Writing as a Social Activity

How do we conceptualize language?

In my last post, I claimed that writing is an art of understanding how ideas travel through words and that dancing is an art of understanding how one’s body occupies a space. What, then, is art itself?

As it seems to me, art is a process of building constructed meanings. Bazerman says that “a writer’s meanings arise out of the expression of internal thought, [but] the meanings attributed by the reader arise from the objects, experiences, and words available to the reader” (22). I once had a conversation with a friend of mine in which we discovered that she associates the word “prolific” with “author” due to her experiences with literature, whereas I associate “prolific” with “serial killer” due to my experiences with forensics and true crime.

In my undergraduate psychology program, we discussed how our brains process and interpret information. For example, how do we know if the way one person perceives a color (let’s say red) is the same way another person perceives it, barring colorblindness? In the face of individual differences, how can we ensure that the same meaning is conveyed across audiences?

My Greek professor mentioned the way a lowercase alpha (α) resembles an ox’s head or capital gamma (Γ) resembles a shepherd’s crook. These were common sights in Ancient Greece, so they made sense as universal symbols of language. The more common a symbol or word is, the less likely it is to be misinterpreted—which is perhaps why so many people find academia and academic writing inaccessible and obtuse.

Dryer makes it a point that as part of the idea that writing is a social and rhetorical activity, writing is inorganic, constructed, and structural where speech is natural (27-29). The written word possesses a form of intentionality and knowledge that verbal speech does not. For example, I have heard people complain about the “b” in “doubt” (something someone illiterate would be ignorant of). I took a course in etymology where it was explained that the “b” was included to reflect an etymological relationship to the word “double,” as they are both derived from the Latin word “dubitare.” This relationship, though seemingly obscure, is reflected in such phrases as “double check” or “second guess.” Though completely overlooked in verbal communication, this type of shared history and meaning is implicit in our understanding of written language.

Furthermore, there is a universality to spoken language that written language lacks. Particularly, most people (barring a physical or psychological disability) are capable of verbal speech, making it a relatively neutral form of communication. Written speech lacks this neutrality. Faigley notes that written speech is political, from the intentionality and purpose of the writing to the distribution and consumption of it (537-539). Just as spelling carries historical relationships, writing platforms and genres carry their own historical connotations. The more exclusive a form of publication, the more likely it is to be revered while also reflecting the current systems of power. The less exclusive, the more likely it is to be dismissible and countercultural (picture the book or newspaper versus a pamphlet or blog).

No one creates meaning by themselves, and therefore no piece of writing is individually created. One must consider audience, genre, and—in some ways—the history of one’s language to produce a single piece of writing.

Sources

Bazerman, Charles. “Writing Expresses and Shares Meaning to be Reconstructed by the Reader.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, p. 22.

Dryer, Dylan B. “Writing Is Not Natural.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 27-29.

Faigley, Lester. “Competing Theories of Process: A Critique and a Proposal.” College English, vol. 48, no. 6, 1986, pp. 527–542. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/376707.

Minchin, Tim. “Quiet- Matilda the Musical.” YouTube, uploaded by Secret Agent Tigress, 20 June 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pWuzG0dYsWY.

Snodgrass, Melinda S. “Xenolinguistics – Star Trek TNG – The Ensigns of Command.” YouTube, uploaded by LCMS Borges, 16 August 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m6c-kzuhv2o.

3 Replies to “Writing as a Social Activity”

  1. I think it’s interesting that you touched on linguistics in your analysis of this concept, specifically the idea of historical relationships and connotations. In Standard American English, we remove the “o” from words such as “colour” and “favourite.” This was an act of rebellion against Britain, a show of independence. As a result, we can learn where a writer learned English based on this difference; that’s something else that would be indeterminable in spoken language and speaks to writing as the process of building constructed meanings.

  2. Samantha,

    I like the ideas you are bringing to the table regarding words–their literal meanings and connotations. I appreciate you bringing new ideas to the table and adding it to the discussion from the pages we read. I feel like your piece touched on ideas that writing isn’t second nature, like speech is, and that the audience helps shape the meaning by interacting with the text (using their experiences to shape their understanding of the text). This shows how all of the texts and meta-concepts covered in this section work together to create our understanding of written communication. How will you translate this into a classroom setting? What will be important for your students to know?

    Thanks!

  3. I love that you also went the linguistic route with your blog post. Introducing this through the general question of ‘what is art?’ is an interesting start to your post, but it is definitely a good description of language. I agree that there are certain features within language that are universal, and I love how you show the background of the word “doubt”.

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