Friday, June 29, 2007

Language as Organon

Merleau-Ponty says:

Language [langage] has a function analogous to the language [langue] of a new writer who, at first, is not understood but who little by little becomes understandable by teaching people to understand him. His gestures seem to point in nonexistent directions; then, little by little, some notions begin to find for themselves a potential [virtuel] home in these gestures. In the same way, language ends up coming alive for the child. At a certain moment, the whole set of indications, which draw toward an undetermined goal, call up in the child a concentration and a reassimilation of meaning. The internal structure of the language carries with its signification. Language is a system of a limited number of unities serving to express an unlimited number of things. There is therefore a going beyond the signifier toward the signified. The totality of meaning is never fully rendered: there is an immense mass of implications, even in the most explicit of languages; or rather, nothing is ever completely expressed, nothing exempts the subject who is listening from taking the initiative of giving an interpretation.

(Consciousness and the Acquisition of Language, p. 29, my emphasis)

In this passage Merleau-Ponty shows his indebtedness to Karl Bühler, whose organon model of language (summarized here in English) he adopts. Does Bühler's model fit the data Merleau-Ponty has assembled?

The problem Merleau-Ponty addresses in particular is the acquisition of phonemes. (I had previously wondered whether it was proper to speak of infant vocalizations as phonemes; the answer is no.) One of the interesting facts of this stage of language acquisition is that the child appears to lose the ability to pronounce certain sounds, sounds that it was fully capable of making in the form of infantile babble. Merleua-Ponty, following Roman Jakobson, calls this phenomenon a deflation. The gradual acquisition of phonemic contrasts, starting with consonants, dentals before palatals is also of interest, but the main point is the phenomenon of deflation. Merleua-Ponty concludes from this that "[l]anguage is attained not as an articulatory phenomenon, but as an element of a linguistic game" (p. 25).

The contrast with Adriana Cavarero's position is clear. Whereas Cavarero sees a continuity between infant babble and what, following Bühler, can be called language's function as an appeal to others, with a de-emphasis on the role of consciousness, Merleau-Ponty sees a discontinuity between babble and the attainment of language, with an emphasis on the role of consciousness. Merleau-Ponty's position seems to be well attested. However, it still leaves open the question of infant babble and its relation to language acquisition. Intuitively, it would seem that babble is a vital stage in the journey towards language. Yet it can't quite be fit into a model such as Bühler's because whatever babble means, it does not mean in the same way that the phonemic system leads the child beyond the signifier towards the signified. But, then, where exactly is the appeal to others in the phonemic system? Here is Merleau-Ponty's strongest pitch:

The child's movement toward speech is a constant appeal to others. The child recognizes in the other another one of himself. Language is the means of effecting reciprocity with the other. This is a question of a vital operation and not only an intellectual act. The representatitve function is an aspect of the total act by which we enter into communication with others.

One could sum up in the notion of style what is newest in the phonological analysis. The phonemic system is a style of language. The style is defined neither by words nor by ideas; it possesses not a direct signification but an oblique one. It permits one to charaterize the phonemic system of language just as it permits one to characterize a writer.

(p. 31)

Again, I'm not seeing a comfortable fit between Merleau-Ponty's appropriation of Bühler and his appropriation of Jakobson. If language is the means of effecting reciprocity with the other, then the really interesting stuff with language begins happening in infancy, before the acquisition of phonemes. Or does it? What does the acquisition of phonemes add to the effecting of reciprocity? An order of style? Of beauty? Perhaps the acquistion of phonemic meaning is linked to a psychological development, a certain awareness of self that may or may not be destined for reciprocity. I couldn't tell you. I'm just saying.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 9:59 AM.


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