Thursday, January 26, 2012

Larkin on semantics

It seems Philip Larkin agrees with me.  Explaining why he wrote poetry on the BBC overseas service in 1958, he said
If I must account for it, I think it would be best described as the only possible reaction to a particular kind of experience, a feeling that you are the only one to have noticed something, something especially beautiful or sad or significant.  Then there follows a sense of responsibility, responsibility for preserving this remarkable thing by means of a verbal device that will set off the same experience in other people, so that they too will feel How beautiful, how significant, how sad, and the experience will be preserved.
Yet if the meaning of words changed constantly, or meant something different depending on the different people who heard them, poets like Larkin could not possibly combine words in a poem to set off the same experience in other people.

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8 Comments:

Blogger Anthony said...

But a poem doesn't set off the same experience in every person.

Poems are actually a good example of exactly the point I was making. They require a context which is more than just the dictionary definition of the words (which is why they don't always translate very well).

12:36 am  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

>>Poems are actually a good example of exactly the point I was making. They require a context which is more than just the dictionary definition of the words (which is why they don't always translate very well).
<<

Can you give me an example of what you mean by 'context' here? And then why the requirement for that context means that poems don't translate very well?

What I mean by context is roughly this. Context is what I would be missing if I were stuck in a dungeon deep underground, without any sort of communication with the outside world. All I have is a piece of text whose meaning I have to grasp. If I am able to grasp the meaning of that text without leaving the dungeon, then no context is required. If it does require leaving the dungeon and getting hold of something or placing myself in some situation or some circumstance, then that missing 'something' is what I call 'context'.

It's pretty clear that, given a a bit of work and goodwill, I could get the meaning of a Larkin poem if it were handed to me through the door of the dungeon. Hence, no context required, at least in the sense I define 'context'.

What do you mean by context?

8:11 am  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

On the point about translation, there are two main reasons why translation can be challenging. The first, common to prose and poetry alike, is that there is often no word in the foreign language that has an equivalent meaning. The Latin word ratio is notorious in that regard, plus a few well-known others. The second reason, peculiar to poetry, is that due to sound and the length of words, the metre and rhyme is impossible to replicate in the foreign language, even keeping the meaning constant.

8:15 am  
Blogger Anthony said...

The meter, the rhyme, the puns, the cultural references, the softness or harshness of the words. Things which are more likely to translate are the punctuation and the typographic styling, though the analogues across languages, dialects, and time, are not always perfect.

The context of the poem is everything outside of the poem itself.

One place I think we're probably talking past each other is that you seem to take "context" as meaning only the present reality outside oneself. Whereas I certainly include the context that one brings into the dungeon in the form of memories of experiences. It seems to me you call any lack of such memories of experiences "not being a competent speaker of the language".

3:37 pm  
Blogger Anthony said...

You say "there is often no word in the foreign language that has an equivalent meaning".

By meaning do you mean connotation, denotation, or both?

3:40 pm  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

>>By meaning do you mean connotation, denotation, or both?

Definitely 'connotation' (this is an old fashioned term). Possibly 'denotation' depending on what that means.

3:53 pm  
Blogger Anthony said...

Doesn't the connotation change depending on the speaker, the audience, the time period, etc?

3:59 pm  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

>>Doesn't the connotation change depending on the speaker, the audience, the time period, etc?
<<

The standard understanding of 'connotation' is precisely what doesn't change depending on speaker, etc. Denotation or extension does. The classic example is 'the inhabitants of London'. Connotation same, denotation constantly changing.

There is a whole load of stuff I have here about connotation.

8:28 am  

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