Posts Tagged ‘UG’


linguistic entropy and me could have a bad romance

October 6, 2010

I’m working on a paper right now for my “senior seminar” independent study in literature that involves me making the head of the literature department read Chomsky. So I’ve assigned myself, in this, the task of writing a squib next week about UG as an analogy for narratology. Meanwhile, my housemate is doing some work in phonology class that leads towards (but not exactly to) OT.

So, all that plus some pumpkin ale and listening to Bad Romance over and over has led to an exciting new pet theory, which I shall now inflict on y’all: The Gaga artistic project is a realization of the asymptotic approach of poetic language towards the removal of all constraints within optimality theory.

My argument is mainly in the use of lyrics like the “ra ra ah ah ah” line (as it is typically transcribed by non-linguists), which is essentially a repetition of minimally marked phonemes (schwas and glottal stops) within a minimally marked prosodic template (heavy single syllables, and one trochee; in short, bimoraic feet). This line is not semantically void, and the phonological patterns which it takes to the extreme do color the rest of the pronunciation of the lyrics in the song. When I can talk my pet phonologists into doing so, through threats or bribes, I will show some more detailed data which demonstrate this. The point is, this kind of poetic/linguistic representation of entropy is essentially the eventual conclusion (which, since it is an asymptotic approach, no language will ever reach) of markedness constraints.

Meanwhile, I’d argue that a similar thing happens in the syntax/semantics realm with Kenji Siratori’s book Nonexistence, a book which many from my Cyberpunk class with Professor Godzich reported to be essentially gibberish and (to a bunch of literature majors) thus a little traumatizing. Originally I sort of agreed, but later found this essay on the matter, which I quite enjoyed. To extend further the idea of reading like a nonhuman entity, I would argue that this smorgasbord of synesthesic symbols comes a breakdown of the links between writing and sound, and furthermore between language and meaning. By introducing to a linguistic creature (say, a hundred lit majors) a pattern of things that resemble linguistic behavior but in fact are not language, you cause an upset. Why did no less than three students cry in Professor Godzich’s office that week, and seriously consider switching out of their literature majors altogether? Because the very foundational assumption of their field– the assumption that linguistic material signifies semantic content– was being directly challenged.

It’s that assumption that holds OT together against entropy, too: to combat the markedness constraints that should push us all into “rah rah ah ah” territory, there are faithfulness constraints which bind sound-signifiers to semantic units which they represent. You cannot, within the faithfulness constraints, stray too far from the original signifier without confusing the heck out of your listener. When, however, you strip the semantic connections, as both Gaga and Siratori do, you can get either meaningless sequences of wordlike things (Nonexistence) or you can get meaningful sequences of unwordlike things (Bad Romance).

This isn’t actually going anywhere, if you’re curious.

Um, also I think UG is neat. The end!