The man ate the fish

“The sentences The man ate the fish and The fish ate the man comprise exactly the same words, yet they have quite different meanings.” — Excerpt from the book, Frank Smith, Understanding Reading

Frank Smith makes an argument about reading and grasping meaning. He says knowing the words and grammar is by far not sufficient to learn the meaning of a sentence. The entire book goes on about this, and it proofs from a scientific point of view what I have been always cross about: in Chinese language classes they give you rather dull and totally made-up texts to read, with a list of vocabulary and grammar. “Here you go, swim or sink” was the attitude of all 3 dozen or so Chinese language teachers I’ve had the pleasure to sink with.

“It is quite clear that sentences aren’t understood by trying to put together meanings of individual words,” writes Frank Smith, the Canadian psycholinguist. “A computer is befuddled by the different possible meanings of a simple expression like time flies. Is time a noun, or a verb (as in time the race horses), or an adjective (like the word fruit in fruit flies)? Is flies a noun or a verb?”

He then goes on to dissect the argument of grammar: “The onions are planted by the farmer is a passive sentence, because it contains the three grammatical markers of the passive form—the auxiliary are, the participle ending -ed, and the preposition by. But the sentence The onions are planted by the tree is not a passive sentence, although its surface structure would appear to contain the appropriate three grammatical markers.” “She was seated by the minister; the grammar depends on the meaning,” argues Frank Smith. And I couldn’t agree more.

A wonderful read for those who love language and are interested in how language [insert verb here] meaning.

The man ate the fish … The fish ate the man. What can be said of the written word can also be said about movement. For example, “The ear moves to the shoulder” and “The shoulder moves to the ear” sound like the same movements, yet they are quite different! Why is that?

In the first way the shoulder is held in place, and the spine bends and twists to bring the ear closer to the shoulder. A dozen or so vertebrae moving in relation to each other. The hundreds of tiny muscles that attach to the facet joints on the right of these vertebrae shorten, whereas the same amount of tiny muscles on the other side need to let go and lengthen, in an equally controlled fashion. All the while the main body mass needs to be shifted to the left of the pelvis, in order to hold the body in balance and not fall over to the right. A marvellous feat of the nervous system.

In the second way the spine must be stiffened, the muscles around the vertebrae of the neck equally stiffened to stabilise the spine, so the shoulder can be pulled up towards the ear. Two very different methods of movement, the differentiation of these two… years in the making. No less a marvel than the highest praised literature, yet almost completely un-praised, underrated. Valued only when it is lost, due to (for example) a stroke or a birth defect.

Or maybe, maybe we’re the curiosity here, you, the reader, and I, the writer. Maybe we are the rare folks who’re interested in language, learning, movement, meaning, in peeks behind the great veil and spirited conversations?

“Be that as it may,” to quote J. R. R. Tolkien, the English writer, poet and philologist, and let’s enjoy the day. Let’s be grateful and cheerful for having a healthy, well grown and well groomed nervous system, let’s cherish the fact that these two distinct movements, The ear lowers to the shoulder and The shoulder lifts to the ear, work well in us, and we are able to distinguish the meanings of The man ate the fish and The fish ate the man just as well.