Monday, March 1, 2010

Same Room, Different Century

A week ago Sunday, I followed a link posted at The Blogora that pointed to a 2007 New Yorker article, "The Interpreter." The article lays plain the research and travels of Dan Everett, a linguistics professor at Illinois State, who has dedicated most of his career to discerning patterns in a language spoken by an Amazonian tribe called the Pirahã. Honestly, as I followed the link, I didn't expect to read the whole thing, but after a couple of paragraphs, I was in the article's clutches. Rather than quit it, I pressed on, figuring it fit in nicely enough with the ideal-ambition of keeping alive eclectic reading habits as a beginning assistant professor.

The article does a nice job of introducing, albeit with great simplification, Everett's research and setting it in relation to Chomsky's propositions about universal grammar. Pirahã language practices are, according to the article, a "severe counterexample" to Chomsky's famous theory. I won't attempt a full summary of the article here. Instead, I want to pick up just one line from the essay--a line that has grown louder and louder in my head this week since I read it. It comes up late in the essay, in a scene where Tecumsah Fitch, another linguist, visits Everett in the Amazon to corroborate his claims about the absence of recursion in the Pirahã language. Fitch ends up fumbling with computer equipment. The equipment acts up due to high humidity; Fitch leaves the lab-tent to attempt repairs, while Everett remains with the reporter and a young Pirahã man.

At this moment, according to the article, Everett says, "'But the problem here is not cognitive; it's cultural.' He gestured toward the Pirahã man at the table. 'Just because we're sitting in the same room doesn't mean we're sitting in the same century.'"

Same room, different century. For Everett, this identifies a methodological quandary: how to traverse discordant temporalities in a culture's language development, especially in light of popular, contemporary language theories. But the room-century line is suggestive of much more, even if it only points out the possibility of two people occupying common time-space when they are not in the same century. I find it to be a rich paradox, perhaps more for how well it generalizes to everyday encounters concerning technology. I mean, have you ever had a technology-focused experience in which you thought, "which century are we"?

I suppose that sounds judgmental. I don't mean it quite that way. Let me try again. Maybe it would help to revive, for these purposes, Alfred Korzybski's peculiar system of time-stamping words (I'm remembering that something like this comes up in Nicotra's RSQ article on Burke and the General Semantics movement, but my copy is at the office right now, so...remembering will have to do). Including the date in a superscript annotation offers us a different handle on a term's temporal shifts, helping us locate its valences in time. I have no idea if this impression of time-stamping aligns with its function for General Semantics; no idea at all. But it does help me think through the same room, different century problem. By reviving time-stamp markups, that is, we could more readily differentiate computers1995 from computers2010, the Internet1998 from the internet2006, or composition1985 from composition2009, or rhetoric1965 from rhetoric2012. May be nothing more than a passing curiosity, a late winter thought experiment. And I doubt it would be much good in conversation: too fumbly, too parenthetical. But I can think of a handful of occasions, such as, say, in a course syllabus, when it would help position everyone in the same year to differentiate writingthesedays from writingassumedtobeeternal. Some day I2050 hope to look more deeply into time-annotation or time-binding (?) for the General Semanticists than I have here.

Bookmark and Share Posted by at March 1, 2010 10:20 PM to Reading Notes

I was also drawn into the article after following your link. One thing that surprised me: Pike, of Tagmemics fame, worked for the missionaries' linguistic society?

Posted by: Donna at March 2, 2010 12:31 PM

I was surprised by that, too. I had no idea Pike taught for S.I.L. Adds a new layer to tagmemics, no?

Posted by: Derek at March 2, 2010 9:00 PM