Breaking syntatic and paradigmatic rules to produce meaning

In class this week we talked about structuralism and syntagms and paradigms. We had examples sentences like :

The cat ate the mouse.
The mouse ate the cat.
Cat the ate mouse the.
The lady read the book.
The noun read the book.

The third example is nonsense because it breaks syntax, it’s not a valid syntagm in English. The fifth example break paradigm as noun is not in the class of things that can read. Yet on this/my blog Royer said, “Roedl doesn’t trim his beard, his beard trims him.”

This sentence breaks all kinds of rules! It’s not valid, yet it has some kind of meaning. We seem to be able to break rules in very deliberate ways to produce meaning, and even then we seem to be able to apply some structuralist rules to the situation to find meaning, and maybe we can find some ways in which structuralism won’t be helpful to what we are doing.

We could do a quick structural analysis of what Royer said.  For this particular example I would say we share the same code and the genre is an informal blog post and ensuing comments between peers.  It has valid syntax, but the it’s not a valid syntagm because beards can’t trim their owners.  Given the genre and context I think (know?) Royer is joking, and he is showing humor, but breaking the rules.  What exactly he is saying is ambiguous because he broke the rules, but it’s funny.  It probably has something to do with the fact that Roedl’s beard seems to have a life of it’s own and may, or may not be taking him over, much like when Homer Simpson got a hair transplant from Snake in Tree House of Horror IX (the first skit, appropriately titled Hell Toupée–we just can’t get away from artifical hair talk in this class can we?).

It’s not just in comedy though, we often also break rules in poetry.  By using words and sentence structures in unusual ways we make new meanings.

What I am pointing out though is that we can break the rules in certain ways and still have it produce meaning, but if we break the rules in ways like the last sentence example from class it means nothing, except that perhaps the person who wrote it is insane, doesn’t speak english, or something else.  In short there are rules governing how we use structural rules and how we can break them effectively as well, but these other rules seem to be obscured, and until they are made explicit structuralism becomes mirky, and a lot less scientific than I think most structuralists would like.  If these rules can be brought out and made explicit maybe that would help, but it is possible they cannot.  I guess I’ll have to think on this more and do some more research.

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About Aaron H

PhD Student in Design & Innovation studying R&D teams.
This entry was posted in Semiotics, Structuralism. Bookmark the permalink.

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