More problems with grammar and rhetoric

If we could go back to the very origin of language (a hopeless fantasy, and a distinctly modern one), we would certainly discover language from the first instance serving rhetorical purposes. “Please pass the salt,” a common request at a dinner table shared with others, is paradigmatic here. Obviously, if I say this to my neighbor (assuming my language remains at the most basic level of communication, that is, without, say, irony, or intent to confuse, etc.) what I am doing is using language to persuade the other person to pass me the salt; the most noticeable rhetorical instance is the deployment of the word “please”, an abbreviant usage derived from a previous usage of “if you please,” that is, “if it provides you with pleasure to do so.” On the surface, such a request doesn’t make much sense; why would passing me the salt give the other person any pleasure? But of course that’s not the real point of such usage, it really only signifies that I defer to the other person’s willingness to pass the salt. However, this deference is gratuitous, because on the utterance of the appropriate request with the appropriate rhetorical tag, the other is expected to pass me the salt, whether it pleases them to do so or not. If he or she does not, that is itself a breach of social etiquette.

But if I were to make this request, in the reasonably acceptable usage in my culture, and the other person simply responds: “Salt is sodium chloride” (a kind of minimal expression of a scientific theory), I should be rather disappointed, since I still do not have any salt.

Throughout much of the history of modernity, scientific theory has been held by many professional philosophers as the model of all discourse. The assumption has been that a pure language is one which communicates ideas clearly and precisely. But in the example above, we need to ask an important question; since the deployment of the word “please” is merely a rhetorical gesture, it is, from a “scientific” point of view, trivial and irrelevant. Yet, do we really want to teach our children NOT to say “please”? (“It’s trivial, irrelevant, stop doing that!”) But what would be the most direct communication of ideas here? Perhaps: “I want you to pass the salt.” Now, here’s the problem: without a rhetorical invocation of the respect the two of us are expected to show for one another, the other person may very well simply respond “I do not wish to pass you the salt.” Assuming both statements to be true, nothing is accomplished beyond the discovery that I want the salt passed, and the other person does not want to do this.

My point here? Rhetorical tags like “please” must predate any “communication of ideas” for there to be such a communication. Prior to the verbal definition of salt as “sodium chloride,” or even as the signified of the utterance “salt,” people were already sprinkling some form of salt on their food, as either spice or preservative. Nobody needed to know what the stuff “is”, it just seemed to produce desired results. However, even in the process of giving a name to the stuff, I must first have a language by which I can draw another person’s attention to the stuff and what it is I wish to call it. (“Hey, look! Here’s that stuff I like to call ‘salt.'”)

In fact, in a non-literate culture the statement of a scientific theory (“salt is sodium chloride”) is itself trivial and irrelevant. In a non-literate culture, words do not have any definition, they only have use. Such a statement of the theory of salt as sodium chloride could only acquire meaning when set down on paper in writing. Such writing would fix the grammar of the statement; generate a context of other language use from which to derive its meaning; make the statement available for more than one usage. The statement can occur as part of a theory of chemistry; or as the definition asserted in a political debate (“the people of India need salt, which is everywhere available as sodium chloride; so they should not be asked to pay for it!”); or as the bad pun in a quasi-obscene joke:

“is it true that guy likes sodomy?”
“Sure, he likes sodomy chloride on all his food.”
“That’s just salt, Peter!”

Both the political statement and the joke can be spoken, and even by people untrained in reading and writing; but they could not even exist were there not somewhere, in some book or other written text, the acceptable theoretical definition, “salt is sodium chloride.”

Let’s try consider this from another perspective.

There’s a chance remark made by Newton Garver in a footnote to his preface to a critical reading of Husserl’s theory of language by Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena (Northwestern U, 1973), which makes an important point, and raises an important set of questions that has recurrently plagued Western philosophy. Discussing one relationship between Derrida and Aristotle:

Now grammata are normally thought of as letters; but since a sound cannot literally have letters, they must be thought of here as phonemes – that is, as the parts of a sound that can be represented by letters. The natural cries of animals do signify something, they are signs; but they are not symbols, and we know they are not conventional, because they are not composed of articulate parts and cannot faithfully be transcribed in writing.
(p. XXV)

There are a couple of very troubling remarks to make here. First, there is the unpleasant paradox that it is true that sounds have “parts”, but also true that sounds have no “parts”, for representation or otherwise. This problem has everything to do with the analog/ digital dilemma in recording and reproduction of music, and, indirectly, with the particle/ wave problem of quantum physics. To put the matter as simply as possible: If I want to hear a sound for itself, I cannot be listening to any part of it, I need to hear the whole sound, from inception to diminution, as a single unit. If I wish to analyze the sound, then I must cease to listen to the sound and hear only the parts, which cohere in my perception only in a secondary, reflective manner.

There are no such entities in the material universe that we can call “phonemes”. A phoneme is a conventional, and occasionally useful, fiction; and Garver seems to recognize this when he remarks that sounds “must be thought of here as phonemes”. Thought of as such, but not really such, because there exists no such except in consciousness. Sounds can be thought of as phonemes, when they are produced by human speaking, because humans decided to think of them as such. And they did so as one way to address the relationship between speech and writing; without writing there are no phonemes. in order to imagine that there is any such thing as a ” part of speech “, we must begin with the assumption that writing has primacy over speaking. We all know that writing was a later invention than speaking; but we cannot devise a theory of language unless we assume the reverse order, namely, that writing came first and that humans invented speech in accord with the necessities of writing.

Consider the dull little word ” ain’t “. For quite some time the word has been widely used as a contraction for ” am not “, as in ” I ain’t going to the store “, or ” I ain’t a Republican “; by the end of the 19th century the word was becoming a victim of the class war over public education in America. Upper-class academic grammarians decided that the word was a barbarism; or rather let us say, that people they believed to be Barbarian used the word. A white Anglo-Saxon Protestant could, in his own family, demand of his children that they not use the word; but he had no control over the children of the Italian immigrant laborer living in a slum across town. As the member of a Board of Education in his community, he could mandate the task to teachers hired to instruct grammar to these children. By the 1920’s the word had become as disreputable as a so-called curse word. Very well, but what has this to do with writing? In formal language, such as is used in legal documents necessary to the legitimate business of a banking institution, contractions are rarely used. Our example banker had to train himself to think in such formal language in order to do business properly on a day-to-day basis in the United States. Every time he heard laborers speak he was confronted with people who did not need to learn his formal language. So he must have been fairly pleased with himself to discover that he could mandate the speech of laborers to the public education system; and even if they chose not to learn his formal language, they would at least be taught respect for his language as evidence of his superior social status. Now, it just happens to be the case that modernity has developed a profound mysticism where natural language is concerned; by the 1920’s many well-meaning educators had become convinced that it was simply not in the nature of the English language to be able to contract ” I am not ” into ” I ain’t “. such notions are truly pitiful; how could it possibly be in the ” nature ” of the English language not to use a word which in fact millions of people are using? And if the English language has a proper ” nature ” why does not Shakespeare’s Elizabethan English look at all like the text of a contemporary newspaper? I suppose the theory is that the English-language evolved toward its propriety. but if that were the case, then Shakespeare’s greatness as a poet would be his contribution to the evolution of the English language, which would make him inferior to all poets writing in the English language of my own era, which has supposedly achieved its propriety. Academic grammarians cannot seriously maintain both that they have discovered and now teach the naturally proper grammar of the English language and also that the finest poet in the English language is William Shakespeare. Yet they do. So for some time admiration for Shakespeare became part of the secret code shared by those who understood the class structure embedded in public education in America, and even embedded in what we have come to “know” as the proper grammar of standard English, which remains the language of all legitimate commercial transactions. If the children of successful businessmen wish to use the word ” ain’t “, they are allowed to read Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. They are not allowed to write a new novel in the language of Huckleberry Finn, unless it is a pastiche guaranteed to turn a profit when published as a commodity for consumption by readers who long for a day when writing was the exercise of intellectual freedom, and not under the constraint of commerce and legislation.

But the grammar of the original sentence, even as a double negative is really perfectly comprehensible, once it is recognized as a compound of two expressions, ” I am not Republican “, and ” I am no Republican “. The first expression denies that I have any qualities necessarily identifiable with members of the class “Republican”, the second asserts membership in the class “any entity not Republican”, which thus asserts that as an entity, I do not participate in the logical class “Republican”.

Now, it might be argued that I am asserting the primacy of logic over grammar; but that is not the case. what I am asserting is the grammatical validity of compounding two logically complex expressions into one simple sentence for the sake of emphasis; by saying ” I ain’t no Republican ” I am denying any possibility that I could ever be Republican or participate in the class of “all Republicans”, because I find the very idea repulsive. (And all recognize this, we understand the sentence all right, we have simply been trained to hear it as ‘bad grammar,’ which is normative for the teaching of language in the current era.

But consider this in terms of a, supposedly, grammatically proper sentence: ” I am not among those who do not like Shakespeare. ” Not bad grammar, but undeniably awkward. Again, the double negative. But am I saying that I like Shakespeare? No; I could absolutely loathe Shakespeare, not simply dislike him. So let’s extent the range of this sentence in order to tag my positive assertion on to it: ” I’m not disliking Shakespeare, I loathe him “, or: ” I don’t dislike Shakespeare, I loathe him “; and the real problem of the original sentence is not that it is a double negative, it simply does not assert anything at all; but one can see the possible rhetorical usage of such an expression. A politician can stand before an audience of academic grammarians and say without hesitancy, “I am not among those who do not like Shakespeare.” After the applause, he can remark to himself under his breath, “I loathe Shakespeare”; but all the grammarians will vote for him, believing him to be one of them.

There are obviously quite a number of differences between the sentence like ” I ain’t no disliker of Shakespeare “, and the sentence ” I am not among those who do not like Shakespeare “. but for our purposes the most important is that the first sentence asserts emphatically and the second sentence asserts nothing. And we only know this because of the grammar of the sentences within their social context, given what logic we have to apply to this grammar.

Well, but I said earlier but that the word ” ain’t ” fell into disrepute because academic grammarians decided that the word could only be used by barbarians; it was the academic grammarians at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries who determined (with others, sharing similar biases) that and non-white, non-Anglo-Saxon, non-Protestant peoples who emigrated to America could be culturally appropriated, to be deployed as laborers, that is, at the lower rungs of the economic ladder. The grammarians used their written language as a tool with which to manipulate the immigrants into things for use.

But the fact is, nobody hears the sentence ” I ain’t no Republican ” as a double negative; the theory of double negation exists only in writing, referring to sentences reproducible only in writing. We all hear the sentence ” I ain’t no Republican ” as a positive assertion that I am not a member of the Republican Party; nor do I hold with any notions Republican Party members are expected to profess.

Language has a normative social function, so I am not arguing we all start saying “I ain’t not (this or that)” as some form of weird social protest? Against what? That change has already taken place. But in the changes debated over language use and it’s history and its political powerplays, we should always be aware that there is no neutral territory; one person’s grammar is another’s rhetoric. And logic can only act as referee – supposing we can maintain a neutral usage for it. And that itself should be kept under scrutiny.


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