22 September, 2006

Oral Tradition

I got an email the other day informing me that the journal Oral Tradition is now online, and asking me to spread the word. Well, here it is—the word, I mean. Rather appropriate, don't you think, for a journal of that name? The latest issue includes an article entitled 'Carneades’ Quip: Orality, Philosophy, Wit, and the Poetics of Impromptu Quotation'—should be interesting. Let it not be said that Oral Tradition is not worth the paper it's printed on.

Every word is a word to conjure with. Whichever spirit calls—another such appears. — Novalis, 'Logological Fragment I.6' (1798)
During a session of the Great Chain Game, I once asked M, 'Words or things?' He replied 'words' almost immediately. Later in the day, when he came to ask me the same question, my response was identical. That's me in a nutshell—and not only in theory, neither. A friend of mine who cultivated pelargoniums had misspelt the word on her CV—I was able to correct the error, and even tell her the etymology of the word, observing that the Greek word pelargós, 'stork', was semantically related to the Greek géranos, 'crane', whence geranium. As she noted, however, I hadn't the foggiest clue what a pelargonium looks like. Words, you see, not things. I was reminded of this recently when Languagehat cited the etymology for deed poll:
In the case of deed poll, ['poll'] comes from the verb meaning to shave (the head). Since this type of change to a deed affects only one party—unlike a transfer of ownership—the document edges would be cut straight. For two-party documents, the cut would be jagged so the two halves could be matched.
Curious, somehow, that one can learn of the world and its history merely from the knowledge of words. It led me to wonder, as I have done before, how much of the world one could know purely from the OED. It is a related question to that of the encyclopaedic novel—I considered Finnegans Wake from this angle here. So, how much then? The descriptive sciences are fair game: the relevant aspects of anatomy, chemistry, particle physics, zoology, botany, geology, astronomy, and linguistics, for instance. Take the word cerebellum; the OED tells us that it is
The little or hinder brain; the mass of nervous matter forming the posterior part of the brain, situated behind and below the cerebrum, and above the medulla oblongata, and divided, like the cerebrum, into two ‘hemispheres’, one on each side.
Not being anatomists, we do not know what 'brain', 'nervous matter', 'cerebrum' or 'medulla oblongata' refer to. So we look these up, and of course find more unknown objects. After a while, we begin to build a coherent structure of words and meanings, an internal system—something akin to Gray's Anatomy, but without the pictures. To make the thought-experiment interesting, we have to make a number of assumptions:

1. The individual (let us call him C) has enough grammar and non-concrete vocabulary to understand the dictionary definitions.

2. C grasps Kantian basics such as time and space.

3. C not only memorises each definition, but reflects as far as possible on how each word (and concept) relates to the others.

4. C has an infinite amount of time and patience for such a project.

Eventually C would build up from the definitions a complete and systematised description of some aspects of the world. His mind would become microcosmic. But what would such a mind be like, nourished only on the dictionary—or an idealised version thereof? What would its limitations be?


Simon Holloway said...

That is a very interesting and provocative question. You used the OED as your example so it is also worth noting the tremendous number of passages from other published works that also line its pages, with some entries having several lines from novels and the like supporting their definitions.

I think that I would find the question more profound were those examples lacking, but I don't know of any other dictionary with similar scope to the OED.

You mentioned as well (in the post dealing with Finnegans Wake) that many have traditionally viewed the Bible in a related manner, treating it as a repository of all world knowledge. Just to link that idea back to this, mainstream Biblical scholarship until less than a hundred years ago was also want to read the Bible in much the way your hypothetical character reads his dictionary.

Poring over every word, again and again, they derived conclusions about the ancient world on the basis of what the weighing-up of the Bible's words taught them. In the Kabbalistic tradition, this is done by the permutation of letters; in the academic, through the comparison of verses.

There's little difference between the two methods and I think that one could just as easily establish a religion (not to mention, deriving concrete historical fact) from a similar reading of the OED.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Yes, I agree, the thought-experiment would be better without the citations, so long as we assume the definitions to be perfect--we also would have to eliminate any diachronic element, ie. the word's evolution over time.

I think the text-mysticism of Judaism is what makes it so much more interesting and appealing to me than, say, Christianity, with its motto, "The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life".