05 May, 2006

Language, the old farmer

. . . or, A Mystery Solved.

Denizens of the ASU Main Campus will have noticed for a while now a battery of gaily-painted minivans zipping about the place, each adorned with the quasi-poetic burblings of a sophomore lit. major or majorette. These, it turns out, were the product of an ASU creative-writing project called Moving Poems, financed by local departments. One contributor, a bright young Lindsey Gosma, provides the following message for her cart:

Language, like an old farmer,
drives us through the fields

This cryptic statement had been bothering me for some time. Was she punning on 'fields of study'? Did she mean that language pushes us through academia, like a farmer chases a trespasser off his property? My nights were getting shorter and shorter. Eventually the pressure got to me, and I emailed her for an answer. What the fuck was she on about? I didn't write that, of course. I was a proper gentleman. Well, Lindsey replied half an hour later, very politely, and obviously quite flattered at my interest. It was like this, she said:
The constant change of language is like the fields, used again and again, but always bearing new fruit. Also I wanted to convey a sense of the earth, that language is natural and an inherent part of the human experience.
A-ha! So she is a Chomskyan: the essential quality of human language is its capacity to generate an infinity of new information from the same basic rules. And a Rousseauvian: to be human is to use language, the former cannot be presupposed before the latter. Noble sentiments indeed for a poet. But why an old farmer? Lindsey went on to tell me something else about the design of the cart which I hadn't noticed: "If you look on the actual picture, you can see an upturned letter A." This inverted A was not intended to be the universal quantifer, though that might have curious implications, but rather an imitation of the A's ancestor, ie. the Phoenician aleph, supposedly the ideographic rendering of an ox-head (aleph is Semitic for ox). Lindsey elaborated on her theme, observing that the ox was the first animal to be domesticated, producing all the essentials for life—food, both in their flesh and in the earth which they ploughed, and shelter with their hides. The enshrinement of the ox at the beginning of the ancient alphabet is a testament to its profound historical importance.

She didn't explicitly draw out the connection to the language which "like an old farmer, drives us through the fields", but this is obviously what she was getting at. We are made beasts of burden by our language, represented by the alphabet, just as we have canonised our beast within the alphabet we use to describe it. I was highly pleased with her explanation.


Anonymous said...

Chomskian, I'd agree too, but that hideous pic of me from 1999 HAS to go...try this link instead:

Conrad H. Roth said...

Yes, much better, as I'm sure my (two or three) readers will agree! Thanks, Lindsey.