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“Words, mere words…”

What people very often really mean by the “dictionary” is the Lexicon. It is the virtual space where the words (a.k.a. lexemes) of a language are stored in the grammar. Each word/lexeme is metaphorically equivalent to a circle around a semantic domain, or a circle within that domain, like a circle drawn somewhere within an area of a field — an infinite field that constitutes the indefinite possibilities of Meaning. For some words, like German “Geist” (just to pick an example), the circle may be bigger; and for other words, the circle may be smaller — like English “mind” and “spirit” and “ghost”, which are three smaller circles encircled by the bigger circle symbolized by utterance “Geist”. Translating into English you would have to choose from one of the three English words, or perhaps use all three; and translating from one of the three into German, you may need to paraphrase to indicate which aspect of the semantic domain “Geist” is meant.

One must wonder if any of these circles represent a real distinction and are not totally arbitrary or merely functional. This question inevitably leads to the great debate in philosophy over Universals and Particulars. The Universalist school of thought would say our “circles” represent real universal entities — indeed, our “circles” would be the shadows in Plato’s cave metaphor, where, he said, in life we only see shadows of the Ideal, i.e, real. The Nominalist (who favors the “particulars”) says there are no universals, that the circles are not real.

If one accepts the Nominalist approach, then one would be forced, logically, to accept the fundamental premise of the Buddhist poem The Prajna Paramiti Heart Sutra, which states, basically, that everything and everyone has no true self because what one thinks is the “self” is merely a grouping of other smaller constituents. One could go on from there, imagining one is looking through a microscope, seeing the constituents, then focusing on a constituent to see that it, in turn, is composed of constituents; and you can continue in this manner until, once you have unraveled the whole chain of constituents by getting to their end, find everything, ultimately, is based on nothing — except something verbal and moving, like a song but not like a sculpture: and this is where words in their very distinction, seen as so fundamental and therefore true, of verb vs. noun, fails utteraly, and how Science itself has come to this problem by having to controdictingly define light as both a wave and particle…

…or else, alternatively, one could imagine that the chain of constituents NEVER ENDS! This viewpoint is analogous to saying the universe has no beginning, that there was neither a First Cause (e.g, God[dess]) that poofed it into existence with the wave of his/her/its mighty hand; nor did the universe somehow poof itself into being out of nothing, like the “gaping nothing” — Ginnungagap — in the mythology of the ancient Norse.

One must wonder if some semantic domains/circles cannot be just plain erroneous, even slanderous — i.e, grouping entities together which simply do not go together, or putting a circle where there is nothing to put a circle around. Derogatory expressions like “slut” and “bitch” group “female” with “wanton promiscuity” or “furious, begrudging maliciousnes”” respectively, as if those two negative(?) qualities were dependent on being a female — though a male is perfectly capable of them all as well. Thus, those words are sexist. Another interesting example of bigoted and erroneous semantic domains is in Old Norse - it is the word “ergi”, which all at once means “homosexual, sexual pervert, evil sorcerer, coward”. If a man fits into one of those four semantic domains (such as “homosexual”), then he is supposed to necessarily be in the other four! Indeed, these sorts of words are profoundly loaded, unrightfully mixing semantic domains together in much the same way of that infamous question “Are you still beating your wife?” To say Yes would incriminate, and to say No would as well. Perhaps the correct answer is Zen “Mu!”, though that's a whole other study in itself.


But sometimes with words we try to make them an experience in themselves that mimics reality — like art. This is what happens with onomatopoeia, i.e, words that are supposed to sound like what they mean. Note, though, that the famous linguist Saussure claimed all sounds of Language, of words were arbitrary. I do not imagine he would have disagreed that there are exceptions with such words as “bow-wow” and “boohoo”. But the case for onomatopoeia in Language goes much farther than that, I would say. Onomatopoeia can account for certain similarities between unrelated languages on opposite sides of the planet.

For example, in the Germanic languages (and they include English!) there is something traditionally called the “dental preterit” …We will call it the “tongue-tip past”. “Dental” does not make much sense because the teeth are not necessarily involved — it’s all about the tip of the tongue. This Tongue-tip Past is, basically, a sound like “d” or “t” that is tacked on to the end of verbs to stand for the past tense (think of the English “-ed” ending). But mysteriously, there is a tongue-tip past in Japanese (“tt”), too! The “tongue-tip sounds” are often used in languages at the beginning of formatives that have to do with pointing - i.e, deictic markers and prepositions like “this, that, there, to” and Polish (not Germanic) “to, do, tam, tutaj” and so on. The “-ed” ending points to a period in time. Indeed, the very movement of the tongue with “t, d” et cetera is that of pointing, the tongue sticking out like a finger…

Another example of onomatopoeia is the “eee” sound being made use of to stand smallness, cuteness, the quality of something being close (a small distance, in the present): the middle of the tongue held tight and close to the palate — the “bosom of the mouth”, I would call it, being poetic. And complimentaing “eee” is “ahhh” being made use of to stand for bigness, what is a big distance away (not present), and because not big, not cute: the mouth is held open wide, articulators held far apart, producing acoustics recognizable as such by the hearer. Think of “sing” as opposed to “sang” (historically “i” was pronounced more like “eee”, and “a” more like “ahhh”). One says “this” for something close (present), and “thatg” for something not present (far, a big distance away). And the ending “-y”(= “eee” sound) makes something sound cute: “laddy” or “lassy” as opposed to “lad” or “lass”. The diminutive in Polish is formed by palatalization — which is to say, saturating the entire word in “eee”: tweaking the articulations of consonants and vowels alike to sound in tune with “eee”… by taking on an palatal articulatory setting for the duration of the word, so all phonemes are steered towards being articulated moreso in the area of the vocal tract where “eee” originated (just note the position of your tongue when uttering “eee” “eee,” and you will know the area I am talking about).

Platonic Taoism

The mythic or real person who brought Buddhism to China and in that way founded Zen, Boddhidharma was his name, is sais to have said “Freedom from words is liberation.” Nietzsche in his essay On Truth and Lie in an Extra-moral Sense said when an individual makes a word, s/he takes an image of one entity observed or experienced and imposes it on other entities, i.e, forces them to coincide, like a cookie cutter from which the extra dough that doesn’t fit gets cast aside — thrown into the junk-bucket. Plato, on the other hand, would not say there is any such junk-bucketing imposition, but that the other entities remind the individual of the Ideal, which is known intuitively, never experienced. The latter is the Universalist approach, the former the Nominalist. Which one is more true? Consider how the Intellect itself is a “grasper”: to understand is to “grasp” and, revealingly, the German word for “concept” is “Begriff”, which is cognate to “grasp” or “grip”. A word, as we have seen, is almost the same thing as a concept. A word or concept is a graspable snippet of reality extrapolated from the living flow of experience: a dead thing used as a tool, like a caveman using a bone as a club. A word is a representation of a supposed aspect of the world — “representation” in the sense of Schopenhauer, who said one’s “perception” of the world is really a representation (“Vorstellung”). When we look at the world through Language, this is true; direct perception — i.e, true perception — only can come form a pre-verbal state of mind, like that of a baby or vegetable, or meditating Zen monk...

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