Monday, April 11, 2016

"Eat food get fat:" left-brain vs. right-brain comprehension strategies

In a recent post, I drew a contrast between what makes modern prose challenging and what makes prose by classic writers challenging. What bedevils the latter (cf., e.g., Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, Franz Kafka, and George Eliot) are long sentences with lots of embedding that, while difficult to parse, ultimately make sense once you work them out syntactically. What bedevils the former are jargon, excess verbiage and repetitions; ambiguous references; and syntactic incoherence: in short, bad writing.

One reason I've been carrying on about this here is that it strikes me as part and parcel of our culture's "left brain" to "right brain" shift. That is, making sense of the classic prose that used to dominate our reading lists involved lots of analysis; making sense of contemporary prose involves less analysis (because the sentences are so much simpler), and, especially in the worst cases, much more socio-contextual reasoning (pragmatics).

For example, to make sense of Judith Butler's jargon you need to be part of her social milieu of critical theorists; and to make sense of Ronald Reagan's speech extract you have to get inside his head and figure out what he probably meant. If you're convinced he's an idiot, he meant that missiles can be recalled once launched; otherwise, the less alarming interpretation may win out.

True, you can also take a pragmatic approach to figuring out what the Jane Austen sentence means. Some commenters predicted that their kids wouldn't be able to answer my grammar questions while still correctly answering my comprehension questions. They could accomplish this by doing a "shallow parse": figuring out the individual clauses but not worrying about how exactly they fit together syntactically, and letting pragmatic reasoning about the characters' likely perspectives and motivations do the rest.

The tradeoff between complex syntax and complex pragmatics also occurs cross-linguistically. Different languages strike different balances between the two; in the process, they also strike different balances between the relative demands they place on communicator vs. receiver. In languages that use less complex (shallower) syntactic structures, the literal messages are often ambiguous. Less work for the communicator; more work for the reader or listener.

Consider the serial verb construction in Chinese. In this highly ambiguous construction, a series of verbs strung together without any intervening function words can either be analyzed as coordination ("eat [and] drink"), subordination ("eat [in order to] drink"), or causation ("eat [and as a result] drink"). Does the Chinese equivalent of "I eat food get fat" mean "eating food causes me to get fat" or "I eat food in order to get fat"? It's up to the listener/reader to figure that out based on what he or she knows about the communicator.

These days, "eat food get fat" no longer sounds so foreign. Perhaps, even in languages like English that have traditionally been more communicator-centered, our texting/tweeting shorthand is shifting the linguistic demands in a Chinese direction: even further away from the communicator (and his/her thumbs), and away from syntactic elaboration and analysis--and, therefore, more towards the social, contextual reasoning skills of the recipient.

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