Monday, July 23, 2007

What About Helen Keller?

A friend of mine, Danial McCasoway - the author of Letters from Eden - upon reading my second post here, about Saussure's contention that a word to be meaningful needs both the signifier (sound/image) and the signified (the concept), mentioned Helen Keller. He recognized the fact that Helen Keller could not have access to the sight or sound of words, that she needed a substitute, which in her cases turned out to be touch.

Helen Keller's example gives us a strong case for the fact that in some sense language does indeed create reality. Her account in her autobiography is a deeply moving recollection of a pivotal moment in her life: her discovery that "Everything [has] a name" and that "each name [gives] birth to a new thought."

People who haven't read her autobiography will undoubtedly have seen The Miracle Worker (1960), the classic movie which depicts the moment at the water fountain where the young Helen realizes that the water flowing over one of her hands is "w - a - t - e - r" as it is spelled into her other hand by her teacher.

Helen Keller's case is such a moving example of how the "mystery of language was revealed to" her in that unforgettable moment that the movie was made two more times, as a made-for-TV movie in 1979 and in 2000. In the 1979 version Patty Duke, who originally played Helen Keller, plays Helen Keller's indefatigable teacher, Ann Sullivan.

The fact that Helen Keller had overcome the two main obstacles in the acquisition of language, for she had neither sight nor sound, testifies to humanity's infinite capacity for overcoming odds, and for the miracle of language to do its magic in spite of it all.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

"That which we call a rose . . . "

In my first post here I put forth the idea that - in some sense - language "creates" reality. It does not, of course, actually turn things into things, if you will. It's just that we need the names for things in order to see them as such, in order to see them for what they are.

A good way to see this is to recall a child asking, say, her father questions like "What's that?" The child is usually satisfied when he or she is told the name of the thing. "That's a horse, my son," as the case may be. Thereafter the child knows what a horse is. Language works like that, kind of.

Now Juliet's famous remark about the sweet smell of a rose regardless of its name is not as innocent as it may seem. She is arguing with herself against seeing Romeo as her personal enemy, when it's just his family name that's supposedly an enemy of her family's name. She would rather that Romeo renamed himself. That way their love would have no obstacles in its way. Wish things were that easy.

The fact is that we can't just rename things. And the reason why is itself interesting. Ferdinand de Saussure made a significant dual contribution to linguistics. His first is the definition of the linguistic sign, and his second is an assertion about it.

He defined the linguistic sign - the word - as consisting of two elements, a signifier (sound/image) and a signified (concept). Now these two elements are both within the linguistic sign, to put it this way. In other words, the signifier is not by itself the word. And the signified is not the thing the word names out there in reality. No, for a word to be meaningful, it needs at once to be both a signifier and a signified, combined.

Here's an example: The word "tree" consists of the letters I just spelled out. In this case this is the "image" of the word (the signifier), because it is written (if I had spoken it, it would have been the word's "sound"). For an English-speaking person to understand the word, he or she needs to have - always already - its concept (the idea of a tree) as well as its sound/image (the spoken or written form of the word).

When you hear a foreign language that you don't understand, you don't understand it because you don't know the concepts the sounds/images carry with them. You understand your own language because you have learned which sounds or images go with what concepts. Clear?

Now here is the whammy: Saussure has also put forth the idea that the connection between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary! There is no reason why the concept "tree" should have "tree" as its sound/image! If the connection between the signifier and the signified were "natural" rather than "cultural," we would all speak the same language! To learn a language is not just a matter of learning its sounds, but to also learn the "concepts" (the meanings) that go with each of its sounds. I hope that this is clear, too.

But there is more: once the connection between the signifier and the signified has been "established," it becomes conventional. And you can't break it! That's why a rose is a rose is a rose, and not some other name. Sure, it would look and smell the same no matter what its name happened to be, but once its name is rose, it's rose, period.

Steven C. Scheer

Monday, July 16, 2007

Does Language Create Reality?

Many years ago, when I taught my comp courses, I used to emphasize the idea that language creates reality. Students resisted this, even though I gave them the following "choices" to consider carefully:

Things are what we say they are!


Things are what we say they are!

The second version, with the emphasis on "say," would sum up the "Creative Theory" of language. As opposed to the "Expressive Theory," which assumes that the names given to all things - material as well as immaterial - already have the names we give them. This commonsensical view is totally erroneous. For one thing, as Ferdinand de Saussure, the famous linguist and the father of structuralism has pointed out, if words were "natural" rather than "cultural," we would all speak the same language.

In a sense we do all speak the "same" language, but different languages use different words with which to create the things and ideas the words name. The English "tree" is "Baum" in German and "arbre" in French, and so on with each different language.

So when we realize that language creates reality, we recognize the difficult to accept fact that it is through and by means of words that we see and understand (or even misunderstand) what we call "reality."


In other blogs here I shall keep exploring the many ways in which "words matter" in our lives. I shall throw light on poetry and prose (fiction, too), as well as movies - because I do consider movies to be part of literature. More of all this later.