Sunday 8 August 2010

Where I come from 5: Dead end routes

Dear Freddie,
More than a month ago, I poked at the first words of Stairway to Heaven and found that the opening paragraph told me a lot less than it seemed to do at first glance, and definitions of the words wouldn't help me reveal what has kept this song alive for over half a century. I was left wondering about the line “with a word she can get what she came for”. This line seemed to favour a pragmatic approach to words over a semantic one, focussing on the relation between signs and their effects rather than the relation between signs and the things to which they refer. Interestingly, the second verse continues where the first left off.

There's a sign on the wall, but she wants to be sure
'Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings.
In a tree by the brook, there's a songbird who sings,
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven.

This paragraph is crowded with language-related words: sign, words, meanings, songbird, sings, thoughts.

A sign on the wall
To avoid going down the mystical route, I will not elaborate on the biblical origin of the expression “sign on the wall” (Daniel 5, in case you've given up on our quest for philosophy). Instead, I will focus on the words that are so significant throughout these lyrics.
Is it an unconditional statement that there is a sign on the wall, or are these words part of a construction that started in the previous paragraph? The latter interpretation says that the lady knows that, when she gets to heaven, there will be a sign on the wall. In her book In the houses of the Holy: Led Zeppelin and the power of rock music, Susan Fast is surprised that Plant begins a new stanza of poetry with this phrase, despite the fact that the instrumental part continues with the fourth phrase of the music. “In other words, the text seems to begin anew but the music does not.”(Oxford University Press US, 2001, p. 61) To me, this is a clear sign that Plant doesn't start a new sentence.
Either way, whether there's a sign to tell her the directions when she is buying the stairway to heaven, or whether she knows that there will be a sign on the wall when she gets to there – after having been certain about so many falsehoods, she is unsure now, despite the sign. Why? Because “you know, sometimes words have two meanings”.
According to the semantic theory, words are signs referring to designata (e.g. meaning, definition or objects to which words refer). Traditionally, 'sign' and 'meaning' are two words that go together like neighbouring jigsaw puzzle pieces – mentioning the one is asking for the other. It's no surprise they show up together in this song.
This is the first time in the song that the lady is not sure about something. Though I'm supposed to know sometimes words have several meanings, personally, I find it incredibly difficult to grasp how exactly a sign can even have one meaning. Does the word 'tree' have something in common with a plane tree in Hyde Park? Do they resemble each other? Or is the link quite random, a convention? But then why can't we simply replace it with the Dutch word 'boom'? Buy some space on the front page of the Metro to let everyone know that from now on we will only refer to trees with the word 'boom' and abandon the word 'tree' completely. Do you think it would be a smooth transition? I expect that no root-killer will be strong enough to exterminate the word 'tree'.
It's just as mind boggling as the question what connects the spoken word 'tree' to the written version. In what way are they the same? And when two people say the word 'tree', what is it that connects the first sound to the second?
You may think the last question is obvious, because “they sound the same”. But what is that sameness? How can we recognize two sounds as the same word, even when one is pronounced with a lovely Dutch “trrrr” and the other with a west-London twang?
“The written and the spoken word have the same meaning”, you say? But again: what is 'meaning' and in what way is it 'the same'?
Especially when a word is supposed to refer to a mental concept or idea, it completely eludes me what is going on. What are concepts, ideas, definitions, other than the words themselves? What is 'the semantic theory', without the words that are supposedly 'used' to 'express' it? Talking about the semantic theory doesn't clarify anything about words.

A songbird who sings
But I digress. Back to the song. For now, all I know is that the lady finds it problematic to pinpoint definitions of words. The next phrase doesn't seem to have much to do with the beginning of the story: “In a tree by the brook (what brook) is a songbird who sings...”
But as I noticed earlier, this line contains two language-related words, so it's not completely out of the blue: songbird and sings. While 'sign' and 'meaning' brought me to the semantic theory of language, this phrase points in a different direction: language as music. I don't have a definition or logically sound theory ready to explain what this entails – but if I did, that would defeat the whole point, don't you think? It would close the route Plant pointed out even before I embarked on it, and it would send me right back to the theoretical, unmusical way of thinking ABOUT language, rather than allowing musical language to happen.
Which is exactly what's happening in Stairway to Heaven. Not only because it's a musical masterpiece. But perhaps you remember how in my previous letter, it emerged that Plant isn't consciously choosing words because of their definition, but accepts them as they come – as they are given.
Perhaps you think I'm reading a bit too much into “there's a songbird who sings”?
I don't. The next line says it all: “Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven.”
I won't go on about the fact that, grammatically, it could be a line that the bird is singing, because that would be rather silly.
What this line says is that we don't choose our own words; they are given to us. And sometimes, all of our words are mis-given. All that glitters is gold. The routes of thinking that we are forced down by words such as 'sign' and 'meaning' might be erroneous, dead end trails. No matter how many people have tread them happily and without noticing throughout the ages.

Read the next installment:


  1. Language arose because it was useful, enabling information to be transferred and plans to be coordinated. Lions would hunt more effectively if they had language. The practical objective should be the starting point for analysing what words mean.

    When people use language in a poetic way, to invoke feelings, images or emotions, it's pointless to analyse it in the same was as language used for survival or reproduction. It meaning lies in the thoughts it inspires.

  2. I don't doubt that our ability to communicate with words emerged because those who were sensitive for it had increased chances to escape from preditors, catch preys and reproduce.

    But I think it's more likely that words are taking advantage of the ability. For example, the word 'like'. I'm using it every other sentence, but there's no benefit in it for me nor my genes to do so. Only the word 'like' itself benefits from it, since it only exists because myriad people just like me are repeating it. I dare say words such as 'God' (Oh my God) and 'heaven' are just like 'like'.

    I am quite sure lions, when hunting in groups, do communicate - send out messages that provoke a reaction in the other lions. However, a language such as the human language would probably not be of much benefit to them, as talking about the feelings of their prey or the meaning of life would only slow them down.

  3. This was really fascinating, I wish there was more pondering like this in my English Language degree textbooks, as this sort of thing is why I did it in the first place!

    If you find all this stuff geniuinely fascinating you might want to look up on linguistic schemas in children, which is scientific research based on how we differentiate and group different mental concepts and map them to words. I always enjoyed that module, at least. :)

  4. I read some papers about linguistic schemas in children when I was trying to write realistic dialogues between a grown-up and a toddler, and found it massively interesting. Might go back to the library some time soon and read some more about it. Thanks!