Thursday, March 18, 2010
Who is Sonia? Sonia is a popular name. I could be referring to any of the tens of thousands of Sonias in the world, couldn't I? -- or several of them, or all of them.
But meaning is created by context. If I have ever referred to a Sonia in another context, in another place, there is a possibility that I am now referring to that Sonia and no other.
When I worked at Akin Gump, a few days after April 16, 1990, the paralegal F. Robert Wheeler, Esq. said to Stacey Papa: "I'm going to call you Stan." In response, Stacey Papa said: -- "Stan is an ugly man's name. Stan is an ugly man's name." Incidentally, note the ambiguity; was she saying that Stan was an ugly name? or that Stan was the name of an ugly man?
It so happens that in April 1990 I was seeing a psychiatrist named Stanley R. Palombo, M.D. On the afternoon of April 16, 1990 I had formed the (paranoid) belief that J.D. Neary, the legal assistant coordinator at Akin Gump, had consulted Dr. Palombo. I had inferred that Dr. Palombo had said things about Mr. Neary that he experienced as a narcissistic injury. Sometimes people will attempt to cure a narcissistic injury by insulting the source of that injury.
Be that as it may.
People say that I am paranoid. Supposedly, I attach a negative meaning to trivial events. That's what the courts have concluded (am I allowed to say that?) But it's my opinion -- leaving the issue of paranoia aside -- that I look at context for meaning. I learn over time what people mean by their trivial comments.
What I find striking is that in infancy and early childhood that's what we all do. We learn language by assessing the context of the language used in our environments; we are sensitive to patterns in sounds, in words, and in references. Think about it: When we are born we know no language. No language at all. We do not know the meaning of any words. We go from a state of absolute ignorance through stages of ever widening awareness of the meaning of words that the people around us use. Eventually, we reach a stage where language is no longer a stream of alien sounds emanating from other people's mouths, but a transparent vector of meaning. When Sonia was born, people repeated the word Sonia to her all the time. At first, she didn't have a clue as to the meaning of that sound -- "Sonia." At an early age she came to understand, by repeatedly observing the use of the word by people around her, that it referred to her.
My explanation for the way I perceive the world is that I have retained the cognitive style of a toddler. When I enter a new environment, I have on my learning ears. I appraise the meanings of what people say. Over time I come to understand the latent, idiosyncratic meanings that people attach to the words they use, the way a toddler does. I listen. I'm sensitive to context. I learn. Toddlers can't refrain from learning language. You put a small child in an environment, and he will pick up the language used by the people around him. No child says to himself, "I'll show them. I'm just not going to learn language." (Oddly, toddlers do that exact thing with potty training. Perhaps there's an anal component to people who say I am paranoid?)
But, in any event, at some age the child stops learning the meanings of the sounds emanating from other people's mouths; the child stops being curious. It's as if curiousity had outlived its usefulness.
But I never stopped learning. I never stopped being curious.
I'm sure the linguists have written technical papers on this. I'm sure there's some expert out there whose thinking parallels mine. As Sonia would say: "You can always find an expert to say anything you want her to say."