Context is king: the perils of dislocated sentences
Not quite sure what got me hooked on this New Yorker article (sadly the full article is behind a paywall), but I was gripped. Using linguistics to help solve crimes seems pretty counter-intuitive – but the Unabomber was caught by analysing his manifesto – as was Joyce Meyer security chief Chris Coleman who was found guilty of killing his family.
One of the key linguistics scholars who helped to convict Coleman is a controversial figure, by all accounts – Robert Leonard. But for anyone interested in how language works, the article quoted a powerful little thought experiment that Leonard uses for his students at Hofstra university.
According to Leonard, words serve as catalysts, setting off sparks of potential meaning that the listener organizes into more specific meaning by observing facial expressions, body language, and other redundant cues. We then employ another powerful tool: prior experience and the storehouses of narratives that each of us carries – what linguists call “schema”. To every exchange we bring unconscious scripts; as any given sentence unspools, we readjust the schema to make better sense of what we are hearing.
One afternoon at Hofstra, Leonard explained to the twenty students in his introductory course how this works. He wrote a sentence on the board:
“So we can just close our eyes and imagine John the schoolboy on the bus,” Leonard said. “But are we all imagining John with the same height, the same hair color?” Nothing in the sentence signals any of that information, yet each of us supplies our own variant, which awaits further verbal data for confirmation.
Leonard wrote another sentence beneath the first:
Last week, he had been unable to control the class.
Who is John now? “A teacher!” someone shouted. And how is John getting to school? “A car!”
Leonard wrote a third sentence:
It was not fair of the math teacher to leave him in charge.
Instantly, the students revelled in John’s new identity as a janitor or a substitute teacher. Meaning, Leonard noted, is constantly bent by expectation, and can be grossly distorted.
This is important, if rudimentary, stuff. A nice illustration to make a crucial point.