Language and mind

April 28, 2012

Burning the Flag – where is the language?

Filed under: language, language processing, language use, law, psycholinguistics — teresapelka @ 10:46 am

Themis and the FlagThe legal profession is a depth of recondite detail the Supreme Court has the expertise firmly to deliberate. The linguist I am, I yet cannot yield on a few principles. Freedom of speech has been quoted to justify burning the American flag.

United States versus Eichman, United States versus Haggerty, Texas versus Johnson: all cases argued freedom of speech under the First Amendment. Haggerty’s case would have the implication to make the Flag necessarily your piece of cloth before burning. It is when the Flag belongs to an institution like Seattle’s Capitol Hill Post Office that you get fined. ;)

Let me read the First Amendment again.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

In my grammar book, I tell people to exercise comprehension in paraphrase. We can say the First Amendment

forbids the Congress to regulate the matters of religion, to reduce independent speech or publication, to delimitate people’s right to convene, or to prevent people’s formally requesting the authorities for reparation of damages.

Let me imagine a person burns something. Is there a speech sound produced, if the human just sits silently by a campfire, warming his or her hands? Is there any written or printed stretch of language to emerge from the flame? Should one try to interpret the wood or coal crackling and hissing as stanzas, quatrains, epodes? Could we hear the anacrusis?

The Supreme Court could not hear or read any language. The Eichman holding says:

The government’s interest in preserving the flag as a symbol did not outweigh the individual right to disparage that symbol through expressive conduct.About DWRL University of Texas logo

The result is lesson plans I cannot favorably credit. A click on the header below shows a University of Texas material (unless they have been impersonated, the About page is on the right, the e-mail address saying

University of Texas lesson plan logo

The lesson plan says you learn to tell symbols from icons, and you comprehend why flag burning could do for some kind of talk.

Let me tell on linguistic terms, without conditions or a single match attached. Symbols and icons may be exact same objects, without language. You work with a computer. You click on an icon and it takes you to a website. The icon symbolizes the website. You can associate the content only provided you know it, however. The icon is an arbitrary symbol.

Speech sounds are not symbols. They are not arbitrary, in their ability to communicate. We can put phonemes into notation with phonetic alphabets. We could say we read phonetic symbols. This yet would be jargon. The strict term is grapheme. Phonetic alphabets use graphemes.

If we want to use the word ‘symbol’ with reference to speech and language, we form a lexical item, a unit of meaning. We can say we use letter symbols, or even letter-symbols. Everyone knows there are many alphabets, and graphemes may be arbitrary.

Wikipedia says that a red octagon means ‘stop’, even without language. Wikiepdia octagon

Stop__roundWe can talk about a referential code only. Road signs happen to be also round.

Let us compare graphetics. How could we interpret Hello? The thing with referential codes is they do not work without language, however lenient the driving instructor. Without semantics, nobody gets any meaning.

HelloFlag associations 1

What is the meaning of a national flag? It symbolizes the country and the people. The picture on the right shows only part my associations.

I generally associate the USA people and things with the American flag.

Flag associations 2

Even if you don’t like everybody round, would rather live in a tent, make own clothes  and hunt for food to liberate yourself of the influence of American capitalism, the nonsense of burning the Flag remains appalling, when I think about a cause-and-effect association I have.

Flag associations 3

It would not look sound to speculate if the Constitution would have come to existence without the people fighting for American freedom, also in Fort McHenry, about which The Star Spangled Banner tells. It would not make any sense to ponder, if the First Amendment would have been passed without the Constitution.

The Amendment does not say

Congress shall make no law abridging expressive conduct …

Human expressive behaviors are a very wide spectrum. Part of this spectrum belongs under parental guidance and does not meet the criteria for language at all.

Again, let me tell on linguistic terms, without conditions or even a single match attached. Generally, language is a human faculty to consist of grammar, phonology, and a lexicon. As in all areas of human activity, there is no uniform definition of language. Some researchers will say syntax, phonology, and vocabulary can make a language. To me, syntax belongs well within grammar.

A language needs to be spoken or written. Braille belongs with writing, and sign languages with spoken forms of language. ‘Body language’ is a figure of speech. I cannot agree with Wikipedia also on counting languages: it is as if we could not count the apples, because part are varieties of apples. ;)

Wikipedia does not tell language as such. It tells a language or particular languages. No linguist would have a dialect for a sign code. :)

Any precise estimate depends on a partly arbitrary distinction between languages and dialects.

Language logo

Concluding, I do not support the Supreme Court verdict. It is not because I would uphold the notion of Flag desecration. The word desecration suggests abuse on sanctity. I think flags are for people, and I have put images of the American flag on my grammar books, which are absolutely my human work.

Flag burning or malicious damage are not speech acts, in my opinion. I hope time will bring the change necessary for legislation to rule out physically abusive behaviors from speech acts.

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