In preparation for my exams this February (eek!), I am currently reading David R. Olsen’s (1994) The World on Paper. I have just finished chapter four, “What Writing Represents,” and was struck toward the end of the chapter by the similarity of some of his claims to what I vaguely remembered of a stand-up bit by genius and pianist extraordinaire Victor Borge.

I’ll come back to Borge in a minute. First, a bit of background on the reading: Olsen argues in this chapter that writing, instead of being speech transcribed, or speech “just written down,” is actually something completely all its own. It is its own graphic communication system that, because it can be read aloud, provides a model for speech. But writing and speech are not simply two different forms of the same thing. Speech allows speakers to do certain things that writing cannot (and, of course, vice versa). But because writing becomes our model for speech, it creates a “blind spot” in our thinking about writing: “Because an alphabetic script can transcribe anything that can be said, it is tempting to take it as a complete representation of a speaker’s utterance” (p. 88). But it’s not, Olsen argues. There are elements of meaning in spoken language that writing cannot express.

Consider the following sentences:

“I just love to smile. Smiling’s my favorite.”

Will Ferrell as Buddy the Elf smiles broadly. The image text read, "I just like to smile. Smiling's my favorite."
Will Ferrell as Buddy the Elf extols the virtues of smiling. Sort of.

The sentence is a quote from Will Ferrell’s character Buddy the Elf from the 2003 holiday movie Elf. It’s a pretty great moment in the movie, and Ferrell delivers the line as buddy with absolute, genuine sincerity. But consider, for a moment, the meaning that the lines might take on if “spoken” by this character instead:

A cat appears to frown and furrow its eyebrows.
Grumpy Cat does not, in fact, like to smile.

We know that smiling is not, in fact, Grumpy Cat’s favorite, so the meaning of the sentence should be taken ironically. But the graphical representation of the sentence by itself, with no accompanying information (the images, for example), does not convey that meaning. But a spoken representation of the image could convey that meaning. In fact, when reading the sentence in Grumpy Cat’s “voice,” you may have “heard” that spoken representation in your head.

Enter Victor Borge. My first thought, when reading the passage from Olsen, was that Victor Borge understood this way before Olsen. His bit about “phonetic punctuation” capitalizes on a particular difference between spoken and written language–punctuation. Punctuation is one way in which we attempt to add meaning to our alphabetic systems. It changes “Woman, without her man, is nothing” to “Woman! Without her, man is nothing.” Two diametrically opposed meanings if I ever heard them!

In “Phonetic Punctuation,” Borge assigns particular sounds to punctuation, he says, in order to make the meaning of the spoken utterances clearer to speakers. Part of the reason the bit is funny is that, when spoken, the punctuation actually adds no meaning to the passage being read (other than humor)–it’s just plain nonsense. Beyond that, the punctuation is supposed to “add” meaning that is already there when spoken. The meaning exists in spoken language already because of the inflection of Borge’s voice. Or rather, there may be multiple meanings possible to interpret from the written passage, but by reading it aloud, Borge creates a particular meaning of the passage. The “punctuation” does nothing but add a bunch of funny noises and spittle to the whole situation–that’s the other reason the bit is funny. A man in a tux essentially blowing raspberries at his audience. Now that’s good comedy.

 

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