Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Jabba the Hutt, or How We Communicate

They're having an interesting discussion of conversational turn-taking over at Language Log (see the comment HERE). So I thought I'd dig out this three year old post which suggests that conversation is a bit like kids playing in a sandbox, or with blocks, or dolls. Everything is visible to everyone at all times. The trick is to coordinate movements as you move the toys around.

* * * * *

From my notes:
A number of years ago I saw a TV program on the special effects of the Star Wars trilogy. One of the things the program explained was how the Jabba the Hutt puppet was manipulated. There were, I think, perhaps a half dozen operators for the puppet, one for the eyes, one for the mouth, one for the tail, etc. Each had a TV monitor which showed him what Jabba was doing, all of Jabba, not just their little chunk of Jabba. So each could see the whole, but manipulate only a part. Of course, each had to manipulate his part so it blended seamlessly with the movements of the other parts. So each needed to see the whole to do that.

That seems to me a very concrete analogy to what musicians have to do. Each plays only a part in the whole, but can hear the whole.
I don’t know how long ago I saw that program, it may well have been pre-WWW, but certainly not pre-internet, which is older than Star Wars, or at least it’s precursor, ARPAnet, is older than Star Wars. In any event, you can now read about the puppetry behind Jabba at the Wikipedia and elsewhere (scroll down to Behind the Scenes). The above description is accurate enough for my purposes.

And that purpose is to provide a metaphor, not just for music-making, but for communication in general. In particular, for speech communication. The idea is to provide an alternative that thoughtful people can use to over-ride the pernicious effects of the so-called conduit metaphor, which Michael Reddy* analyzed as a pile of lexical habits we employ when talking about language. These habits presume that we communicate by sending meaning through some kind of conduit, whether real (e.g. a telephone line) or virtual (e.g. that air between two people talking). The person at one end of the conduit puts the meaning into a packet of language, sends the packet through the conduit. The other person takes the packet from the conduit and then takes the meaning out of it.

It doesn’t work that way, not the meaning part. What does go through the conduit is a speech signal, vibrations in air, analog or digital signals through electrical lines, characters written or printed on paper, and so forth. But the meaning isn’t actually IN the signal. If it were, then we could understand any language with ease because the meaning would be in the physical signal itself. Alas, that’s not the case. Meanings are linked to segments of the signal by hard-learned linguistic conventions; and the conventions are different for each language.

What happens, then, is that the listener construes the meaning of the signal according to their understanding of the overall context and their understanding of the governing linguistic conventions. The may or may not get it right. And there’s likely to be a bit of conversational negotiation before the speakers agree on whatever is at issue.

And that is what the Jabba metaphor is about. Everyone stands in the same relationship to what appears on the TV monitor showing Jabba’s movements. In the case of a musical group, each person is playing their own part – the drummer, bass player, tuba, glockenspiel, sitar, nose flute, pipe organ, whatever – and is aware of it and what they intend next. The monitor gives them the whole, in which their part must fit.

The case of speech is trickier, for one person speaks while the others listen. The Jabba metaphor suggests that the speaker doesn’t actually know what he or she is saying until he or she actually hears it spoken. And that just doesn’t make sense.

But, on closer observation, it does. Here’s what I say about Wallace Chafe’s Discourse, Consciousness, and Time in a recent paper on “Kubla Khan”:
Nonetheless, the linguist Wallace Chafe has quite a bit to say about what he calls an intonation unit, and that seems germane to any consideration of the poetic line. In Discourse, Consciousness, and Time Chafe asserts that the intonation unit is “a unit of mental and linguistic processing” (Chafe 1994, pp. 55 ff. 290 ff.). He begins developing the notion by discussing breathing and speech (p. 57): “Anyone who listens objectively to speech will quickly notice that is not produced in a continuous, uninterrupted flow but in spurts. This quality of language is, among other things, a biological necessity.” He goes on to observe that “this physiological requirement operates in happy synchrony with some basic functional segmentations of discourse,” namely “that each intonation unit verbalizes the information active in the speaker’s mind at its onset” (p. 63).

While it is not obvious to me just what Chafe means here, I offer a crude analogy to indicate what I understand to be the case. Speaking is a bit like fishing, you toss the line in expectation of catching a fish. But you do not really know what you will hook. Sometimes you get a fish, but you may also get nothing, or an old rubber boot. In this analogy, syntax is like tossing the line while semantics is reeling in the fish, or the boot. The syntactic toss is made with respect to your current position in the discourse (i.e. the current state of the system). You are seeking a certain kind of meaning in relation to where you are now.
That is to say, in ordinary conversation the speaker doesn’t formulate a complete thought in the silent privacy of her mind and then just send it on over to the Language Desk for external expression. No, the formulation is done in short, discrete chunks, each of which is checked for accuracy once it is actually heard. If it makes sense, speaking can continue without interruption. If it doesn’t, then the speaker will interrupt the speech stream and reformulate. I go on to say:
Chafe identifies three different kinds of intonation units. Substantive units tend to be roughly five words long on average and, as the term suggests, present the substance of one’s thought. Regulatory units are generally a word or so long (e.g. and then, maybe, mhm, oh, and so forth), and serve to regulate the flow of ideas, rather than to present their substance. Given these durations, a single line of poetry can readily encompass a substantive unit or both a substantive and a regulatory unit.

The third kind of unit, fragmentary, results when one of the other types is aborted in mid-execution. That is to say, one is always listening to one’s own speech and is never quite sure, at the outset of a phrase, whether or not one’s toss of the syntactic line will reel-in the right fish. If things do not go as intended, the phrase may be aborted.
With those qualifications in mind, the Jabba puppet is not a bad metaphor for conversation. Conversation becomes a cooperative enterprise in which the participants attempt to arrive at a common understanding. This is true even in the case of a dispute, where the objective is to arrive at a common understanding of the matter under dispute.

And THAT, I suggest, is one reason Dawkins’ notion of memes has become terribly derailed. Dawkins and just everyone else implicitly assumes the conduit metaphor and so think of ideas as going from one person to another as water through a conduit. And since ideas have become reconceived as memes, we now have these memebots hopping from one brain to another. The role of the listener in decoding the meaning is simply forgotten, as is the need for conversational partners to negotiate meanings between them.

Writing, of course, introduces complications, as writer and reader are rarely copresent. I don’t see that the fundamental dynamic changes, but I haven’t worked out an explicit story. I will only note, in closing, that learning to write well is difficult, and that written language is frequently misconstrued.

* Reddy, Michael J. (1979). "The conduit metaphor: A case of frame conflict in our language about language", in Metaphor and Thought, ed. Andrew Ortony, 2nd edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993): 164-201.

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