13 December 2007

A spark in the mind's eye

Stumbled onto a fascinating little article titled The Shakespeared Brain wherein Philip Davis, a Liverpool professor, teams with a researchers to use EEGs to measure reader reaction to Shakespeare's use of "functional shift":

"In particular I mentioned to him the linguistic phenomenon in Shakespeare which is known as "functional shift" or "word class conversion". It refers to the way that Shakespeare will often use one part of speech—a noun or an adjective, say—to serve as another, often a verb, shifting its grammatical nature with minimal alteration to its shape. Thus in "Lear" for example, Edgar comparing himself to the king: "He childed as I fathered" (nouns shifted to verbs); in "Troilus and Cressida", "Kingdomed Achilles in commotion rages" (noun converted to adjective); "Othello", "To lip a wanton in a secure couch/And to suppose her chaste!"' (noun "lip" to verb; adjective "wanton" to noun).

The effect is often electric I think, like a lightning-flash in the mind: for this is an economically compressed form of speech, as from an age when the language was at its most dynamically fluid and formatively mobile; an age in which a word could move quickly from one sense to another, in keeping with Shakespeare's lightning-fast capacity for forging metaphor."

It turns out that this technique of cross-purposing parts of speech creates a consistent observable electro-chemical reaction in the brain—specifically, a 600-millisecond delay in parietal modulation.

New research into the physiological aspects of linguistics suggest that different areas of the brain handle processing of different parts of speech—one corner of your head handles verbs, for example, while another seems to handle nouns. This 600-millisecond delay invoked by functional shift seems to have the curious effect of forcing a greater portion of your brain to become simultaneously engaged with processing that word and sentence. In other words, when Shakespeare uses a square peg for a round hole in the sentence, we focus more and take greater notice.

Anyone who aspires to become a more effective (and effecting!) writer might do well to glance at the article and consider its possible implications and applications.

And now, I must away directly....
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7 comments:

Julie O'Hora said...

Way cool. And now I must fourth grade homework, frustratingly.

Chuck said...

One think that various foreigners I've worked with have said is that one of the (few) things they like about English is the way in which nouns can become verbs through colloquial usage (e.g. "ET phone home!").

Evidently it doesn't happen so much in other tongues.

Brett said...

I'll google up some numbers on that and fax them to you, unless you'd prefer that I just fedex some xeroxes.
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japhy99 said...

Sex the AMPTP!

marcoguarda said...

Well, that was the Victorian Age. The crawling of the Modern Theater. That was not just spoken language, but body language as well, and the actors were not merely people good at telling lines, but people "acting", "performing", i.e. creating an aura around their words with everything they could find.

I bet many times they had to interact and invent lines on the moment to answer free-lancers or wannabe actors or drunk people from the crowd talking back to them.

I think those times people went to public theaters as another everyday amusement resource, like taverns, or whatever. And theaters had to be so different from today's buildings. Only the benches for the crowd and the stage of "The Globe" were covered. The circular area between the two was open to rain, or stars.

It had to be very tough for an actor to grab and maintain the crowd's focus throughout the play. They had to be able to grab the bystanders by the throat, and to not let go until the play was finished. That's why, I think, a play who succeeded was carved among the stars, and a play who tanked, was never heard of almost any more.

That fluidity of language belonged to great actors' shiftiness, that is an extremely smart capability to smell the people's mood, and in some way change accordingly the tone of the performance to avoid boredom and thus failure.

Shifting the function of verbs to nouns, or that of nouns to verbs I think it was part of that magic. A magic not all authors were capable, but that brought to perfection could silence a roaring, belching, eating, kissing, drinking crowd. A magic that could engross such a varied audience, the magic only live-storytelling could give.

In those fortunate cases the actor who was able to crank out that difficult magic, he turned into a daimon, a demi-god, one who, as in Classic times, could ask from your soul tears, or laugh, or shame in payment.

And nobody from the crowd would have refused to accomplish that.

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Does this applies to screenwriting as well? I ain't got the answer.

In an age where the stream of information has to be transmitted through an incredibly long line, the stream has to be all the more compact, not subject to data deterioration due to misunderstandings of meaning.

And that's crucial, because in doing so, the attached meanings, those loose hooks onto which people's interpretive system hangs, are gone.

That "void of meaning" has to be filled again, or recharged when the chunk of data reaches its destination, if any. (i.e. everything from the reader to story dept. to whatever).

And that's also crucial, because the risk of breaking the delicate balance to build a magic so great to be carved among the stars, is monstrous.


Sorry folks, I ate Pizza late in the night.

;) ;) ;)

suzbays said...

Um, actually, I think Shakespeare was of the Elizabethan age. And the open area between the stage and seats was for the poorest of the poor who stood for hours to be entertained by Willy's plays.

btw, when "they" decided to rebuild the Globe in London, "they" wanted to find the location of the old Globe. It was apparently a big mystery...except to the folks who worked in an old building that was built on the site of the old Globe. The secret was well-kept until the last tenants of said office building moved out for good.

The last tenants? Journalists.

marcoguarda said...

Uh yeah, right, Elizabethan. Elizabeth I Tudor, indeed.