Surprised By Syntax
The Green-Eyed Lady's beckoning waves are leading me into waters over my head. Two days ago, I introduced Stanley Fish's analysis of how Milton used language in ambiguous ways to surprise our expectations. As illustration, I quoted Milton:
Nor did they not perceave the evil plight
In which they were, or the fierce pains not feel; (PL 1.335)
I then quoted a passage by Fish analyzing this:
"The double negative is unexpected and for an instant the sense of the line remains unresolved. Do they or don't they perceive? Actually, they do and they don't and by forcing the hesitation Milton leads the reader to understand how the alternatives he hovers between are equally true .... 'Nor did they not perceive' is particularly nice since a defect in language is only the visible phase of a problem in perception" (Surprised by Sin, 99-100).
My use of Stanley Fish provoked a trenchant response from Stanley Fowl:
Stanley Fish is one helluva crap linguist, unfortunately. His view of language is that we take in a sentence word-by-word.
To that, I wrote:
Stanley Fowl, I agree with you that we don't generally read the way that Fish describes, but I find that with ambiguous constructions, I am 'surprised by syntax' and slow down to read it word-by-word.
The language then has me hovering between two possible interpretations in much the way that Fish describes.
Thus, his analysis fits my experience, e.g., with "Green-Eyed Lady."
To this, Fowl wrote:
If you know what syntax means, you will see that you do not slow down to read the sentence word-by-word, even when faced with ambiguity. This is because syntax does not recognize words, but rather word classes or even constituent phrases. Thus, ambiguity is the result of being unable to decide what word class a particular lexical item belongs to. That is what occasions your surprise as well as (unfortunately) your agreement with the crap linguist, Stanley Fish.
I suppose that I'm guilty of introducing the word "syntax," but I couldn't resist the pun in "surprised by syntax." I was using syntax to refer to the order of words in a sentence, which it can mean for the layman like me, but I'm ready to concede its real meaning to the experts.
Conveniently, Fowl provided a definition from Wikipedia, which I here quote in part:
Syntax, originating from the Greek words συν (syn, meaning "co-" or "together") and τάξις (táxis, meaning "sequence, order, arrangement"), can in linguistics be described as the study of the rules, or "patterned relations" that govern the way the words in a sentence come together. It concerns how different words (which, going back to Dionysios Thrax, are categorized as nouns, adjectives, verbs, etc.) are combined into clauses, which, in turn, are combined into sentences.
If I understand this correctly, then "syntax" refers not to the word order (despite the Greek etymology) but to the rules that govern word order. That being the case, my reading of a sentence operates on two levels: 1) the surface level, on which I generally encounter the words sequentially and 2) the deep level, in which I interpret the words by reorganizing them into grammatical categories.
I say "generally" because I acknowledge that we often don't encounter the written word sequentially. We skip around in a sentence or paragraph. But this doesn't mean that word order is unimportant. Let's look again at the song's lines that occasioned these past few posts:
Green-eyed lady feels life I never see,
Setting suns and lonely lovers free.
I argued that the position of "free" at the end of the final line introduces an ambiguity that leaves me hovering between two possible interpretations. I asked:
How are we supposed to take these final two lines? Does the life that my green-eyed lady feels include her experience of setting suns and lonely, if free-spirited lovers? Or does she possess some mysterious, magical power for setting free those suns and lonely lovers?
That ambiguous word "free" at the very end forces us to wonder at the meaning. Is is an adjective: free(-spirited) lovers? Or is it part of a phrasal verb: to set free?
To see why word order is important, let me ruin the song's lines by reordering them:
Gone is any ambiguity, any hesitation between two readings, any hint of being set free. Thus, word order is crucial to how I understand that lines.
Green-eyed lady feels life I never see,
Setting suns and free lonely lovers.
Let me anticipate the linguist's objection: Word order is important, but that doesn't mean that we read word-by-word. True, but it also doesn't mean that we can't read word-by-word, and I know that I sometimes do.
Yet, perhaps Fowl is right about me anyway. Perhaps it doesn't matter that I can slow down and read the song's words sequentially. Perhaps all that matters is my surprise at finding, dangling from the end of a line promising those "Setting suns and lonely lovers," the word ... free.