Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Surprised By Syntax

(Borrowed from Wikipedia)

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:

Green-eyed lady feels life I never see,
Setting suns and free lonely lovers.

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.

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.


At 10:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Certainly retaining the rhyming is important to 70s pop music. I too enjoyed 'Green-eyed Lady' for its unusual beat and the odd word order. (I remember the surprise experienced when reading those old magazines who existed to just reprint the lyrics--can't remember the names. I originally thought the lines you refer to as being: "Green-eyed lady feels as I never be..
Of setting suns and lonely oceans breeze."

Certainly, it is much different when one realizes it is:
"Green-eyed lady feels life I never see,
Setting suns and lonely lovers free."

Much deeper, in fact. I guess I take this to be the celebration of emotion over linear logical thinking--the "feels life I never see". As to the following line I think (or I feel!) the image is invoked to emote the feeling of finality--setting suns and lonely lovers (finally) free.

Or perhaps the author was enveloped in a drug-induced haze that allowed him (or her) to produce verse reminiscient of the bygone poets.


At 11:47 AM, Blogger Jessica said...

Long live Chomsky & TG grammar!

At 12:53 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Pat, for the additional analysis. There's always more to say about any 'literary' text.

You may be right about the drug-induced haze being responsible for the wording.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:01 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jessica, I see that you're a Chomsky fan.

I used to like his linguistics but saw the humor in his simian 'opponent,' Nim Chimpsky, and was rooting for the latter's success.

Unfortunately, Nim died at the tender age of 26.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you can find another instance of a noun in English being both pre- and post-modified (as in Adjective + Noun + Adjective "lonely lovers free"), you will be rewarded. Otherwise, you had better go with the "setting free suns and lonely lovers" interpretation.

But the use of "setting suns" is interesting because it explains why the ambiguity is induced. Your first attempt would be to analyse this as Adjective + Noun (it's a collocation in the second sense of this term) and you would only later realize that "setting" is part of a two-part phrasal verb that has become separated to create the rhyme.

According to Robert de Beaugrande, poetry is a domain for exploring alternative uses of language. The song lyric offers a small proof of the usefulness of this definition.

(Unfortunately, the stuff about surface level and deep level is again wrong. This is a misquote from and misuse of the Chomskyan concepts of surface and deep structure, which itself is an implausible attempt to suggest how sentences like

The ball hit John.


John was hit by the ball.

are interpreted.)

At 4:36 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Stanley Fowl, thanks again.

I'd never heard of Robert de Beaugrande, but I'd agree that "poetry is a domain for exploring alternative uses of language," among the other things that poetry does.

I'm sorry about the misfiring of surface and deep structures. I intended this only by analogy to Chomsky's distinction, but using the syntax tree probably triggered the misfire.

Still, as you perceived, I don't know much about Chomsky's transformative grammar, so I'm out of my depth even for drawing analogies.

In an unguarded moment, I remarked to Jessica concerning Chomsky that "I used to like his linguistics." To be more precise, I was attracted to what -- for a layman such as me -- it seemed to promise. (At the time, I was into all sorts of surface/depth distinctions.) From what linguists say, Chomsky's system seems not to be makng good on those promises. But I lack the expertise to judge.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 2:58 AM, Blogger A.H. said...

An interesting speculation on Milton. From a simple point of view, however, Milton's negatives simply reflect the Latin:neque non. I can only say that someone who does not read Paradise Lost word by word (like Fish) must be missing a hell of a lot. And to argue from a modern point of view on language as regards PL is dangerous. The word was paramount to Milton...because of the Word..and surely the mode of composition developed this(i.e. entirely visualised within the mind). Given his blindness, Milton would have been terribly aware of the shiftiness of words, the lack of correlation between the mental and the physical object. Like Bacon, Milton does not view words as simply locking together so as they can be analysed for surface and deep structures. Milton's new world of poetry, like the Novum Organum, sees words as echoes, with meanings within meanings, creating the tissue of perception.

At 9:52 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Eshuneutics, thanks for the comment.

As you suggest, Milton's double negative may just reflect the Latin neque non, but it does at least force us to slow down and consider Milton's meaning.

I think that Stanley Fowl's point was that in reading, we don't understand the words sequentially, in the word-by-word, line-by-line fashion that Stanley Fish presupposes. But I'll leave it to Fowl (if he's still around) to clarify.

It occurs to me that Fish's ideas about how Milton surprises us can work whether we read a line sequentially or not. The double negative that slows us down doesn't depend upon a sequential reading. Thus, all that we need is a sentence construction that throws us off our expectations and forces us to hover between two (or more?) possible meanings.

Speaking of meanings, your last line intrigues me:

"Milton's new world of poetry, like the Novum Organum, sees words as echoes, with meanings within meanings, creating the tissue of perception."

Echoes of what? And why "meanings within meanings" What's the connection between echoes and the Matrushka dolls of meaning?

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 10:43 PM, Blogger A.H. said...

I was thinking this. (If I remember exactly?) I had been looking at Sidney and a modern linguistic criticism that pointed out the weakness in his Defence. Poor old Sidney for not knowing Chomsky and Derrida and co! Your debate seemed to imitate that. I mean: let's trash Fish (who was one of the first, with Empson) to open up Milton's ambiguities because we now know a lot more about linguistics. I was also thinking of Davies' writings on the schismatic word in Milton. Milton knew that language was unstable (and he didn't need Wittgenstein's Tractatus). You read "into" the page as much as you read across the page with Milton's significant poetry. Russian dolls? H.D.'s psyche boxes? The hermetical lapis that unlocks its depths? I would love to see someone read Pound's Cantos from a linear, linguistic perspective. Yes, I recall my required study of deep structures and transformational grammars. It didn't teach me to read sadly.

At 4:16 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Eshuneutics, your world looks to be more hermetical than my own.

I like the expression "schismatic word," which I don't find online. Is it your own construction, or that of Davies (and which Davies is this)?

As for poor Stanley Fish, I've often sensed that some criticism of his views on Milton seems tinged with venom about his politics (though I don't perceive that in Stanley Fowl's critique).

It seems that "Fish" is itself a schismatic word.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:42 AM, Blogger A.H. said...

The Schsimatic Word. Yes, it is a neat phrase. I can't claim it...sadly...that would be plagiarism and you might go hunting for it, looking for blood like Artemis's hounds! Dr Stevie Davies.She is now a Director of Creative Writing in the UK.
Interestingly, like you, her early research was into Milton's holy invocations and the Shekinah.
You might like her work. I find your wit very funny...your children have delightful ideas.

At 3:34 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

If Dr. Stevie Davies did research into the Shekinah and Milton's invocations, then she knows a lot more than I.

I'll have to look up her work.

Thanks for your kind words on my wit. Offline, I'm afraid that I'm rather slow-witted. Must be that hillbilly inbreeding...

Jeffery Hodges

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