I still frequently type words other than what I’m intending. I typed “couldn’t” today when I intended “could.” I’ll type “which” for “when.” It’s odd because I always internally say every word I type, so it comes as a surprise to see a word different from what I’m acutally saying to myself. Is this a common ‘slip’ for people? I first noticed the stroke when I was typing. The sentence on the screen was not what I was trying to type. I wondered later whether it was the right brain taking over. It’s also possible that I simply couldn’t read what I was writing. Too bad I deleted that first sentence.
Linguists assume, as non linguists probably do too, that idioms and schemes like “what’s it to you?” are little blocks of language that are impervious to analysis — their parts can’t be separated; they’re stuck as one piece, almost like a single word.
So it’s surprising that among the handful of persistent problems I have is stumbling over idioms and schemes. I’ve been talking fluently on new topics ex tempore for a couple of years now, almost since the stroke, but even now I trip up on idioms. Two days ago I said, hesitantly and frustratingly, “Speak … to yourself,” meaning “Speak for yourself.”
The best in science is revelatory surprise, but a lot of it is unoriginal mimicry of naive folklore, a sort of grasping at straws. Here’s a case where maybe the folklore needs updating with new insight. If idioms and schemes are impervious, it[‘]s not because they are unanalysed in the mind. Maybe they are impervious just because they are habits, and habits become so familiar that they aren’t easy to break.
So, assuming that I process syntax or semantics more slowly and carefully than before, I wonder whether the idiom-habits are too fast for me to process, so
a [I — I often type ‘a’ for ‘I’: maybe because it’s a phonetic spelling] stumble on them.
The distinction between rule and habit is supposed to lie in productivity: a rule can range over many substitutions (I laugh, you laugh, they laugh; I slept, I left, I leapt); a habit is fixed (speak for yourself; quote your professor for yourself??). But what if rules are also habits but with lattitude for substitutions? That’s quite a compromise to Universal Grammar and innateness. And how would anyone tell the difference between a habit and an innate parametrized rule?
I often feel that syntacticians are engaged in an untestable, and so unfalisfiable, domain where the data are ambiguous and don’t decide between competing theories.
After two years, here are the remaining deficits I can notice:
a. memory retrieval. I block on words and names. For days I couldn’t recall Mel Gibson’s name. (No problem just now — go figure.) Frequent tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon, and it may repeat for days. So after someone suggested “Mel Gibson” a few days ago, next day I blocked him again. I’ve had such blocks prior to the stroke, but only with very few words.
b. short-term memory. Distract me for a second, I can’t remember the previous train of thought.
c. pronouns. I still have to think carefully about how to negotiate multiple pronouns in a sentence in sundry grammatical roles.
d. [I just got distracted, and now I can’t remember what I was going to write here.]
d. typing. I frequently type a word other than the one I intend. Usually it’s a related word (usually same grammar category) or it’s a word that I just rejected. This seems to have been the very first symptom I observed of the stroke two year ago: typing a reply, the screen showed something other than what I meant to type. Happened again immediately. That’s when I guessed I was having a stroke.
e. fast speech. It seems to me I have trouble following fast speech in some contexts. At jury duty a couple of days ago, I wasn’t always sure I caught the instructions from the handler. Sometimes I have to listen twice to John Stewart’s quips.
f. [Again, distracted.]
f. agitated speech. In a heated argument, I can scarcely speak at all.
g. grammatical roles. Beyond pronouns, I also have to think through grammatical roles generally. I don’t always get them right.
h. word choice. Often can’t find the word I’d like.
It would be useful to practice speech, but social contexts are too emotionally complex for methodical practice.
Prepared speech is much easier. If I’ve thought through the topic, I’m that much more likely to express myself smoothly.
The compromise to memory is least clear. After all, I’m getting older anyway.
So I’m left with the same question as two years ago: is there a specific linguistic deficit, or is it all just a memory impairment, just a function of operating on a smaller switchboard? Only the typing phenomenon seems unrelated.
Cognitively, I seem to be fine. On my other blog, for example, I showed that widely-believed claims about ternary logic of the Aymara language are false, producing both evidence and argument, and comparing bivalent and trivalent treatments of multiple premises. It’s not the Gödel theorem, but it does better than the views of those who believe the claims about Aymara, including those of the originator, who was an AI engineer. So memory and language deficits don’t have to affect cognitive ability at all. I’m still writing and reading on economics, and I can see where other’s theories fail (I published a piece a few months ago on rent regulations which is the only analysis I know of that gets the NYC macro and micro market right, and it shows convincingly that most economists have misunderstood it, getting the empirical predictions wrong.)
Here’s the Aymara piece:
I’ve been incredibly lucky to have recovered so far, but I still have notable deficits. Sorting out subject/object over agent/patient pronouns still requires careful attention, and I’m not sure I always succeed. Short-term memory is most compromised. If I am completely distracted for less than a second, I forget my previous train of thought. This seems to me an invariable effect, although I’m guessing that if I were able to return to a previous train, I wouldn’t care to notice — I mean that the troublesome effect is only noticeable because it’s troublesome. Why would I notice if I returned from a distraction smoothly? So I may be biasing the effect. I plan to ask friends to experiment with me by changing topics without telling me and then later asking what we were talking about previously. Or I may ask a colleague to create an experiment in a controled environment.
To complicate matters, there may be different kinds of attention to thought. Thoughts may take a variety of transports — there may be, as it were, thought-trains that can be derailed, thought buses on highways which can reroute, thought skateboards and unpathed thought fields in which no matter your transport you don’t get derailed or get lost at all.
Anyway, I can’t help but wonder whether memory plays a part in long-distance grammatical relationships.
I can be tongue-tied under stress in agitated conversation, yet in public speaking, I have noticed no trouble. I gave the best ex tempore speech I ever gave, I think, at a packed house of a movie theater to introduce the re-release of Rogosin’s 1957 On the Bowery. You’d think there’d be a lot of stress in that. But there’s a paradox of public speaking — the words somehow come; the stress seems to help, not hinder. I did a radio snippet live on Leonard Lopate’s show — stressful (it’s a prestigious program), yet I was fluent. Here’s the live interview — you can hear my speechflow and judge for yourself. Listen carefully and you will hear a perfect example of topic/agent/patient jumble: “The recession lost the financing.” The meaning intent was, ‘The recession lost them their financing,’ or ‘The recession caused a loss of financing’ or ‘Developers lost financing in the recession.’ It’s the topic — the recession — that I’ve failed to negotiate into the grammar of a complex relation among entities: finance, recession, developers, buildings.
On the other hand, I am reluctant to return to public story telling. Even when I give tours about familiar terrain — I give historical walking tours of Chinatown, the Bowery, Alphabet City — I can block on almost any word. I haven’t completely managed to negotiate such losses. I’m at the point at which I no longer am willing to settle for a substitute word. Having come this far in recovery, I want the ‘right’ word already, damn it.
And one more bizarre effect: when I type, I often type a word different, though related, from the one I intend, as if the other half of the brain were typing a slightly different story, or a second command to the hands somehow didn’t get there in time, leaving the previous command to be implemented.
Maybe there just isn’t room enough up there anymore to handle it all.
So who’s where?
Today, I described a local unsavory character (let’s call him Al) with the expression, “I wouldn’t put it past him.” But I had trouble figuring out not only the pronoun sequence but also the ‘past’ relation. Was it that I didn’t think he’d passed it or it passed him? Or was it that I thought he would not pass him or him pass it? Read the rest of this entry »
Contrary to Schopenhauer’s comment about the horizon of a person’s limits, the aphasic can measure those limits, approximately. This blog has been measuring the data. On the other hand, to the extent that the aphasic gets accustomed to aphasia, it’s hard to tell exactly how much one has recovered. Read the rest of this entry »
In the ER, the first diagnosis was conduction aphasia, characterised by difficulty repeating others’ sentences. I couldn’t repeat the neurologist’s “no ifs and or buts” no matter how many times I asked him to repeat his sentence or how many times I tried.
I still see an echo of this difficulty in a coupe of places. Here’s a bit of data I haven’t mentioned yet: difficulty with a punchline of a joke. Read the rest of this entry »
I have two memory troubles: almost any common word can elude me, even when I’d used it within minutes of the loss; if I’m distracted even for a second, I can’t recall [the] previous thread. Oh, these happen over and again. And memory thrives in the cortex, where I was struck.
Have I lost a piece of memory function or am I just working with less space to keep time? If I work hard retracing a previous thread, I’ll usually get back, just because it’s within the area of the context of the conversation. But word retrieval can be impossible, and made worse by the strange effect that I seem to reject with incredulity the sought-for word when I finally retrieve it. Read the rest of this entry »
Sometimes I think that there isn’t a particular piece of grammar has been lost or damaged, but it’s just a general taxing of all the many connections required for a sentence. My speech now regularly has the character of late-night tired normal speech or stressed and nervous speech. Instead of looking for an underlying damaged grammatical structure or function, maybe it’s much simpler. Maybe what’s common to all these problems is just that complexity or distance requires more effort. Maybe my brain’s language nexus is working the same way as always, but using with less, as if I simply have fewer neurons available so the tougher relations can’t make the distance.
In this regard, there’s no distinction between syntactic burdens and semantic burdens. If mere taxing is the underlying problem, then I’d expect both semantic and syntactic deficits. In fact, I see both.
Here are a few examples of problems of mere difficulty:
1. “yours is none of their business, whereas their business your – part your”
intending: yours is none of their business, whereas you are part of theirs
(complex relation of asymmetry: syntactic or semantic or both)
2. “how to talk about him”
intending: how to talk to him about him
(distinguishing two prepositional relations over the same object: syntactic or semantic or both)
3. “After seven weeks straight of dinner parties even the…extrovert”
hesitating whether to use introvert or extrovert
(comparing a complementary notion in the context of “introvert”: semantic)
4. “forty years old”
intending: forty years back
(described in the present of the perspective of the past relative to the present: semantic)
5. “How long was – how long has – when did he have – how long ago did he have this”
intending: how long ago did he have this
(described in the present of the perspective of the past relative to the present: semantic)
— And here are a bunch of pronoun confusions that also seem to show an inability to go the distance to sort through the indexed referents. Keeping the referents in a discourse, it seems to me, is always a little taxing since language affords only a small handful of pronouns for all the many referents. It takes a bit of added thought, which may be just beyond the threshold of an overtaxed brain:
6. “Have you learnt about the accident himse…itself?”
intending: have you learnt about the accident itself
(repeating the closest pronoun: syntactic or semantic)
7. “There was a tour guide who took her to … took them to…”
intending: [she] took them to…
(repeating the closest referent: semantic)
8. “What do you say when he asked why he’s trying to find her?”
intending: what do you say when he asked why you’re trying to find her?
(repeating closest pronoun: syntactic or semantic)
9. “He claimed he didn’t know anything about him”
intending: didn’t know anything about her
(repeating closest pronoun: syntactic or semantic)
— I’ve got more categories that are consistent with mere weariness, but I need a larger pool of data in those categories. Soon.
For a while, it seemed to me that all my problems were syntactic except for retrieval failures. But now it seems as if they might be able to be redescribed as mostly semantic, even the interference with the formulas.
It is surprising and, I think, important that I often — regularly — scramble formulaic phrases, those common, familiar sentences or clauses that we repeat everyday.
Some linguists think that the mind stores formulaic phrases, like “whatayaknow” or “gotta go,” as single symbols without internal grammatical parts, as if “whatayaknow” were a bit like a single word: a whole sentence-word like just another part of speech like noun or verb. To speak these, you wouldn’t need any internal syntax — you’d simply use the whole phrase as a unit. My frequent scrambling of them implies that such forumlas are not represented as single symbols, but have syntactic complexity in the mind.
There are a great many such formulas and sentence schemes, so many that it’s possible to get along through much of practical life using little else. In most social interactions we don’t expect intricate ideas, and prefer a least common denominator, avoiding the personal feelings and thoughts that might diverge from the formulaic, both socially and linguistically. Personal conversations, by contrast, often require inventive sentences that can place greater pressure on grammar. It’s harder to express the personal without peculiarities. But those personal conversations don’t play so much a part in the practical world of superficial life.
It might seem hopeful, if formulas were single symbols, that social interaction would be simpler for the aphasic who has trouble with internal syntax. In my case, exactly the opposite often appears. The formulas rush out with the familiarity of ease, but scrambled, sometimes leaving me a bit puzzled when they don’t work right at the end. Here are a few, mostly from phone conversations:
1. “I can’t deal it”
intending: I can’t deal with it
2. “you might try it this one too”
intending: you might try this one too/you might try it too
(pleonastic pronoun — conflation of two forumlas)
3. “this is fuckin a bummer”
intending: this is a fuckin bummer
(restored syntactic integrity)
4. “It’s the oldest my friend”
intending: It’s my oldest friend / friendship
(pleonastic determiner: the/my)
5. “Your boss doesn’t know from his ass…from his elbow”
intending: Your boss doesn’t know his ass from his elbow
6. “get out some light”
intending: get some light out (i.e. outside)
7. “just we gotta go”
intending: we just gotta go
(restored formula — as if it were a single, inviolable symbol)
8. “I don’t know where they found.”
intending: I don’t know where I found them
9. “My neighbors make upstairs a lot of noise”
intending: My neighbors upstairs make a lot of noise
(displaced modifier between noun and verb)
10. “time is too short”
spoken with long hesitation and careful thought to get it right
(insertion into a formula of an intensifier)
11. “For all of my … best friend I haven’t seen him since”
intending: For all the good of having a best friend, I haven’t seen him since
(complex relation between experiencer, two propositions and the matrix statement)
12. “But it won’t severe”
intending: but it won’t be severe
(verb drop — maybe not a formula, but a simple, common form)