The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Bob Stepno § The structure of journalism today / 2014-03-10 18:42:32

The Letter Kills, But the Phoneme Gives Life

We’ve got language on the brain lately here at Snarkmarket, so Ron Silliman’s link to a talk abstract by linguist Bob Port at Berkeley caught my eye.

Most of it’s written in linguistese, but the main idea is that when we’re talking, we’re not manipulating a storehouse of meaningful sounds that we’re carrying around in our heads, but kicking around each other’s speech in a way that approximates but can’t be reduced to these fixed categories. But we think that that’s what we’re doing, because when we learn how to read (matching symbols to sounds), that is kind of what we’re doing, even if it isn’t when we speak.

Here’s the kicker. To explain/summarize this idea, Port writes: All alphabets are a recent technology for low-bitrate representation of language.

Let me explain why I like this.

Language is one of our oldest technologies, and probably the most important. It’s inevitable that we use other technologies to try to understand how it works. One of our other really old, really important technologies is writing, which is, in its own way, an heroic and powerful attempt to understand and functionalize how language works.

But writing is too powerful; not only does it change the way that the whole field of language works, it “restructures thought,” as Father Ong would say, not least by making the whole field of language look a little more like writing.

Alphabetic writing alone isn’t the only communication technology that affects how we see language; clay tablets, books and scrolls, dictionaries, the telegraph, file cabinets, and computer programming all give us different metaphors for thinking about how signs and communication work. But we’ve got a richer set of storage and communication technologies than ever before, which means we have a broader set of metaphors. We’ve got more metaphorical memory and processing power, kids!

Which means that we don’t have to think of an alphabet as a permanent stone etching, an engraving on the heart, of what a linguistic sound looks like. We can think about it as a low-res copy, a functional representation, that flows in and out of our memory, gets remixed and mashedup and commented on and tagged by friends — an evolving document.

I think it’s a mistake to spend too much time dwelling on whether our current technology just introduces new distortions, because it inevitably does. It’s just that asking language (which is what we’re talking about) to give you something else is to ask language (even written language) to do something it does not really do. And that itself is three-quarters of the insight.


This post goes on the short-list for best title ever. “…But the Phoneme Gives Life!”

I liked what you said about “more metaphorical memory and processing power.” That seems to contradict, a bit, the vision of language and writing as lo-fi versions of direct experience. In fact resolution doesn’t have much to do with it anymore… ’cause the phoneme, or the letter or symbol or whatever, are doing something *much cooler* than just standing in for an object out there in the world. Right?

P.S. I think I might have just gotten lost in the matrix.

I ripped off the title from St Paul. But, yeah — I think this does suggest that both the spoken phoneme and the written letter are doing something much cooler and more powerful (if less tidy) than we usually think.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

Below, you can use basic HTML tags and/or Markdown syntax.