Tuesday, March 24, 2009

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.

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