Tuesday, December 23, 2008


I've had some early Christmas presents this year, mostly in the form of words or phrases that wouldn't sit still and mean something plainly and straightforwardly. It must be my own particular flavor of dorkiness, but those just get me excited. I suppose it's a hazard of my trade.

One example of what I'm talking about is the auto-antonym, which refers to words that have meanings that are opposites. The first one that pops into my head is "cleave," which can mean "cut in two," but also can mean "seal together two halves." A couple of other examples are "custom" and "sanction." They remind me of kanji, which are wonderful because they have so many different readings. Our language is phonographic: the symbols tell us how to pronounce the word, which is why beginning readers learn how to sound out what they read. Other languages, such as Chinese, are ideographic, meaning that each unit of writing has an entire meaning. But the great thing about Japanese is that it uses both a phonological script (actually, two of them -- hiragana and katakana) and an ideographic script, kanji. And the ideographs each have a bunch of different readings: you have to fit them into context before you have any clue what they mean.

The idea isn't original with me, but I like how nicely that arrangement of writing tools fits with the split between verbal and nonverbal communication. There's been research in recent years that showed that speakers of ideographic languages processed the text in a different part of the brain from speakers of phonographic language. It's also the case that ideographic language coincides with cultures that are more indirect, more low-context, more inclined to let the receiver of the message fill in the details. And nonverbal messages have a lot in common with that: a facial expression surely means something, but the something is less clinical and precise than a carefully written and revised sentence; it needs the context before you can interpret it accurately.

All these thoughts were slurrying around in my head yesterday evening as I was rationalizing my failings. I'm a reasonably good teacher, and I was in an especially good mood, since my course evaluations for the fall had arrived, full of some incredibly kind and gracious words from students. But the place where I clearly fall short is in research; put bluntly, my publication record is pathetic. I've presented some conference papers, and I have one article and a book review, but that's just a piddly showing for twelve years' employment at three different universities. But the striking thing is, it's exactly because my publication record is so poor that I got absolutely zero stirring of interest from the majority of jobs I applied for, up until the day I applied for this job. And this job is so perfectly suited to my wants and my temperament that I can't imagine teaching anywhere else. And as I was reflecting on all of that, and turning my failing into a success, I thought, God knows what He's doing. And then I was very tickled to realize that my colleagues, former professors, etc. were probably thinking the exact same words about me, only with a slightly different emphasis: "God knows what he's doing!" And the meaning of the exact same words, arranged syntactically in the exact same formation, went sliding off in a completely different direction. To my delight.

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