Friday, September 5, 2014

Coding Prepositions in the Rhizo14 Auto-ethnography

I promised in my last post to talk about why and how I was coding the Rhizo14 auto-ethnography with prepositions. Maha Bali subsequently pointed out in a tweet that she still doesn't know how I plan to code prepositions. She's right. I spent all of my time yesterday talking about why and very little about how. I ran out of steam last night, so I want to correct that.

I'll start by talking about what I did, which may not be logical, but I'll try to put things back together at the end. Also, I am not so methodical. I tend to do all steps at the same time so that for a long while my work is very messy. Order emerges slowly. The reasonable order implied below by first, second, third steps is a fiction of my writing, not what actually happened.

First, I read the entries by Maha Bali and Sarah Honeychurch to identify all the prepositions. I thought this would be a simple task, but it was not. I missed many of them, even obvious ones such as on, in, and so forth. They are little words, bare snippets, and easy to overlook. Moreover, I think my brain is accustomed to overlooking them, trained instead to look for the substantives and verbs, the actors and actions in a sentence. The connective words tend to recede into the background, lost in the noise, while the actors strut across the stage in shining, privileged relief. It's a bit like being the bellboy who delivers the note to Tom Cruise in some movie. No one remembers the bellboy's face, and he never has a name; they are blinded instead by His Magnificence center-screen. Prepositions are the bit players in sentences, but the sentences don't work without them. I'm having to retrain my brain to notice them. I find this very odd.

Then, I had trouble with some prepositions that can also function as other parts of speech. For instance, consider in in Maha's text:
  • So I will dip in (adverb)
  • a horrible day in Egypt (preposition)
Obviously I would include the second in, but what about the first? In traditional grammar, it is an adverb because it modifies the verb; yet to my mind, it seemed to be doing a prepositional thing: expressing movement through space/time to connect entities. I will have to do more research to confirm this, but I suspect that traditional grammarians are privileging the substantives and verbals and defining the little words, the bit players, by their relationships to the main actors and actions, rather than defining the little words in their own rights. Thus, in is a preposition when it relates to some substantive, connecting it to some other main part of the sentence; it is an adverb when it relates to a verbal. It seems that the identity of little words depends not so much on their own behavior and role as on their relationship to the main words, the important words. I decided to include the adverbial in along with the prepositional in. I admit up front that sometimes my choices to include or not may appear arbitrary, but I hope to develop some rigor through working with the choices. Rigor may come, or not.

Note the non-grammar definition of substantive:
  1. having a firm basis in reality and therefore important, meaningful, or considerable.
  2. having a separate and independent existence.
This seems to capture the general English attitude toward nouns: they have a firm basis in reality, a separate and independent existence, they are real things, and thus they are important, meaningful, or considerable, worthy of consideration. Prepositions don't have that definite solidity. They have the slimmest basis in reality and almost no separate and independent existence, so they must be unimportant, meaningless, and unworthy of consideration, right? Well, it seems that I once thought so. This will require a post of its own, a line of flight, later. I know I have readers who speak languages other than English, so I'm curious about how those languages treat the little words. Is this an English thing? a Western thing? a universal thing? I don't know.

Anyway, as I collected my prepositions (including the prepositional type words, but I will just call them all prepositions for simplicity), I worked with various coding schemes. This was difficult, as I do not have a sufficient background in linguistics to do this from scratch, so finally, I took a shortcut: I simply listed all the dictionary definitions for a given preposition and devised codes for each definition. I used the dictionary built in to Google Docs (I should investigate to see who supplies these definitions) as it was readily to hand, and it seemed as reliable as any other, but this could be very wrong. I did not check that closely. Still, that's what I did for expediency, and so the word in lists and codes like this for me:

Coding for the preposition "in"
I then applied my codes to each preposition in each sentence in Mali and Sarah's entries in the auto-ethnography. I'll use Sarah this time:


Note that I coded in the early stages as time/enclosed, indicating that in indicates a temporal enclosure, placing Sarah within one of the successive stages of a PhD program. This code is a bit too loose and could easily be managed otherwise. I could as easily use a code such as time/succession to indicate that Sarah is at a particular time in a succession of times. Which would be correct? Well, they both are. Is one better? I don't think so. So how do you code in, in this case? Is it a particle or a wave? It's both, and maybe something else as well. My reading suggests that cognitive linguists are having the same issues with devising boxes big enough to contain all the possible meanings of these little words. It seems we can say the most with the least, and that makes things interesting, problematic, very rhizomatic.

So I am not at all settled with my codes. First, I think the dictionary definitions are somewhat arbitrary, which makes my codes arbitrary of necessity. If I stick with this line of thinking, I'll have to do lots of work here. Then, I just noticed that I've been using mostly substantives for codes (space, time, relation, reference, etc.), thus privileging the substantives again and creating static snapshots of what is basically a dynamic connection within a sentence. I could use verbs, which would re-animate the code, but it still privileges a different class of words and a different semantic structure. I'll have to think through all of this, and I'm not there yet, but I'm reading my way onto some possible paths.

I want to continue writing, but I have lots of end-of-term documents to grade, so I'll stop here. Next I want to give an example of how I'm parsing and analyzing a sentence with these codes, with the hopes that the other coders will begin to see some connections between what is emerging here with prepositions and what they are doing with their own codes. This line of research is going somewhere nice for me, but I still don't know if it will play well with the other over-codes.
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