Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Taking up into language (Language, Part III)

We can take items in the world up into language. An easy, though very unlikely, example would be if I came across a bunch of rocks randomly deposited by an avalanche, and noticed that they were arranged into the shape of the word "here". I then took more rocks and added to the left of the ones already there "There was an avalanche" and then to the right of them I put a period. The resulting production would count as my inscription of the sentence "There was an avalanche here." That one of the words in the sentence was not shaped by me is irrelevant. I took something in nature which wasn't a word though it was shaped like a word, the word "here", and made a token of the word "here" out of it, without actually touching it. The bunch of rocks thus got taken up into a linguistic item, much like a stump can be taken up into being a chair just by my treating it as a chair--which can happen without my even touching it (e.g., I can treat it as a chair by trying to sit on it, but tripping forward accidentally).

Likewise, word tokens from one language can be taken up into linguistic items in another language. I can write a note by gluing in words cut out from newspapers, including foreign newspapers, and I can do so with no regard for what meaning the snippets had in their original language. Thus, I can take a German newspaper story about a poison, and cut out the word "GIFT" (which means "poison") from the headline, and then take some words from an English-language newspaper, and put together the note "YOU HAVE BEEN A GREAT GIFT IN MY LIFE." And, no, I wouldn't be saying that you've been a poison! The snippet would thus have been taken up into a new linguistic item. The original meaning of the snippets I use is irrelevant. New linguistic items are made of them.

We could say that the rocks in my initial example already were a token of the English "here" even before I got to it, and the token "GIFT" in the German headline was already both a token of the German "Gift" and the English "gift". I suspect this is mistaken. It makes sense to ask of a sentence token in isolation what language it is in, even if the orthographically or phonologically same sentence could figure in more than one. So that won't do. My suggestion is that we are mistaken in identifying the token with just the inscription. The token includes the inscription, but includes the context--and hence the intentions of the speaker--into which that inscription was taken up. If this is right, then once again linguistic tokens are more than just inscriptions and sounds, but include context, as in my earlier posts on language.

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