Sunday, 14 December 2014

"I open my eyes and my eyes are filled"

-the title of this entry is taken from David Berlinski (2009)

Much of the features of the human brain seems to obey the principles of quantum physics: how we see the world (matter) in all its richness of colour (wave-like); how our actions and mental states can be apparently influenced by our notions of past, present and future; etc. Even the way we so effortlessly express and comprehend language has pseudo-quantum physical like features.

In thinking about language I'm always struck by the human mind's ability to take in and express fully-formed and/or spontaneously forming ideas in the act of speaking and listening. This may be just an illusion of timing—I concede this only contingently because whether it be an illusion or not it is a fine and good thing to have. At any rate, the notion of completion (quantum, if you will) seems built-in to our aesthetic/semantic sensibilities such that an incomplete thought always leaves us scrambling to complete it: our "linguistic turn" demands satisfaction.

The morpho-syntactic structure of the Inuit language is highly mathematical where the interaction between phonology and morphology is so beautifully regular that we (those that speak the language) can and do anticipate, and can and do predict the place and manner of articulation the variant will take on depending on the following morpheme—cause apparently follows effect in this case because most of the phonological assimilation rules in the Inuit language are "regressive" (ie, the cause/effect goes backwards).

ani- becomes anijumajunga  "I would like to exit (now)"

pisuk- becomes pisugumajunga  "I would like to (take a) walk"

isiq- becomes isirumajunga  "I would like to enter (now)"

the bold text are examples of "progressive" assimilation (basic form remains [juma] when it follows a root ending in a vowel; /k/ changes to [g] in the second case; /q/ changes to [r] in the third). In all cases, the place of articulation of the initial segment is left unchanged, but the voicing is changed (as is typical of Inuit language assimilation rules)

But, in the case of

pisuktunga  "I am walking"

pisuglanga "let me walk"

the assimilation rules are "regressive"—again, following the general rules of Inuktitut, the place of articulation of the final segment of the root verb (pisuk-) remains unchanged but the change in voicing is affected by the following morphemes ([-tunga] and [-langa]) that differ not only in semantic content but, more importantly, whose initial segments differ in voicing.

This morpho-phonological feature of the Inuit language is not so uniquely strange to the Inuit language. English, to some extent, also has this feature—in fact, all human languages do; the only qualification seems to be that the phonological change be phonetic and not phonemic (ie, have no semantic significance in the change).

In English, the word "miss" ends with a segment /s/:

"I miss her"  -no change in the final /s/ (say it out loud);

but, /s/ becomes [sh] in

"I miss you" (compare it with "I miss her")

This change in /s/ is called "fronting" and it anticipates the following "you" which is articulated relatively close to the lips in comparison to "how" which is pronounced further back in the sound-production apparatus (ie, the mouth as a whole).

The production of speech (and expression/comprehension of thoughts) is largely psychological where the encoding and decoding processes happen too fast for the conscious mind to discern. The currency of speech comprises of idealized quanta of fully formed thoughts. This interplay apparently pays little attention to individual sounds, words and phrases which smear out and bleed into each other forwards and backwards, and this process must be unhindered lest meaningfullness just sort of evaporates—I mean, try and repeat the same word over and over again or stare at an individual word for a while and our mind's eye will just naturally glaze over because there is no real meaning to hold its attention.

The various narratives and semiotic frameworks (ie, our prior experiences) determine our ability to interpret and decode meaning and comprehension/take-away is often idiosyncratic rather than collective: our ability to learn and acquire new frameworks demands it. Collective follows idiosyncratic.

When the process of language acquisition is disrupted in a sustained way—as what happens in inappropriate "pedagogies" like the so-called "whole language" approach—what comes naturally is lost. Whether this is permanent or not, I don't know. It certainly has devastating consequences as histories of "colonialized" peoples bears this out time and again.

I think this disruption can be overcome simply because it is proven time and again that the human mind is extremely resilient and seems to naturally seek ways of transcendence and compensation, after its own way and fashion.

The ability to switch back and forth between various narratives/semiotic frameworks seems to be the key. Intelligence, at the end of the day, is a given. But the more learned and educated a person becomes the more natural and well-oiled the ability to shift intellectual gears become. Exposure to new and well-articulated ideas and experiences facilitates language acquisition; not so much with rote memorization.

Jay

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