sententia

Monday, November 8th, 2004

In new media we’ve been talking a lot about sequential information and fundamental unifying principles that form or promote continuity in visual narrative. But how does alphabetic language, these marks on the page, display continuity other than being recognized symbols and words? Spoken and written language are at heart sequential in orientation; the structure of language is so transparent to us that it barely gets noticed, unless a reader picks up a poem and is faced with structure first hand.

The sentence forms a unit of language as a system of meaning. Everyone looks or listens for the verb. In English the noun and verb form the sense of a unit of meaning. Nevertheless, a word is a discrete unit in and of itself, but without a syntactical system in which to operate, the word is arbitrary, thus there has to be a unit beyond the single word that can be called discrete, say a phrase, maybe. Dog, in other words, means nothing outside the system. In fact dog doesn’t even exist, really.

Id like to do a little codification and take a sentence and break it up into its units just to see how it fits together as a system.

One evening, after thinking it over for some time, Harold decided to go for a walk in the moonlight.
one evening | after thinking it over | for some time | Harold decided | to go | for a walk | in the moon light

Each of these units is critical to the meaning of the sentence from Harold and the Purple Crayon, although other units could be at play here. Neither of the units can stand on their own outside of the sequence, but they can be ordered differently. I have to qualify that last sentence because each unit does maintain a certain level of closure or chunk of meaning that retrieves the next part of the sequence into a whole. Ill provide two examples and label them YES and NO

YES
Harold decided to go for a walk in the moon light one evening after thinking it over for some time

NO
To go for some time Harold decided for a walk one evening after thinking it over in the moon light

The scrambled No is obviously a dud. By distorting (or reordering) the sentence, the YES sentence reveals its syntactical unifying elements: prepositions, tenses, qualifiers, articles, phrases, clauses, modifications, and associations. If left alone, the NO sentence is difficult at best to understand and could be made much worse. Concerning the Yes version One evening indicates time. After thinking and for some time indicate duration. Harold links across the series and indicates who is thinking and who is in time and who will be traveling in the moon light. Also, one before evening qualifies the moment.

What does sense mean in terms of the sentence, though? Obviously, NO can make sense, but it may not be the sense the writer or reader is looking for. Yes and No mean different things. Thats the point. The elements that make the Yes and original sentence mean something to the reader are fundamental to alphabetic language. The reader wants the sentence to make sense; wants to figure things out. Its way beyond me to ask: how does one evening . . . generate recognition. I have to wonder if there are connections between psycholinguistics and semantics. Anybody know about this?

Anyway, we know that One evening, after thinking it over for some time, Harold decided to go for a walk in the moonlight makes sense. The reader relates this One evening to that after thinking it over for some time, knowing that thinking doesnt come before the one evening, although Harold may have been considering his adventure throughout the afternoon. Also, the reader knows that neither the evening nor the moonlight decides anything.

The reader works at putting the sentence together just as the reader strains to make sense of panels in Watchmen.


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