Re: RE: Humpty Dumpty

From: Jonathan Robie (
Date: Wed Mar 18 1998 - 18:21:17 EST

At 12:52 PM 3/18/98 -0700, Edgar Foster, taking what I said with a grain of
salt, wrote:

>Jonathan Robie wrote:
>>I think it is a mistake to think that there is one level which is *the*
unit of
>>meaning. Phonemes are a unit of meaning, so are words, and so are sentences.
>Sorry, Jonathan, but I have to disagree psychologically and linguistically
>Phonemes are not units of meaning. They have no meaning. Conversely,
Morphemes do
>have meaning. Psychologists say that phonemes mean nothing in se.
Linguists say that
>phomemes "make a functional difference in the meaning of words," but they
are not
>to be confused with that said meaning. In the word "pill,' P is a
phomeme--it has
>no meaning in se.

First off, phonemes are definitely defined by the functional difference
they make in the meaning of words. I agree with you here. Second, I believe
that what you say accurately reflects the mainstream view of linguists and
cognitive psychologists today. (I dropped out of a doctoral program in
cognitive psychology once upon a time, and I am a computer scientist, so I
try to keep at least a browsing familiarity with cognitive science.)

But I disagree with this view, because the phonemes of a language strongly
affect perception of the sounds of the language, which is why a rooster
says "cockadoodle-doo" in English, but "kikarikaree" in German. The
phonemes of a language change what a word sounds like to the native
speakers of that language.

For most words, the sound may not make that much of a difference, but
sometimes it might, e.g. in Rev 8:13, I suspect that OUAI, OUAI, OUAI
sounds like an eagle in flight, and this is what is uttered by the eagle in
the middle heaven when announcing the woes about to come to those on earth.
If this is true, then the phonemes make a difference in meaning, since a
native speaker of Greek would associate these sounds with the sound of an

And the sound structure of words, interpreted relative to the particular
language, affects the impact of the words. Although the semantic range of
the words may be quite similar, I believe there is a big difference in the
impact of sentences like "subject was found to have excrement in several
decubitus ulcers" and "that woman has shit in her bedsores". Excuse the
graphic example, but I think it makes the point. The logical content of
words is not the only content, and the phonemic structure tends to affect
us on a pre-conscious level.

Ingarden suggests that the high-falutin words we use in academia, the dead,
technical words, are systematically robbed of their ability to evoke vivid
imagery through their sound structure. The simplest words, the words we
learned first, the words in the vocabulary of a five year old, are rich,
living words with respect to their sound structure, and are able to
directly evoke images and speak to our heart. Splat! Ouch! love, warm,
cold, hug, hit, spank, wail, squeak - the phonemes used in these words, as
perceived by native speakers of the language, are directly related to the
images they evoke in our minds and hearts.

To bring this back to Greek, I find that John chooses "living" words, words
that speak to the heart, words that have a sound structure closely related
to their meaning. The same can be said for the writer of Revelation. Luke
and Peter generally choose words that speak more to the head. I think this
tells us something about the purpose of the writers - not the conscious,
logical purpose, but the manner in which they were trying to connect to the
hearers or readers.

Another reason that it's very useful to read passages out loud several
times, slowly, before trying to interpret them...


Jonathan Robie

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