Proust Was A Neuroscientist… And Also A Linguist

ProustMarcel Proust was a neuroscientist, according to researcher-turned-sciencewriter, Jonah Lehrer. I’d like to argue, he was also a linguist.

Lehrer might have been publically disgraced for inventing Bob Dylan quotes in a follow-up book about creativity, but he had a point. The great rememberer was interested in a great many things – in music and theatre, in nature and architecture, in fashion and society, in love and jealousy, in time and memory. And if you’ve ever read any of the volumes of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu (recently reimagined as a graphic novel), you’ll know he was fascinated – above all – by how we conceive and perceive these things in our heads. Proust’s interest in psychology was profound enough to have inspired a personality questionnaire that still features regularly in Vanity Fair magazine. And political commentators are even now referring to Proust in trying to make sense of Donald Trump.

After a recent trip to Paris, I was inspired to finally sit down and read the five hundred or so pages of Swann’s Way, the first volume of Proust’s epic novel. Although I knew he’d have a lot to say about art and psychology, about nature and society, I was surprised at how much he had to say about language.

So, as well as being a neuroscientist, I’m going to argue that Proust was also very definitely a linguist. Here are ten reasons why:

1. Just like any good linguist, Proust knew his parts of speech

To describe and study language you first need to be able to categorise and label its various components. In Swann’s Way, for example, Proust talks of the “imperfect” and the “preterite”, “proper names”, “metaphors”, “figures of speech”, “indirect speech”, and “particles”.

2. Proust was interested in where words come from

Proust was definitely into his etymologies. As well as a whole section in Swann’s Way devoted to place names (and the various romantic associations the narrator makes with them), Proust makes various etymological asides. Like this one:

(I’m not certain, by the way, of the etymology of Roussainville. I’m rather inclined to think that name was originally Raville, from Radulfi villa, analogous, don’t you see, to Châteauroux, Castrum Radulfi, but we’ll talk about that some other time.)

3. Proust understood how language changes

Relating to his interest in the origins of words, Proust had an understanding of how language changes over time. For example, he mentions elision, a key process in language change in which words, or bits of words, get left unsaid:

[Mme Verdurin] still said instinctively “the de La Trémoïlles,” or rather (by an abbreviation sanctified by usage in music hall lyrics and cartoon captions, where the “de” is elided), “the d’La Trémoïlles,” […]

4. And he understood how new words and phrases can become old hat

In Swann’s Way, Proust shows insight into how new bits of language – particularly words and phrases – are born. For example, he describes how “do a cattleya” becomes a shared euphemism for more intimate physical acts, after Swann uses the pretext of rearranging an orchid on Odette’s dress to lean in for their first kiss. He describes how the phrase becomes a key part of the two lovers’ shared language (what linguists might call a famiolect), which eventually loses all association with the flowers themselves.

Proust also knew how new words and phrases (like “to give a free hand” and “to be absolutely floored”) can be born as metaphors – another major force for language change – and how, over time, the literal origins of such metaphors can be gradually forgotten:

[antique pieces of furniture] charmed her like those old forms of speech in which we can see traces of a metaphor whose fine point has been worn away by rough usage.

Proust knew that some metaphors – like “splitting hairs” – can become so overused that they become clichés. And, cloaked in satire, he had an Orwellian dislike of them:

“D’you know, that’s a funny thing; I had never noticed it. I may as well tell you that I don’t much care about peering at things through a microscope, and pricking myself on pin-points of difference. No, we don’t waste time splitting hairs in this house,” Mme Verdurin replied, which Dr Cottard gazed at her with open-mouthed admiration and studious zeal as she skipped lightly from one stepping-stone to another of her stock of ready-made phrases.

5. He knew something about how words and concepts are stored in our brains

Proust’s narrator speaks often of the “associations” he makes between the various things he encounters and different parts of his memory – what he refers to as the tangled network of “mental habits, of seasonal impressions, of sensory reactions”. Psycholinguists (and neuroscientists in general) differentiate between our episodic memory (where we store information about specific instances and experiences in our lives) and semantic memory (of facts, ideas, concepts, and meanings) – although both are connected and interdependent. Proust also knew that different concepts in our semantic memory can be more closely connected than others. When referring to Swann’s Way and the Guermantes Way, near his family’s home at Combray, the narrator talks of “the distance that there was between the two parts of my brain in which I used to think of them”.

Proust also understood how our semantic memory connects to another network in our brain where we store the words or lexemes (including proper names) that represent the concepts within it:

Thus was wafted to my ears the name of Gilberte, bestowed on me like a talisman which might, perhaps, enable me some day to rediscover the girl that its syllables had just endowed with an identity, whereas the moment before she had been merely an uncertain image.

6. He could see connections between concepts and the sound of the words

For a long time, one of the most fundamental assumptions in linguistics was the arbitrariness of the sign. That is, as language develops, lexemes (like “love”) are chosen to represent the underlying semantic concept in an entirely accidental way, so that the string of phonemes in the word has no meaning in itself. These days, it’s more readily accepted that this isn’t always true. Words can, and quite often do, have a degree of iconicity. Proust was definitely aware of the possibility of associations between the component sounds of words and the concepts they represent. For example, when the narrator thinks about the Norman Cathedral in Coutances, he imagines “its final consonants, rich and yellowing, crowned with a tower of butter.” Elsewhere in Swann’s Way, the pronunciation of “ch” leads to a sensual association between the word “charming” and a budding flower:

And she [Mme de Laumes] murmured, “How charming it is!” with a double ch at the beginning of the word which was a mark of refinement and by which she felt her lips so romantically crinkled, like the petals of a beautiful, budding flower […]

7. And he knew what happens when connections go missing

Proust was aware that certain neurological disorders, resulting from brain disease or injury, can lead to the loss of these lexemes, or the ability to access them (asphasia), or even the loss of the underlying concept in the semantic memory:

Moreover, the name Swann, with which I had for so long been familiar, had now become for me (as happens with certain aphasiacs in the case of the most ordinary words) a new name.

8. He’s not just interested in what people say, but how they say it

Throughout the novel, Proust pays close attention to how his characters speak, in particularly to prosody (stress and intonation). For example, the narrator manages to make Swann sound like a precocious university student:

[…] whenever he spoke of serious matters, whenever he used an expression which seemed to imply a definite opinion upon some important subject, he would take care to isolate it by using special intonation, mechanical and ironic, as though he had put the word or phrase between inverted commas […]

What Proust refers to as “intonation” and “accentuation” (and what is often translated into English as “tone” by Moncrieff and Kilmartin) is more generally what linguists refer to as (speaking) style. He knows that his characters, like real people, use different styles – which might be more or less formal – at different times, according to who they are speaking to, what they are speaking about, and why. For example, the narrator says that Odette “invariably adopted a poetical tone when she spoke to Swann about my uncle”. And Proust knew that speaking in a style which is not appropriate to the context is not a very gentlemanly thing to do:

[Swann] was shocked, too, being accustomed to good manners, by the rude, almost barrack-room tone the pugnacious academic adopted no matter to whom he was speaking.

9. He knew that our identities are created in what we say and how we say it

The view that identity is “created”, “constituted” and “constructed” (all Proust’s words) is a prevalent one in applied linguistics, and across the social sciences. Instead of the (essentialist) perspective which says we all have only one unique and stable personality, the theory says instead that our identity is the sum total of what we do and what we say – each an act of identity or identification with a certain group of people. For example, if we throw a baseball, we are telling people we are sporty. If we speak in a French accent, we are telling people that we’re French. If we speak in a style associated with the upper classes (for example, Swann speaks with the “the style of the Guermantes set”) we are identifying with them. If we mention Proust in a blog, of course, we are telling people that we think we’re clever. And so on.

Early on in Swann’s Way, it’s clear that Proust shares the same (socially-constructed) view of identity:

But then, even in the most insignificant details of our daily life, none of us can be said to constitute a material whole, which is identical for everyone, and need only be turned up like a page in an account-book or the record of a will.

And like any good applied linguist Proust knew that, because we can speak or act differently around different people, we can create different versions of ourselves:

Doubtless the Swann who was a familiar in all the clubs of those days differed hugely from the Swann created by my great-aunt when, of an evening, in our little garden at Combray, after the two shy peals had sounded from the gate […].

10. And he’s interested in what code-switching says about our identity

One way of creating a complex identity is to mix languages – what linguists call code-switching. Odette, for example, is very prone to litter her French with English words and phrases:

Comme il est gentil ! il est déjà galant, il a un petit œil pour les femmes : il tient de son oncle. Ce sera un parfait gentleman, ajouta-t-elle en serrant les dents pour donner à la phrase un accent légèrement britannique. Est-ce qu’il ne pourrait pas venir une fois prendre a cup of tea, comme disent nos voisins les Anglais ; il n’aurait qu’à m’envoyer un « bleu » le matin.

The narrator describes how, in pronouncing the word “gentleman”, she clenches her teeth “so as to give the word a kind of English accentuation”. Is Odette simply showing off? Is it pomposity? It’s difficult to tell, but the code-switching adds a layer of nuance to her character.

So, there you go. I hope I’ve done enough to argue that Proust was more than just a great rememberer and novelist. As well as a neuroscientist – and probably a great many other things – he was a pretty good linguist too.

 

 

 

 

 

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‘A Sort of Verbal Bannockburn’: Language and the Debate on Scottish Independence

ImageFor lovers of language, there will be plenty to watch out for in the run up to the Scottish vote on independence.

In February, Prime Minister David Cameron gave his first speech directly addressing the forthcoming referendum. It was certainly emotive. ‘Centuries of history hang in the balance’, he said, as he told Scottish voters to reject independence. According to Cameron, campaigners now had seven months to save Britain.

In the speech, as you might expect, there was a good deal of rhetoric. According to the classical principles of rhetoric, there are three possible ‘appeals’ that an orator can make to help win over their audience: logos (an appeal to logic and rational argument), pathos (an appeal to the audience’s emotions) and ethos (an appeal based on the orator’s identity).

There was certainly much pathos. In the speech, Cameron said he could not bear to see the country ‘torn apart’.

And there was more than a deft sprinkling of ethos. In his speech, Cameron spoke about his family’s Scottish roots in the West Highlands. ‘The name Cameron might mean “crooked nose”’, he said, ‘but the clan motto is “Let us unite”, and that is exactly what we in these islands have done.’ You see what he did there?

But, in the debate, we shouldn’t expect all such appeals to ethos to be so explicit.

Linguists will tell you that language and identity are almost inseparable. Whenever we open our mouths – whether we mean to or not – we tell our interlocutors something about who we are, where we were born, where we live, even where we were educated. In choosing the language, dialect, register and style we use (what you might generally call ‘code’), we necessarily convey something about our identity (Auer, 2005).

Cameron, speaking to the whole of the United Kingdom, spoke in British Standard English (BSE), the UK’s ‘norm’ dialect, with a southern accent. In doing so, he was signalling that he is educated, part of the mainstream, ruling majority, English but – most importantly – British too.

Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), spoke immediately after Cameron’s speech. He too spoke in a Standard English (albeit in a Scottish accent) which, in print, would usually be rendered indistinguishable from Cameron’s code. But, in accusing the Prime Minister of running scared (in not agreeing to a direct debate with him on the issue of independence) he chose one word particularly carefully. He told the BBC:

‘I just want the Prime Minister to come and debate with me and stop being such a big feartie.’

‘Feartie’ is a Scots word, not in currency south of the border. Meaning somebody who is afraid, it was a deft choice: instead of simply calling him a ‘coward’, Salmond could take a swipe at Cameron and underline his Scottish – not British – identity.

I think it’s safe to expect plenty more Scots language to enter the political debate in the run up to the referendum – and not just among the SNP. It’s not unlikely that we’ll also see unionists north of the border using the Scots language to mark their Scottish identity as something which is not incompatible with British unity.

And it won’t be just about using one language or the other. We should also look out for politicians and columnists ‘code-switching’ between the two languages.

Scots-English code-switching is not new. For example, it was something Robert Burns used for great poetic effect. But, code-switching can also be used as a powerful rhetorical device. For instance, I spotted a recent letter to The Observer from a reader in Edinburgh. The letter, arguing that ‘it’s not Scotland’s job to save England from it’s failings’, concluded:

‘Are we to understand, then, that the union’s shared values offer nothing to Scotland but more of the same, or that Scotland must remain in the union so that its different values will enable it to become the union’s (England’s) conscience, pace Hutton? Ye’re haeing a laff.’ (The Observer, 9 February 2014)

In linguistic terms the code-switch to Scots at the end is particularly ‘marked’ (Myers-Scotton and Bolonyai, 2001). It carries meaning, beyond ‘you must be joking’: that is, it carries a distinct and defiant Scottish voice.

There were some interesting comments left on the comments section below the BBC report of David Cameron’s speech. Most aptly, one reader wrote:

‘The last thing Alex Salmond wants is to debate issues […] Salmond wants to portray himself giving the English oppressors a bloody nose… a sort of verbal Bannockburn.’

Perhaps, then, that’s what we can expect over the next 6 months: a ‘verbal Bannockburn’, a battle of words between two duelling languages. Whatever happens in the vote, there’ll be plenty of interest for the linguists.

http://www.scotslanguage.com/ is a great resource for information on the Scots language.

References

Auer, P. (2005) A postscript: code-switching and social identity. Journal of Pragmatics, 37, 403-410.

Myers-Scotton, C. and Bolonyai, A. (2001) Calculating speakers: Codeswitching in a rational choice model. Language in Society, 30, 1-28.

‘C’est Cidre. Not Cider’: The Creative Use of Code-Switching in Advertising

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Code-switching is broad term referring to the alternation between two or more languages, dialects or styles, within and between utterances and sentences. When it comes to linguistic creativity, code-switching provides a wealth of opportunities for the speaker, beyond those available in any single language or dialect. As well as being a creative mechanism in literature, music and film, it’s also a very creative tool for selling things – in branding, marketing and advertising.

And, as I also hope to show, code-switching in advertising is not something that requires fluency in a second language. Au contraire. Even people who would call themselves monolingual are probably more used to code-switching than they think – so much so, in fact, that they have probably stopped noticing how often the ‘(M)ad Men’ use it to tempt us.

The main role of code switching in marketing and branding, of course, is to evoke a foreign and desirable lifestyle – from a part of the world where the particular language is spoken – which thus becomes associated with the commodity in question. Outside of the Anglophone world, English in particular is employed to give brands an international or western feel. The example that Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros gives in her book on code-switching is from Germany. Here, in a poster advertising McDonald’s latest culinary creation, English is combined with the local language to ‘evoke a cosmopolitan – or American – lifestyle’ (p. 6, Gardner-Chloros, 2009):

‘McCroissant: The American Antwort auf Croissant. The lecker warm Croissant. Geschnitten in two Teile, this is very praktisch. So is genug Platz for weitere leckere things.’

[‘McCroissant: The American answer to Croissant. The delicious warm Croissant. Cut in two parts, this is very practical. So is enough room for further delicious things.’]

The text of the advert combines grammars, as well as words, from both languages. It also cleverly employs words like ‘so’, ‘warm’ and ‘in’ which are lexical items in both languages; this helps reduce the effort required by the reader to understand what is written, at the same time maintaining the pervasiveness of the English throughout the text.

If you travel anywhere outside of the Anglophone world – from Chile, to Kenya, to Beijing – you are likely to find similar examples. On a recent trip to Russia, it was noticeable that many restaurants in downtown St Petersburg and Moscow had Russian-English names, often switching languages in their signs (‘Restoran Meat Head’ was a particular favourite, and not just for the steak). And code-switching wasn’t only to be found in the catering sector. The business newspaper I picked up in Moscow airport was called the ‘RBC Daily’, which even switches scripts (from Cyrillic to Latin) in its title. Here, of course, (American) English is evocative of international business and commerce.

But code-switching is prevalent in the Anglophone world too, and English speaking consumers like me are just as likely to be taken in by it.

In the UK at least, French is especially common, partly because it is traditionally the most taught second language, but also because of the perceived attractiveness of the French lifestyle – and its connotations of elegance, sophistication and taste. As such, French is used to sell everything from cars and clothes, to perfume and beer.

Stella Artois, for example, is a Belgium beer, brewed in the Flemish speaking city of Leuven. However, to the US and UK market, it advertises itself as very definitely French. Recently, the company launched a new advertising campaign for its cider using a simple code-switch in the tagline:

C’est cidre. Not cider.’

[It’s ‘cidre’. Not cider.]

Such a tagline, of course, cleverly hinges upon the (perceived) superiority of everything French – including the language itself.

For obvious culinary reasons, the restaurant industry is arguably the place where code-switching to French is most common. Walking around any English speaking city, you’re likely to find plenty of French: here, a chain of French restaurants advertising ‘bonnes tables et vins’; there, a bistro advertising its ‘plat du jour’. If you’re an English speaker in the Anglophone world, you’re perhaps most likely to see code-switching in restaurant menus. And you see it so often, in fact, that you’ve possible stopped noticing it.

Take, for example, the menu for the Michelin-starred La Chappelle restaurant in London. The majority of the language may look like English, but the register is decidedly Francophone. Starters are labelled ‘Entrées’, main courses as ‘Plats principaux’. Appetisingly, there’s ‘ballotine of quail’, ‘pavé of halibut’, an ‘assiette of Herdwick lamb’ (what’s wrong with ‘plate’?), and ‘summer vegetables en cocette. There’s certainly a soupçon of code-switching going on, and that’s only in the à la carte menu.

Because of the status in Europe of French cuisine, French has dictated much of the English vocabulary for food and drink (‘restaurant’, ‘bistro’, ‘café’, ‘menu’, and so on). As such, it’s worth being careful to differentiate between code-switching and lexical borrowing. In borrowing, a ‘loan word’ is taken from a donor language and incorporated into the recipient language. However, in practice, it’s quite difficult to separate the two phenomena. In reality, there is a continuum between the two extremes: loans start off as code-switches and then gradually become established phonologically, morphologically, and so on, into the lexicon of the recipient language (Gardner-Chloros, 2009).

For example – for most English speakers I know at least –  ‘restaurant’ is a fully fledged ‘English’ word. However, there are still certain speakers, usually from among the British upper classes, that refuse to accept its English phonology. They still pronounce ‘restauranten français, without the terminal /t/ and with the final consonant Gallicly nasalized. That is, they refuse to borrow and, instead, are absolutely resolute in their code-switching.

Code-switching to another language like this can be used, of course, as a device to demonstrate how sophisticated we (think we) are. Interestingly, I once heard a particular member of this group – a food critic on a popular TV cooking competition – pluralise the phonologically-French ‘restaurant’ by adding a terminal /z/, as in English. Critics might say that this particular speaker, in an overtly pretentious effort, was failing to be as clever as he thought he was(!). Technically speaking, you would say within the speaker’s own idiolect the integration of ‘restaurant’ was complete morphologically, but not phonologically.

At the other end of the spectrum, even within the food business, there are those that are more resistant to code-switching. James Martin is a British TV chef who presents a popular Saturday morning cooking show in the UK. Albeit in jest, I once heard him say of ‘crème anglaise’ (BBC One, ‘Saturday Kitchen Live’, 5 October 2013):

‘Back where I come from, that’s called “custard” […] The difference is twenty quid!’

But, whatever you feel about code-switching in advertising – sophisticated, pretentious, or simply unnecessary – you can’t disagree that it’s everywhere. In fact, it’s so ubiquitous, that it’s very easy to stop noticing that it’s there at all.

Since, when it comes to the business of selling, there’s nothing like a bit of code-switching. Often, the difference is at least a few extra bucks.

References

There’s a short blog and interesting video about code-switching in advertising here (http://lindazonderop.blogspot.co.uk/2011/06/code-switching-in-advertising.html).

Gardner-Chloros, P. (2009) Code-Switching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.