Carving conceptual space: into rivers and blocks

This is about how we carve up conceptual space, but first it’s about language. In my case, teaching English as a second language (ESL). Why did my Mexican students have so much trouble with run-on sentences, whereas this was not an issue for my German students? Don’t get me wrong. Every student has their problems. But this difference really stood out. Sure, the German language is in some ways more closely related to English, but German word order and sentence structure can also be quite different than in English. But comma splices and run-on sentences seem to be something of a national pastime in Mexico – four, five, or six complete English sentences joined only with commas or with nothing at all. If we did an exercise, they could all grasp the concept of how to punctuate correctly with periods. But then in the midst of writing or speaking, they would revert to the endless flow without periods.

I concluded, based on my zero hours of training in psycholinguistics, that I was up against their intuition. And their intuition in this case was their way of carving up conceptual space. I tried to compare to my experience watching films in German and Spanish. I’m intermediate in German and upper intermediate in Spanish, but I can follow German dialogue better. Why? Because German is more like English? Yes, but only in a specific way. I definitely have a larger vocabulary in Spanish than in German. But the Germans pronounce every word, with clear edges at beginning and end, whereas the spoken language in Spanish flows like a river. Spanish subtitles can tell me that I know 90% of the words, but I understand 10% in the oral flow. I never know where one word ends and the next begins.

Coupled with my Mexican students’ style of writing full paragraphs with only commas along the way, I decided this is not just a speaking style. It’s the way they carve up conceptual space. Conceptual space is like a flowing river for them, whereas conceptual space for Germans is arranged into building blocks. And you can hear it in the oral flow of the language. Based on the way sentences are arranged into building blocks for paragraphs, English speakers would seem to carve up conceptual space as Germans do, into building blocks. The oral flow of English, however, may strike second language speakers differently than German, as there are so many more pronunciation peculiarities in English. I actually don’t know – I am too “at home” in English – but if any ESL speakers or psycholinguists out there want to chime in, I’m all ears.

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Three language tricks

To finish off this spontaneous chain of posts on Woodstock and antecedents (from Joe Cocker to Elvis, from Elvis to Roy Rogers), let’s do just one more – Country Joe McDonald’s “Fixin’-To-Die-Rag,” an object lesson in how to use language in multiple ways outside the scope of literal meaning. In fact, I tried it twice on my intermediate-to-advanced ESL (English as a second language) students for just that reason – once it was a hit, once it was a flop. Go figure. But let’s listen.

Friends, lovers, hippies, it’s a long way back to Elvis.

But the language. The only literal meanings in the clip come in the 10-second aside at the 2:00 mark. Everything else elapses via three essential language tricks:

Rhetorical frames
Clichés, collocations, and idioms

My ESL students pretty quickly get that the song is ironic – that the words literally advocate support for the war (“Put down your books and pick up a gun / We’re gonna have a whole lotta fun”) but the speaker’s point is the opposite. But when they go through the irony line-for-line, it is still a learning experience for them to see how each phrase flips to its opposite meaning and how some of the flips can be quite serious and powerful (as when the speaker tries to energize parents with the upbeat thought that they could “Be the first ones on your block / To have your boy come home in a box”).

This brings me to the second trick – rhetorical frames. First, the playful tone that frames the whole song. It’s like a children’s sing-a-long (“one, two, three … five, six, seven …”). When up against content as heavy as “your boy come home in a box,” the emotional impact is amplified. The US government would like you to think this is a game, but Country Joe’s language tricks (which are really just an undoing of the GOVERNMENT’S language tricks) make it clear that this is NOT a game.

The second rhetorical frame is that of the all-American high school football game. The Fish cheer (“Give me an ‘f’ … give me a ‘u’ …”) and indeed the whole song can be seen as a kind of (mock-) pep rally. If the Man can’t distract you from the brutality of the war with the “children’s sing-a-long” veneer, maybe they can get you to think of the Vietnam war as a high school football game. Rah-rah-rah for our side. The rhetoric of the high school cheerleader. Not so in the hands of Country Joe. He takes that trivializing frame and turns it on its head. Is his inversion of the cheerleading rhetoric in the Fish cheer offensive? Absolutely. But this is not just a rebellious kid breaking the household rule. Country Joe’s point is that “your war is offensive – your turning it into a cheerleaders’ game is offensive – WE are offended by your war and your rhetorical tricks to make us comfortable with it. These are our friends coming home in boxes, so you’ll excuse us if we get a little offensive in this song.”

If the rhetorical framing is really just one expression of the overarching irony, my third and final language trick – clichés, collocations, and idioms – is really just one more aspect of the rhetorical framing. The entire text is composed of clichés, collocations, and idioms. Just look at the first 10 lines, with italics on the phrases the might be called clichés, collocations, or idioms:

Well, come on all of you, big strong men,
Uncle Sam needs your help again.
He’s got himself in a terrible jam
Way down yonder in Vietnam
So put down your books and pick up a gun,
We’re gonna have a whole lotta fun.

And it’s one, two, three,
What are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam.

We could go on through the lyrics – pearly gates, tools of the trade, kingdom come, etc. – but why collocations, idioms, and clichés? Doesn’t that just show a lack of originality? When used gratuitously, yes. But this is far from gratuitous. It is part of the design. Country Joe is not interested in literal meaning but in emotional impact, and this is one way to get it. Collocations, idioms, and clichés are the things that localize language. They give you a house built of baseball, hot dogs, and mom’s apple pie. This is Americana in its most cliché form. Leave it to Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet. That’s the image the US government is using to sell you the Vietnam War. And Country Joe’s counterpoint is probably most anchored to the idiom, “I don’t give a damn.” After all, that’s the million-dollar question that Country Joe really wants to press on these 400,000 hippies: “What are we fighting for?” In 1969, no one really knew. And yet cousins and neighbors were coming home in boxes. This is the question Uncle Sam most wants you to look away from (“no, no, no, you shouldn’t give a damn about that”). So naturally that’s exactly where Country Joe, wordsmith, musician, counterculture icon, and smart-ass par excellence (who was already on an FBI watch list at the time of this clip, btw) goes to build his lyrical house.

Country Joe’s website:

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