Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Language is the House of Being

I submitted a comment today to one of the blogs that I read regularly. It is written by a young linguist and so the subject matter was words, specifically how their meanings can change in popular usage, sometimes to the extent of coming to mean the exact opposite. As I was writing the comment, it happened to me again. Sometimes when I pay too close attention to a word I start to get this strange feeling that the word begins to slip away from me, lose it's meaning and become something very strange and incomprehensible. A short word like "and" if stared at for a while starts to look odd and I begin to wonder if I'm even spelling it correctly. The more common and everyday the word, the more likely this bizarre confusion can result for me. I thought about going into Linguistics but was freaked out by the possibility that I would one day become a blathering idiot unable to understand simple speech.

You might know what I mean if you have ever started thinking about an everyday activity while you're engaged in that very activity. If you really pay attention to the way you walk as you are walking you can become very confused and possibly trip. This, I think explains the awkward person's gait. He or she may simply be too conscious of the way in which they are being perceived. The really cool person is someone who seems not to care what you think when they walk past.

For heaven's sake don't even try thinking about chewing while you eat, you are likely to bite your tongue or the inside of your cheek. Likewise, a really smooth series of hammering strokes can be interrupted by thinking about hammering thereby causing you to bang your thumb. I think words are like that, in that they are the most common everyday tool that we use and speaking and reading are the most common of everyday activities. If you stop and scrutinize the tool or activity while engaged with that tool or activity then estrangement results from that tool or activity. The more intimate and everyday that tool or activity the more freaked-out you could be if you ever stop to look at it really closely. It is our nature to take such things for granted. Look very closely at a fork or a doorknob and you might get that feeling I'm describing.

Martin Heidegger touches on this in Being and Time. The meaning of being is derived through the series of interconnected relations of other beings-in-the-world. The human being which he called Da-sein relies on a dependency between Dasein and the world. You can be in a state of un-reflecting everydayness until you stop and make a separation between you and other beings. The hammer, the fork, the doorknob, you and the word function within a field of experience that constitutes existence until you choose to atomize or make discreet this existence into parts that are set off against each other as distinct beings.

Words and World.


Can Opener Boy said...

I surfed to your blog via Blogger's wonderful "next blog" linkage, and really enjoyed your thoughts here. I thought I was the only one who'd experienced these situations. Nice to know I am not!

My father was a court reporter and I grew up helping him proofread. After a half-hour of reading legal transcript, I would usually "zone out" a bit. The actual context slipped away and the page became a simple linear stream of words to analyze and compare with my mental picture of how the word should look. When I "came to" I would have read many many pages but had no idea what I had read or how much time had elapsed. I kind of liked that feeling.

Once in High School, as I was proofreading my own term paper, I could not get past the word "of". As I read, I would often subvocalize, and I kept wanting to change the spelling to "uv" but I knew somehow that wasn't right -- yet could not get my mind around how the spelling "of" could be correct either. I did not like that feeling!

Now it is the less commonplace words which strike me as odd. Two which keep coming back this way are




~ Keith

amy said...

this happened to me yesterday with the word 'happen'. in syntax we were dealing with verbs like happen/seem/appear and so they were written on the board so many times and i kept staring at 'happen' thinking what does that even mean?


saussure would say words are just arbitrary squiggles on paper (blackboard, etc.), and that they only have whatever meaning we attach to them. in that respect they differ from things like doorknobs and forks...whose form by design gives them affordances. they ask to be interacted with in certain ways. if you had never seen a fork, you still might have some idea of what to do with it. with words, not so. though it is certainly always a little startling to really examine everyday things.

thank you for the mention. i'm not really that young though, and i only barely deserve to be called a linguist. :)