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What We Talk About When We Talk About Talking About Talking

BY PETER SCHRANZ

 

A.

In the months before the second annual Missouri Linguistic Synod, my colleagues and I took advantage of several opportunities to share preliminary and organizational materials with each other. Our high capacity for the enjoyment of humor provided the name of this following small collection of those materials, which is a severe deformation of the title of Raymond Carver's 1981 meditation on reflection, as if you didn't already realize that immediately.

Some of the speakers taking part in compiling these materials were Dr. Lieven Dehandschutter, a research scientist in the department of Linguistics and Literature at Ghent University; Dr. Justine Henin, senior fellow at the University of Namur's Center for the Study of Language And Cognition; several colleagues who requested that their names be left out of any document provided as a blueprint for the planning of future synods, due to a nightmarish sexual situation which I'm not ready to broach; and me, who must remain nameless to protect the others.

Ultimately we chose Des Arc, Missouri as the venue for the synod, however the town of Belgique, in Perry County, was recommended by Dr. Dehandschutter, on the basis that this town was founded by Flemish immigrants with whom he wished to speak on the subject—and in the idiom—of the Flemish language. The synod's participants gathered in Fredericktown, halfway between Belgique and Des Arc, to determine which would best serve our requirements. Lest strife erupt on this question between the synod's Walloon- and Flemish-speaking parties, whose convergent participation fate had this year provided us, only those incapable of speaking these languages were allowed to participate in the discussions about whether to leave Fredericktown to the northeast, towards Belgique, or to the southwest, towards Des Arc.

When one of the speakers, who as I explained wished to be left anonymous, recommended that, since Flemings founded the town of Belgique, the synod should be held in Des Arc, we admitted having not followed his or her reasoning. This is what he or she said: had the Flemings any real claim to the area, they would have named their town België, but since they gave it the Walloon name, they mustn't have cared as much about their heritage as the Walloons who named Des Arc, and hence, Des Arc would be the better venue.

Another participant whom I have also anonymized countered, in a tone harmoniously straddling a civil and uncivil quality, that Belgique is the French word for Belgium, and that the Flemings would have name their town Beldjike if they were for some reason inclined to give it the Walloon name. However, the French language is neutral in this matter. Before the mood of the discussion endured any more injuries to its decency—such as through some partisan's pointing out that Des Arc is French too, not Walloon—the Ecumenical Council, from which both Drs. Dehandschutter and Henin had recused themselves, proclaimed that the earlier prohibition of Walloon and Flemish speakers from the decision be broadened to include speakers not only of Flemish, but all Low Franconian languages, and not only of Walloon, but all Langues d'oïl.

After we'd settled on Des Arc, and our tensions had slackened under the caresses of camaraderie, one of our more infamous wags asked why we didn't all just convene in St. Louis, the largest and most accessible and convenient city in Missouri. We all laughed, due to the extremely nuanced sense of humor we have acquired, a subtle feast in which most lay people, such as you, personally, can never partake.

In Des Arc, in 1720, the French began constructing a tower, but never finished; to this day there is no roof. The structure is called the Tower of Louis XV, who was ten years old at the time he decreed its construction. It is the tallest building in North America ever built under the orders of a French king. We chose the great hall attached to the visitor's center as the place of the synod so that we wouldn't get rained on, because the tower itself had no roof, which you haven't forgotten yet.

 

B.

We'd all mailed each other the abstracts of our talks before anybody even agreed to participate, and thus had some modicum of advance knowledge to undergo the fewest possible shocks. When I say “abstract,” I am not using the term in a strict sense, or if the sense is strict, then it is also unconventional. The abstract of Dr. Henin's talk, on a computer program, or "app," which transcribes speech that a human listener recognizes, had been updated several times with pen, pencil, and crayon by the time she arrived at the hall of the Tower of Louis XV. The original read as follows:

 
The purpose of this research is to determine the effectiveness of the E Scriptoribus transcription software in accurately transcribing what users believe they hear in an audio file. Electrodes are pasted onto the shaved heads of participants, as close to the brain's superior temporal gyrus as we can get without invasive surgeries or ear-amputation. The electrodes are connected via USB to a computer running E Scriptoribus, where an audio file (.wav or .ogg) is played. The program's text-window converts into text whatever the users think they hear. The alpha version of E Scriptoribus, which aimed to transcribe unrecorded human speech, was prematurely scuttled when it caused all the testers to undergo seizures of varying intensities, which corrupted all the data flying out of their brains. On the text-window of one of the affected alpha-testers, who was listening to a woman talk about her favorite kinds of cake, the chilling phrase "COFFIN KING" was transcribed almost three hundred times, even though the woman was speaking about cake. Beta-testers, of recorded speech this time, suffered no abnormal neurological events whatsoever. More research is needed to determine 1. the reason for these seizure-patterns, 2. what would happen if we gave users recordings of languages they don't understand, and 3. how to make it so E Scriptoribus can transcribe .mp3 files, since even if the user understands a file's every crisp word, if it's an .mp3 then the text-window just fills up with this crap: ▯▯▯▯▯▯▯▯▯▯▯▯▯
 

One of the updates reflected an addition to the program which Dr. Henin was informed of en route from Belgium. In the earliest versions, if any part of an audio file was unintelligible to the user, the program would crash. In later versions, the program would place an exclamation point where the unintelligible word or phrase was, and then a replay with a keener ear was effected to identify the mysterious speech.

But as Dr. Henin rocketed west across the Atlantic Ocean, her assistants sent her a copy of the newest version, which would place an exclamation point at the unintelligible area, but would also replace it with the word or phrase once the context of the next segment of audio revealed it to the user.

Similarly, if the user's recognition of the word or phrase changed with added context, the program would edit previous transcriptions automatically.

Dr. Henin promised to work this new information seamlessly into her talk, and passed around a list of examples from which we were to choose the most illuminating. One of them wasn't even real, to act as a control or a placebo or something:

1a: "My ! flossed..."

b: "My wife lost her car keys."
 

2a. "Cat's fox in well ! water."

b. "Can't function well under water."
 

3a. "The Dow ! Jones is not ! earn ! Dow."

b. "The Dao that can be told is not the eternal Dao."
 

4a. "They came here, to the cities ! to do that."

b. "They came here, to this hideous place, to do that."
 

None of us found any example more illuminating than any other, and we are sworn to secrecy about whether this is because we didn't understand the point of any of the examples, or because they were all so good that their points were equally, and highly, understandable.

Dr. Henin asked me to clarify that the program considers a segment of speech unintelligible only if the user considers it unintelligible. Errors not detected by the user, for example, "Let us Segway to another topic," are not detectable by artificial intelligence at the time of this writing: half past six in the evening, eastern standard time, on the thirteenth of December, 2017.

 

C.

I myself had not completed an abstract by the time of the synod because I was too busy, and also I got drunk instead of writing it.

I didn't need an abstract to give a good talk, so in the leisurely Des Arc days leading up to our assembly, I discussed with several of my colleagues, as an enigmatic teaser, the passage comprising lines 706–752 in the fourth book of Ovid's Metamorphoses, which I will paraphrase shortly. We are hard-pressed to find even a toddler unfamiliar with the ophidian locks of Medusa, and a little more easy-pressed, increasingly, to find someone unfamiliar with her petrifying gaze, with her decapitation by Perseus, and with his use of her severed head as a weapon of mass destruction against multitudes of foes, who were transformed en masse into cadavers of marble. And yet a person can, like me, read the poem without becoming familiar with the subsequent exploits of Perseus, who, after slaying a sea-creature, set the gorgon's head face-down on a bed of soft seaweed before washing his hands of gore. Facing the bed of seaweed, Medusa's gaze turned it into stone, which looked so beautiful to the sea-nymphs that they used it over and over until they colonized the oceans with petrified seaweed. And that explains where coral came from.

Yes, this tale is so unrecognizable that even if one has, like me, read the Metamorphoses just a few months ago, one must learn about it from Italo Calvino's reference to it in his lecture on lightness, because one is not anywhere near as attentive as one thinks when one reads, especially because one reads at the hour of leisure preceding sleep, which hour burdens one with inattention like so much stone flesh.

I thought to bring up a classical reference to demonstrate that indeed I had prepared for my talk, just not the way the traditionalist, pro-abstract faction of the Ecumenical Council might have preferred.

I have to say that five of the synod's participants arrived late, having traveled accidentally to the Des Arc in Arkansas. Before I cut my own throat too deeply with the knife of my ill-preparedness, I should explain that the reason I got drunk was that these five people were—it is difficult to decide in what order I should mention them—my current wife, my ex-wife, my ex-wife's new husband, my ex-wife's new husband's ex-wife, and my ex-wife's new husband's ex-wife's new husband, the last of whom I share a cordial, sincere, and happy professional relationship with, thanks in part to the distance and meaninglessness of our familial association. The extraordinarily and divertingly convoluted tale of all six of us meeting at the Belgian endive bar under the shadow of the Tower of Louis XV, and of our turbulent discussion about the sexual video recording my ex-wife produced with her new husband, which they sent both to me and to his ex-wife, and of the two of them betraying not one single reflection on the wisdom or folly of their conduct, will have to wait at least a millennium before I shall feel at liberty to tell it.

Instead, I will tell you all about my nice talk.

Off the coast of the island of Patmos, which has the distinction of being the island where John the Revelator witnessed and recorded his Apocalypse, grows an enormous forest of fat, orange coral. On the island itself, a language is spoken now only by thirteen nonagenarians. This was once thought to be a Greek- or Turkish-influenced dialect of Italian—or something—but my recent analysis of these people's speech have convinced me that the language, "Patmic" (which is what I call it), is not Latinate at all, but derived instead from Oscan, an extinct Italic language spoken until about the first century B.C.E. in what is now the province of Foggia.

One of the nonagenarians, who did not wish to have his name recorded, described witnessing, soon after the end of the Second World War, the activity of coral-poachers in the sea. They had raided a forgotten magazine of depth-charges, which they would throw off of their boats, whereupon the depth-charges would explode and uproot dozens of the orange corals.

In my research I happened upon a photograph of this practice, and I would like to assure you that these corals look exactly like human-sized cheese curls.

The nonagenarians used a word I swear to God I'll never remember for “coral,” but for “orange,” they used the word aasiantia, which if you ask me is a lot like the Oscan word for "orange," aasiantiakuf, especially when you compare their Latin and Italian counterparts: aurantiacus and arancione. Considering that sound shifts between Latin and Oscan include /a/ → /ai/, /r/ → /s/, and /s/ → /f/, I would go ahead and say case closed.

I'd written these notes furiously at the Belgian endive bar on the back of my menu's specials insert, and so if you journeyed with me to the island of Patmos just now, then you know exactly what it was like to be there in that bar, listening to the two terrible people, with straight faces, tell me and the three other good people about why it's okay to send ex-spouses videotapes with recordings of private acts undertaken with current spouses. The only difference is that your experience lacks anguish, due to my intentional removal of it from my account.

 

D.

Like me, Dr. Lieven Dehandschutter failed to produce an abstract which his colleagues might have found useful in preparing their remarks on his talk. Unlike me, however, he did actually make preparations, in the shape of mailing us all copies of his notes on a collection he gathered of fragmentary texts.

Dr. Dehandschutter's talk would have been much easier to understand had he produced an abstract for us, but some people are not as polite as other people.

I don't literally have his notes sprawled out in front of me right this second, but do have the texts themselves, such as that from section 7 of St. John Chrysostom's homily entitled Panegyric on all the saints in the whole world who have been martyred, from Wendy Mayer's 2006 translation of his works concerning such saints:

"Don't you tremble in front of this martyrium? Don't you now yearn for martyrdom? Aren't you now sad that no opportunity for martyrdom is presently available? On the contrary, let us, too, train ourselves for an opportunity for martyrdom. They despised life. You, despise luxury! They threw their bodies on the fire. You, now

This is where the text cuts off in this volume, only to repeat later with the same cut-off point. This was the result of a severe sort of multi-page misprint which is to a book what ulnar dimelia is to a hand. Dehandschutter's point in his notes on this text has more to do with the printer than with Chrysostom or Mayer.

The worst part about the talk, I thought at first, was how it wasn't even about grammatical fragments at all; however, such fragments and those in literature both present the same "annoyingness," to use a term coined by the honorable speaker in his talk.

Also, the worst part about that tape was it had nothing to do with the purpose of our pre-gathering preparations. On the tape, my ex-wife and her new husband weren't talking about talking about talking, I'll tell you that much.

The excuse Dr. Dehandschutter gave to make his talk have anything at all to do with linguistics was that when text cuts off like this we expect the rest of a thought no matter whether the end of the text was accidentally omitted, as in the example above, or purposely; and, if purposely, whether the purpose of the omission was stylistic or pragmatic, as in the two examples below.

The last line of Wallace's The Broom of the System is as follows:

'You can trust me,' R.V. says, watching her hand. 'I'm a man of my

which has all kinds of important reasons why it's noteworthy, like how the missing word is the word “word.” But even once we know it was on purpose, we remember exactly the instant when we thought we'd just encountered a misprint, and then a longer and more vague expanse of time when we realize that it was all connived ahead of time.

So much for the stylistic purpose of end-text omission. For the pragmatic purpose, Dr. Dehandschutter pointed to "Sir Bertrand: A Fragment," by Anna Laetitia Barbauld, née Aikin, from her and her brother John's 1773 collection, Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose.

"Sir Bertrand" appears in a chapter entitled On the Pleasure Derived from Objects of Terror, and I'll not detain the reader by explaining how I studied Dr. Dehandschutter's notes a matter of minutes after the dreadful lunchtime encounter I had with the web of all those ex-wife people. Neither will I scandalize the reader by confessing that, when I read it, still ruminating on the video, I thought for a moment that the chapter's name was On the Terror Derived from Objects of Pleasure.

Speaking of not detaining anyone, the content of this chapter was of no matter. However, the story, "Sir Bertrand," whose very subtitle is "A Fragment," ends thus:

After the banquet was finished, all retired but the lady, who leading back the knight to the sofa, addressed him in these words:----------------------

Dr. Dehandschutter supposed that, rather than finishing the story, and only then publishing it, the Aikin siblings sought both to procure money quickly and boast of their rare luxury: that their skill was of such immensity that they didn't even have to finish a text for it to merit the decoration of print. Indeed, the story is twice a fragment, for here is the beginning:

-----------After this adventure, Sir Bertrand turned his steed towards the woulds, hoping to cross these dreary moors before the curfew.

I can't remember if the speaker discussed this following point during his speech or not, because I couldn't pay attention, because my memory kept subjecting me to images of my ex-wife which I should never have been subjected to. The doctor supposed in his notes, however, by way of explanation for Barbauld's re-publication of a revised "Sir Bertrand" in her 1804 collection, Gothic Stories, that she still required money, but no longer possessed the luxury of adoring printers begging her to send them something, anything, which they could put her name on. Her biography is well-attested, and there is no real excuse for a man like Dr. Lieven Dehandschutter of Ghent University not to know, for sure, her level of destitution in 1804.

This later version of the story was revised, in the main, via the tradition of it being completed:

Sir Bertrand turned his steed toward the wolds, hoping to cross those dreary moors before the curfew tolled.

it begins, with the omission of “After this adventure” being all that was required to de-fragment the beginning. She also added very important and unrecognizable linguistic attributes thither via her subsequent revisions, such as changing "before the curfew" to "before the curfew tolled," and other choices of almost ethereal subtlety: "towards" to "toward," "woulds" to "wolds," and even "these" to "those."

When, in 1804, we arrive at the section which yawned for thirty-one years into that infinite void, we read on, triumphantly, with only the flavor of the pause left in our mouths:

After the banquet was finished, all retired but the lady; who, leading back the knight to the sofa, addressed him in these words:—

"Sir Knight—The grateful remembrance of my delivery from the iron hand of the Moorish tyrant, who in dying bequeathed his soul to the prince of the air for the horrid purpose of confining me in this my patrimonial estate, shall never be erased from my memory."

 

E.

I can't help but remark on the injustice it was that Dr. Dehandschutter's talk ended up being the very first of the second annual Missouri Linguistic Synod, though it harped so severely on endings. As a means to right the injustice, I have placed my notes on his notes at the end of this document. I shall also indulge in the sense of humor which I possess by recording the last moments of the synod's preliminary segments here, from the governor's opening speech:

"Thank you all for coming. Please take your seats. My name is Alexander McNair, and as the governor of Missouri, I would like to welcome all of you to the very best state in our state-crammed union. I know you're not here to listen to me, since I don't know a thing, so instead, let's give a big fat round of applause to our first speaker this morning. Ladies and gentlemen, it's my honor to introduce

 

Peter Schranz is the host of Flight of the Fifty Fancies and the webmaster of dailydoofus.com. He lives in Philadelphia, where he works at a day care center for adults with developmental disabilities.


Image: History of the First Presbyterian Church of Bellefontaine, Ohio (1900)

Published April 13th, 2018