficult to do so, even to understand. It's like switching into another mode.
I find myself going to the dictionary alot.
One of these days, the light might come on.

9:54 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

This is the worst site in blogland for splitting hairs.

The truth is I don't know how to talk any other way.

I've always thought language should be colorful & have a few visual images thrown in. I read too much fiction as a child, I'm afraid.

Lg has a different purpose in mind, he has to use it to get scholarly points across.

Often, I have to read a whole paragraph 3 or 4 times to make sense of it.(if I'm lucky)

You know what? I think I'm finally getting it.

12:13 PM

Blogger jo_jo said...

ibadiaron, why does Chomsky's claim disturb you? I mean, we can never know what it is like to hiberate, or turn into a butterfly, due to our genetics. Just wondering.

12:42 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

l>t, anything that can be read once and understood isn't very substantive. No one is served by simple minded blogs except, I suppose, simple minded people.

that girl, the idea of "painting poetry" is nonsense if it is taken seriously. However, trying to paint (i. e., illustrate, perhaps) specific poems might not be. In fact, it might be very interesting.

1:02 PM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

LG, there is a place in this world for simple people & complex people.

It's not easy sometimes to understand people who are diff. or to like them either. But, I think that is what is nice about blogging. Everyone in their own way, trying to make themselves understood using the written word(?). It's kinda like reviving the lost art of letter writting.
Some of us are complusive(& have to take our knocks for that) & some of us are more mature.

It's nice to have a bit of both.
My opinion of course.

I'm really looking forward to the next blog, BTW

1:38 PM

Blogger Ripple said...

I can communicate a train with a train beat on my drums. You'll be thinkin' "train" because that's what it sounds like. I can communicate thunder and lightning with a piece of metal too. I can communicate a telephone or dinner time with a ringing bell. I can make a person think of sex with some porno funk. Jimi Hendrix did some amazing things on his guitar too. Live a dive bomber, etc. I think certain things can be communicated with music or just noise created by instruments. If you think about it, music and language cme from the same source...the vocal chords. Some sounds in language are pretty universal. Like for instance, Aye yi yi, or owww or uh-huh. How about Mmmmm or ever OK. They can be sung or expressed in many different ways and the inflection will give it the same meaning no matter what language a person speaks.

3:39 PM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

I do think that the french language is pretty. I mean the sound of it. As opposed to the sound of the German language(my apologys, to the Germans) which kinda scares me. Whether it is propagada or ?...I'm not sure.
Oh my gosh! Am I talking about the 'language of languages'.
LG will beat me w/a wet noddle.

12:42 AM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

All this mention of French reminds me of one of the Matrix movies, where a character called the Merovingian says, "I love French wine, like I love the French language. I have sampled every language, French is my favourite - fantastic language, especially to curse with. Nom de Dieu de putain de bordel de merde de saloperie de connard d'enculé de ta mère. You see, it's like wiping your ass with silk, I love it." Certainly changed my associations. Romantic? Mais bien sur.

jo_jo, ignoring for the moment the fact that pretty much everything the alter kaker & friends have to say disturbs me, I accept that there are things (like your very good examples) which we can never perceive or "know" (or appreciate) firsthand because of the limitations of our genetically determined physical modality. I'm not so sure, though, about there being anything that we cannot analyze and comprehend, given sufficient technological innovation and time.

Maybe I'm mistaken, but I've always felt there is a very pernicious aspect to Chomsky's pseudoscientific musings on genetics and human cognitive abilities. Some hidden agenda, perhaps?

9:37 AM

Blogger JoKeR said...

Setting aside all the "this of that" discussion, I wanted to respond to your opening comments about phonemes, morphemes, etc. When I was in elementary school some 40 years ago, the school board decided we would be taught using the Roberts Modern English Series which focused on just those things (I think they were trying to do for English what Modern Math had done for the study of arithmatic and mathematics). Our assignments were to take sentences and break them down by both sound and meaning into those basic building blocks. In the years since this has proven to be, as far as I can tell, completely irrelevent to my daily living. On the other hand, not having been taught the traditional methods of sentence diagramming where the subjects, objects, verbs, etc. are identified has been a notable stumbling block. Fortunately, I learned a little bit about it when I studied French. I certainly hope that this approach to teaching English grammar and language skills has been abandoned, at least at the elementary school level. It might well be of interest to linguists, but is less useful to the general population, IMHO.

10:22 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

I see ibadairon's point.
Thinking about first homo sapians, when they got around to needing to communicate with words strung into sentences, having to cummunicate w/other tribes, formal language, dealing w/the written word, etc...until now. Who would of thot it would ever get this far? & who knows anyway, how far we can go...Human have an ability to reach beyound themselves & are able to use any means avalible.

Individually, we have limitations. But, collective knowledge is what counts, in the long run.

Personally, I wouldn't put anything beyound humanity. We could even stop WAR, if we put our mind to it. I don't like to use the word 'believe' but I like to think our higher consciencness is only limited by the boundries of the universe.

I know I'm off the track of the subject. But, us humanists get carried away w/this stuff.

12:14 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

joker, I have no idea what kids are taught about English these days but it may be no accident that I loved sentence diagramming as a kid and that may have been a sign that I was disposed to like linguistics.

Schools should not spend any time at all on the spoken English of kids but instead should put all their time and resources into teaching kids to write. Kids will improve simply doing a lot of writing. If the writing is critiqued, they will do even better. Worrying about how they talk is a waste of time. Labov of UPenn did a study of New Yorkers that showed that most kids coming into the high schools he taught spoke in a similar fashion but after a time they split off into two groups, one that stayed the same and another than began increasingly to conform their speaking to standard English. This correlated very strongly with who wasn't and who was going to go to college. I suspect no conscious decisions were made by either group. In fact, changing how you talk in high school or later is hellish difficult to do if done deliberately. However, it seems to be much easier if one switches from faminly and peers as linguistic role models to teachers and educated members of the community.

8:19 AM

Blogger jo_jo said...

Thanks for the new project, ibadiaron! Now I will actually have to go and research this guy, which I have been avoiding for some time.

Joker, I was only introduced to grammar in French and Latin, too. I think it would have been helpful if someone had hardcoded the definition of "past participle" into me before I was 13. As it is, I have to look it up every time.

LG, thanks again for a great discussion!

2:19 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

For once I agree with you, L_guy. It certainly is a waste of time to worry about how kids talk. Pronounciation, I believe, is very important though. The only thing I remember from grade school, as far as that goes, was being brought outside one day with a linguist and she had me read a couple sentences just to make sure my s's and such were pronounced properly. But really, the key to success, I believe, is having really good writing skills. I never did finish an english class in high school because I ditched alot to go smoke cigarettes and pot and stuff, but I did pay attention when I actually went to class. I have read an awful lot too. Reading is also very crucial to writing skills (obviously). It will expand a persons word usage considerably. When I fianlly did take my necessary English 101 in college, I passed with an "A" grade because of my writing skills.

You see, I can talk any way that I want to depending on who I am talking to. I can be formal, like talking to grandparents or officials, or I can be very informal in an almost ebonics sort of way when I'm hanging out with my band. I just wanted to chime in on that comment that you made. BTW, part of the reason I like reading your blog is because it helps keep my mind fluid rather than stagnant. I don't read too much fiction, but I read a lot of interesting articles in magazines and online. But all the reading really helps with writing skills too. How does this relate to the language of language? Well, I don't know, but somehow being more actively involved in your language sure does help your language skills exponentially. I really notice how people talk, and it shows up in their writing skills too. I have to sometimes write boundary legal descriptions in my line of work and I can't even imagine how incredibly difficult it would be without proper technical writing skills. Part of the reason I do a blog myself is to nurture my writing skills.

2:44 PM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

How students talk (=pronunciation) is of course an issue for those of us in ESL settings. (Trivial objection, I know!)

I've tried using sentence diagrams to illustrate structure a few times but have found that my students seem to do better with (a version of) the more modern trees. For simple examples there's not much difference, but when it comes to complex/compound sentences, the (updated) Reed-Kellogg diagrams quickly get pretty hairy and, in my opinion, arbitrary and obscure.

I guess I'm lucky in having entered "grammar school" during one of those windows when grammar was actually being taught. Studying Latin on my own later probably didn't hurt (my HS only offered French at the time...à propos de ton commentaire, chère j_g, vraiment, c'est jeter des perles aux pourceaux! Oui, oui, oui, all the way home?). Bringing Latin back into the curriculum seems like a good idea for several reasons (e.g., etymological knowledge, logical analysis of texts, mental discipline?), but is no doubt out of the question in most districts (due to lack of support, enough trained teachers, etc), right?

(jo_jo, no need to hurry, if you've managed to avoid him this long! : )

1:42 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

shave and haircut, what I am saying is that, say, no symphony or sonata or etude or melodic line can make a claim that would admit of verification. Obviously, a sentence sung could make a claim or ask a question or the like but that is still a sentence even if sung.

1:52 PM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

Music 'communicates' but is not a language. This is what I've learned.

2:56 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Ah. I seem dimly to recall a reference to this phenomenon from my distant past. Based on what the article says, I see no reason not to think of it as language, possibly a simplified language used for specific purposes rather than for conversation when right next to another person or a business meeting. However, it appears not to be music, any more than English is. It just uses different "vocalizations." No effort is made apparently to make the communications aesthetically pleasing. Rather, information exchange seems to be the purpose.

The need to communicate over long distances seems to have led to this form of communication. In that respect it is not so different from the use of drums in Africa to communicate over a distance in highly vegetated areas, as another dim memory suggests.

7:41 PM


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