Mar 14, 2008

Bent Words and Simulacrums

Katakana continues to fascinate me. All over the place my native language is being changed and bent around me. Studying Japanese has made me think about English, and the wonderful, odd, and various meanings that words have.

Take the word "smart" for instance. It has the primary meaning of "being intelligent" and such, but it has other connotations as well. It could mean something is sharply painful as in, "Ow, that smarts!" It could be an admonition, as in "Don't talk smart with me, young man." One could say that a person is "smartly dressed," meaning that they have a snappy suit or such on, or are wearing a "smart, striped suit." In both instances, one gets the impression of a fashionable, thin person. So, in Katakana "sumato" means "thin."

Another example: Claim. To claim something means to contend that something is true. But, it's got other meanings as well. "To claim" something could mean that you take it as yours, as in, "she claimed her wallet from lost and found," or "I claim this land for Spain!" A pioneer's bit of land is called a claim. A "claim" could also be a presumption of time and space as in "back off, you're making too many claims on my time." A formal complaint could be called a claim and the person making the complain a claimant. And that last one, complaint, is was "kuramu" means in Katakana- a complaint.

In both of these instances it's rather dizzying to think about how a single facet of a word is held up and made to stand in for the whole, a simulacrum branching off and becoming a thing in its own right. I know that this happens all the time, with language and just about everything else. A little thing, a thing that's only a facet, comes up and becomes a representation for something far vaster and more complex. For instance-

When we think about Tianamen Square, we think about that guy in front of the tank.

When we think about the space program, we think of Neil Armstrong on the moon.

When we think about Richard Nixon, we imagine his fingers and arms splayed in branching "V"s.

When we think about Gary Coleman, we think of "What you talkin' about, Willis?"

A single facet of an idea, event, person, or thing is made to stand in for the whole. This is not a good or bad process, but seeing my own language subject to this via Katakana makes me acutely aware of this phenomenon of simplification, compression, icon-making, and representation.

Oh, Japan- you make my brain all tingly. I loves ya for it.


Sydney said...

Metonymy! Woooo! French uses metonymy in its slang all the time. I guess English does too, but not that often. And the French loves it. "Volant" is slang for "car." It literally means "flying," because "flying down the road" is a thing cars do. In English we might call a very smart person a "brain," the supposedly well-developed organ a stand in for the person. In medicine, physicians will dehumanize patients to distance themselves emotionally by referring to them by their disease: "The diabetes in 217." "The goiter in 10." But I love the idea of abstract metonymy - the single facet of a word becoming a stand in for the whole thing. I also love the idea that the thereby reduced word is really just a simulacrum of the original.

I was actually just reading about something similar this morning in my copy of "Introducing Derrida." If you have not been exposed to the "Introducing..." series, they are totally awesome. It's like British Cliff's notes for ideas and famous thinkers, except not lame, and with collages. Anyway, it was talking about Derrida's take on Plato's writings about Socrates' views on writing. Socrates told a story about an Egyptian God who invented writing. He brought his invention to the Big God to see if it could be given to the people. He called it a "pharmakon" for memory loss and wisdom. "Pharmakon" is ambiguous: it can mean either poison or remedy, kind of like "drug." But when that story is translated, mostly it's translated as "remedy" and the ambiguity is lost. Derrida was of course like, "Eee! Ambiguity! I am like a child in a candy store! Only the child is me and the candy is ambiguity!" And then Cambridge was like, "Well, I never! This Frenchman is trying to destroy philosophy!"

Um, sorry. I wondered there for a moment. Anyway, my point was that I think "pharmakon" is one of the best words ever - I think it's an idea whose time has come. Again. And it is super cool English is being opened up to you in a whole new way through similar discoveries.

Ooh! Ooh! It's like Derrida's idea about Undecidables! It's like "smart" was a kind of Undecidable without anyone realizing it until it was Decided as "thin" by katakana! ::gobble gobble:: oh god i miss school...

Kori the tomorrow lady said...

hmmm, you got me thinking, so I checked my nifty dictionary. kure-mu (クレーム)is used in "claim for damages" and "complaint or objection" The example sentence they use is "A customer who had bought rainwear complained that it wasn't sufficiently waterproof." In which case, I suppose, just "claim" would also work fine.

the same pronunciation is also used for "creme." apparently.

suma-to (スマート)has three meanings. slim, well proportioned; smart, stylish, chic; and (when you turn it into an adverb by adding に) stylishly, skillfully

I think that katakana does have a varied to meanings and shades but J-pop culture often had a different dominant one than 'merica-pop culture.

anyways, a whole "dictionary" in my electronic dictionary is devoted to katakana. but from what I hear, some of it changes so fast no one can really keep up.

SonicLlama said...

So, I've independently uncovered something that was already established as a linguistic phenomenon? Cool! Woo! Yay!

I rock.

I love the "Introducing..." series. I read tons of those things back in my bookstore days- they were like brain candy. No, they are brain candy. With collages! Academia needs more paste-up artwork!

I've heard about the "pharmakon" thing before. I think that in some translations of Plato they just leave it as "pharmakon" or translate it as "drug," which can have a similar meaning as either a poison or cure.

I like that bit about "undecidables." I think that's exactly what's going on here.

Home Theater said...
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