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14/10/2010 / Lynn Rabbitts

Chapter 2: The Struggle with Words

Instructor Wycliff passed along Gene Weingarten’s article in the Washington Post (WP Sep. 19, 2010). It is intended as a humorous article , but there are many who would agree with it–at least in principle.

From the second chapter in Communication and Culture it would be safe to assume Ferdinand de Saussure would completely ignore the article–it would not fit into his paradigm of thinking. This, however, would be in direct conflict with “Volosinov’s suggestion that meaning is always produced through conflict.” (pg 27)

Weingarten may complain the English language was slain by “the sudden and startling ubiquity of vomitous verbal construction” of jargony phrases (WP). But Volosinov would argue back: different cultures work to ensure their meanings are accepted, adaptable to different ways and different contexts–the production of the meaning is always open. (pg 26)

I agree with Volosinov. There is a jazz element to the English language, one allowing the evolution of language to fit a more modern construct. It conveys emotion, allows rules to be re-written and a modern lexicon to be formed. Words will always have meanings even if it is a struggle to keep those speaking on, quite literally, the same page. Without adaptation, for better or worse, we would not have moo-cows.

This said, there is nothing more beautiful than a well constructed sentence. As was said to Professor Wycliff, in a rebuttal to Weingarten’s article, Lynn Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves should be required reading.

I do wonder how many times Weingarten went through the article to check punctuation mistakes and mispellings–I’ll leave that flub-up for you, dear reader, as I know my limits.


One Comment

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  1. bambiprof / Nov 11 2010 7:00 pm

    Hello Hans–

    Great post! Here, you have made a bit more connection to the course reading; however, I am curious what it is about Ferdinand deSaussure’s system that would lead you to infer “he would completely ignore the article.” Saussure was a linguist by trade, and by convention a social scientist. He launched a whole new area of study (post-mortem through his students’ dedication to his ideas), semiotics–or the study of signs and sign systems. He was primarily concerned with the formal elements of language and their relation to each other (langue) versus language in use (parole). Volosinov rejected and at the same time built upon Saussure’s work (that’s how philosophy tends to work).

    Volosinov’s central presupposition is that there is no “neutral” position when a sign is produced. Each “utterance” is inherently ideological, and therefore each moment of uttering is an opportunity for contestation and conflict over meaning. That contestation revitalizes the social world unless everyone’s words “simply follow the words of another”. Given that, opportunities for social change are always present. As well, each utterance is directed toward somebody, about something, from somebody who is literally embedded in a world of discourse that is materially historical, but subject to the time and place in which the utterance occurs.

    So yes, moo cows live on at least for the time being and Lynn Truss has written a priceless book that yes, should be a part of the library of anyone who has any interest in gracing the world with an informed way of putting sentences together. Clearly you do. hr

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