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Say “Aaaah”

by on October 28, 2013

                                                                                                   Say “Aaaah”

                                                                                             By Marco M. Pardi

                                                  From listening comes wisdom, and from speaking repentance. Italian proverb.

In defining the word speech, as it is commonly used, there is an implicit assumption of meaning as in, “capable of speech and therefore of thinking”. All too often, however, analysis stops at the satisfaction of the definition of speech as a physical/auditory event in which a meaning has been expressed. It fails to probe the cognitive event in which a meaning has been formed.

Psychologists can hum and ahem over a completed utterance, a spoken sentence. Some may even resurrect the outmoded Word Association game.  Interrogators may rephrase the utterance, hoping to trip a person into disclosing why they said what they said.

But this does not address the phenomenon of cognitive meaning formulation, or the selection of a particular term to express that meaning. In the field of psycho-linguistics the approach I have found most generally workable toward this end is an interpretation of Noam Chomsky’s Transformational Grammar. Chomsky’s paradigm proposes speech events as originating as inchoate or even fully formed feelings/meanings in what he calls the Deep Structure of the imminent speaker and transforming, through the willful selective process of the imminent speaker into an utterance, which is itself drawn from the linguistic possibilities (residing in the Surface Structure) open to a speaker as those sounds and extra linguistic indicators (tone, volume, etc) most likely to accurately convey felt meaning within the culture. The idea here is that culture guides the formation of the feelings/meanings substrate in the Deep Structure while at the same time providing the socially agreed upon code (language, residing in the Surface Structure) through which to organize and convey the feelings and meanings.

Of course, all this would suggest we place the Imprimatur on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which proposes that a culture’s language structure determines the psycholinguistic dynamics of the speech event. But precisely here is where both the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and Chomsky’s superficially useful paradigm lose traction. While Transformational Grammar rightly and clearly elucidates the nature of the subjective gulf between speaker and listener, and even within the speaker himself, it is unable to account for the formulation and expression of individual subjectivity in the truly epistemological sense.   

Put simply, many readers have experienced a scene similar to this: Person-A. senses certain feelings regarding Person-B. P-A. concludes these feelings are within the subjective Meaning Domain he has erected in his deep structure to enclose those feelings which are to be defined as “love”. Having thus concluded that he feels love for P-B, he utters to P-B “I love you”.

P-B, perhaps unwittingly being more thrilled with being loved than with who is doing the loving or what exactly that means, responds in kind with an “I love you, too”.  

The statistics on relationship longevity suggest the bulk of P-As and P-Bs never seriously attempted to establish whether they were even close to an overlap of their subjective meaning domains, their albeit fluid concepts of love. Indeed, this makes ridiculous any statements such as, “I know what you mean”. In order for P-B to know what P-A means, P-B would have to fully and completely be P-A. Since P-A, by definition, does not include parts of or the whole of P-B, those would have to be left behind, meaning that P-B could not know he or she was now P-A.

The absurdity of interpersonal communication as being anything other than superficial and approximate should now be manifest. We do not hear what another person feels, we hear only a report of how that person feels. And, being more specific, we hear what we tell ourselves another person said.

But what about intrapersonal communication, those voices in our head which we glibly call thinking? Perhaps the most profound example of the problem of intrapersonal communication is the attempt to categorize an ineffable experience.

The many thousands of accounts of numinous experiences I have read and/or listened to almost always begin the same way: “There is just no way to put this into words….” But then, they try.

Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf might excuse the speakers for being from cultures which were linguistically deficient in this area.  Noam Chomsky might advise us that even if we grasp it we cannot pass it to another. But even a San Bushman of the Kalahari can describe a soft drink bottle fallen from the sky, The Gods Must be Crazy not withstanding.

No, the ultimate example is the attempt to be more than superficial and approximate when speaking of the amorphous concept generally contained within the morpheme “god”.

As a “mystic”, a term I accept only with the stipulation that it is a term, I am sometimes asked if I “believe in God, or a god”. An old saying reminds us that the answer is in the question. Specifically, how one frames a question largely if not entirely shapes the answer. In this case I usually see no intentional affront in the use of the word “believe” and, after clarifying my position on that thoroughly ignorant proposal go on to deal with the object cited. My position is that belief is acceptance without a basis in knowledge. My personal paradigm on this issue is:

1. I know.

    A. I file it among known things.

2. I do not know.

    A. I am interested in knowing.

         1. I make an effort to know.

    B. I am not interested in knowing.

         1. I do not expend limited resources to know.

    C. I find that, for now, I cannot know.

         1. See B.1.

Belief actually impedes knowing; it closes the book before you have read it. Anyone who has ever had to regret “jumping to conclusions” should understand the frequent consequences of belief.

In short, I believe nothing. And, yes, I have played the game of examining whether my assertion that I do not believe is a statement of belief. It is not. It is a statement of fact.

Like the numinous phenomena reported in association with the Near Death Experience, “God” is considered “mysterious, transcendent, and beyond mortal conceptualization.” How, then, can one believe in something which is beyond conceptualization?

Perhaps sensing this conundrum, or perhaps merely to establish a conceptual territory vis a vis others who would attempt to do so, the organized religions have famously provided us with Cliff Note attributes, characteristics, and personality insights into each iteration of their proprietary “God”.

The three main Western religions, “The People of the Book”, generally share in some version of the “Three Heavy Omnis”; omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence. Each of the three omnis is in relation to the other two such that diminishment of one automatically diminishes the other two.

I have written of these elsewhere, and will not repeat myself.  My focus here is on the very shallow use of language. For example, when someone speaks of omnipresence and then goes on to localize the god (“in heaven”) and/or to personalize this god (“God”) the omni construct collapses. When someone projects human values and ethics defined as “good” onto this god, forswearing other values and ethics defined as “bad”, the construct collapses. The conceptualization of the term God instantly creates Not-God; omnipresence, and the rest of the architecture just collapsed. Well, maybe it would make a nice Bobble Head for the dashboard.

In the same way, pronouncing the soul/spirit/whatever as eternal and then speaking of “afterlife” makes absolutely no sense unless one stipulates that “life” refers only to the limited physical assemblage called a corporal body. Even then, the appellation is misleading in that it focuses on the extremely temporary and constantly changing assortment of matter (what Einstein called “frozen energy”) instead of the entity which is wearing it. The energy constellation within the reader’s body has changed an immeasurable number of times before the reader completes this sentence.

As I’ve said elsewhere, when asked about “reincarnation” I said “I reincarnate constantly and instantly. I look reasonably the same over time because it’s just that old habits are hard to break.” I do not define myself through the shirt I am wearing today. So, should each next infinitesimal moment of my physical life be viewed as an “afterlife” of the previous moment? Shit. This is it?

An interesting way to ponder being is by sitting at the sea shore. Looking out across the water we think we see waves and troughs. Our eyes focus on a section of water as it exists momentarily in what we tell ourselves is a specific form: a wave. Giving ourselves the validity of conception, we ask ourselves why it is where it is, doing what it is doing. The massive answer is right before us, for those who “see”. At a given moment in a particular place a patch of water is a wave because the rest of the ocean is Not Wave at that moment and place. At a given moment in a particular place an ocean is an ocean because the matter around it is NotOcean. And, recalibrating to the Not Wave yields wave, recalibrating to the NotOcean yields ocean just as “Up” creates “Down” and “Down” creates “Up”. They are simply two perspectives of the same thing.   

Thus, the very act of conceiving of “God” creates Not-God, bringing us back to the omni problem, the problem of establishing a meaning domain, labeling it, and ascribing selective characteristics to it. The act negates that which we are trying to affirm.

Those who choose sides on whether there is or there is not a god apparently completely miss the realization that they have bought into a false dichotomy. If faced again with that question my response will likely be an eructation sounding similar but not identical to “Aaaah”.     


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  1. Gary permalink

    “The absurdity of interpersonal communication as being anything other than superficial and approximate should now be manifest. We do not hear what another person feels, we hear only a report of how that person feels. And, being more specific, we hear what we tell ourselves another person said.”

    When I was a younger man the only important thing in this exchange was whether saying “I love you” would get me laid, bring me, as it were to that “Ahhh” moment. You may well be right that there was an absurdity in that exchange, but nothing says absuridities cannot include useful, purposeful and pleasurable outcomes.

    Secondly, if saying god automatically invokes not god, does it follow that saying not god performs the same counterbalancing consequence? It would seem so, and therefore, every time I declare my atheism I would be affirming the existence of god. Perhaps I should just shut up on that subject.


    • Well thought out, Gary, in an Aaaah moment I didn’t see coming – as it were. Yes, gibberish certainly got me places. And, you’re right. The invocation of a side brings forth the other side.


  2. This kind of post can be scary to many. I use the word “open-ended-ness” when dealing with reality. It relives me of the burden of having to box everything in. No matter our path, in our own way, we have to come to some level of ‘not knowing’ that can actually frees us to greater ‘clarity’, if that is the word. Language is limited, but it is all we have. I am not sure I understood everything you wrote Marco, but I found it interesting, and will have to read it a few more times I believe.



    • Thank you, Mark. I value your opinions. Would also like to see your opinion of Allegorically Speaking. Marco


  3. Rose Palmer permalink

    Whether it be “Aaaah”, “Ewww”, or something in between, it is next to impossible for one person to know what the feelings contained within the words mean to someone else. All human languages are imprecise because they are created and used by humans, and as such are ever evolving.

    From pillow talk, to political propaganda, to international intrigue; we use the words we need to achieve the end game we want. We say not so much what we mean, but what we think others want to hear. If an “aaaah” moment follows; so much the better. Rose


    • Thanks, Rose.


      • Rose Palmer permalink

        You see, brutal honesty can be very off-putting. I hate a liar and will never become one, but sometimes we have to phrase things in a particular way in order to make our point without causing our listener to hear what we want to say without shutting us out or off. I often find myself ignored, or having to explain myself in more precise detail in order to avoid being misunderstood; pretty sure I’m not alone on that issue.

        You used to tell us to only include in our papers only those facts which supported our position, but I’m not sure that works so well in reality. Bringing up a subject also brings to mind it’s mitigation; no yin without yang, so to speak.

        All things are possible until the truth is known. Belief means acceptance without proof. As you are a scientist first, I would think it very difficult for you to believe. Rose


        • Indeed, scientist or not, I do not believe – including science. Somewhere in my circuitous life I arrived at the conclusion that people tell themselves what they hear.Thus, much of my communication style is framed as providing another person’s inner voice an opportunity to speak. Consequently, I’ve sometimes been described as oblique. So be it.


  4. Rose Palmer permalink

    The results you get depend on the methods used to test your hypothesis; thus even science may be manipulated. We say what we mean, but if our audience doesn’t understand, there’s not much point in the saying. Generally speaking, I have no trouble understanding what it is you are trying to say; if the “oblique” quality of your communication style sometimes leads to confusion, it also leads to thought. This is never a bad thing.


  5. Dana permalink

    Marco, I consider what I have learned about language from your class lectures and from what you have written as some of the most crucial and important information to date. I think this can only improve our relationships and how we communicate with others.

    We cannot possibly know what another person feels, and I have since been striving to be more cautious with my own words – particularly when I think someone “needs” sympathy. That may be only my perception. Even well-intended words may hurt, offend, or cause discomfort.

    This ties in very well with your and Jamie Butler’s most recent discussion on her YouTube channel. Thank you so much for sharing your insight both here and on her channel.


    • Thank you, Dana. Your exemplary participation in the class, and the pure joy of knowing you during and since then have been and are strong motivators. You are an extraordinary person, and I have been so fortunate in getting to know you. Marco


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