This is kind of tangential to the original discussion topic, but from the forcefulness of the objections you raised to some of my earlier remarks about ‘texts vs speech’ it seems that it’s something that you feel strongly about. I do too. I’m serious when I say that we’re both probably right, because I know the issues by which you raise your objections, and I accept them. I’m not going down the road of Herrlee Creel or other early Sinologists who imagined a fully “ideographic” or “pictographic” language completely separated from oral speech. If I’ve left that impression, I’ve either done a poor job explaning, or you’re arguing against a position that I didn’t posit.
One thing that may help clarify my approach when differentiating texts from so-called ordinary speech is the notion Noam Chomsky refers to as linguistic competence. As Michael LaFargue puts it in his essay “Recovering the Tao-te-ching’s Original Meaning: Some Remarks on Historical Hermeneutics”:
“Meaning is never something completely objective, completely there in the text or sounds independent of any subjective involvement of a reader or listener. . . .Speech can only communicate meanings in a community of people all of whom associate roughly the same meaning. . . .Shared competence is the necessary mental, subjective component of meaning, necessary in order that the external component—sounds or ink marks—actually convey some definite meaning to some particular community of people.” (LaFargue, in Kohn and LaFargue, Lao-tzu and the Tao-te-ching, p. 259)
Linguists who advocate for a speech-centered theory of language tend, I think, to emphasize the *agency* of speech, and in so doing fail to understand the situational aspect involving communities of sender-receivers. LaFargue cites other linguists who suggest that the notion of shared competence be extended beyond elements of vocabulary and grammar “to include such things as those shared assumptions operative when we read a poem *as a poem*, or a scientific treatise *as a scientific treatise*.” (ibid.) Different communities of linguistic competence imply different registers of meaning for different kinds of speech and writing. A grocer and a plumber with roughly the same competence in grammar and vocabulary may need to work a little harder at communicating when discussing their respective fields because of differences in register. A constitutional attorney may have trouble reading a brief that includes references to electrical engineering, but it is not because his grammar and vocabulary are different at the level of ordinary speech; it is a matter of register or competence in the way they each use language.
When it comes to texts, even if I were to wholly accept your premise that “At various times what has been written was actually pretty close to everyday language”, I would have to qualify my acceptance, because the process of speaking is different from the process of writing. Children become competent in grammar, syntax, and phonolgy somewhat naturally, with very little formal training. That’s not the case with reading and writing. Those activities involve different processes not so easily learned, requiring specific formal instruction, discipline, and motivation. So, when we deal with texts, we are automatically dealing with a different register of linguistic competence. In addition, when having a conversation, the speech acts take place in a context where there is visual feedback, eye contact, facial expressions, etc. These apply in giving a speech before a group of people, too, but speeches, notably, are often texts before they are speech. Even in phone conversation or listening to the radio, tone of voice and inflection are present that are not present in writing. Disciplined writing usually compensates, consciously or not, for the absence of an immediate listener, and writing is often a reflective and/or a self-editing process in ways that speech may not be (although speech can certainly involve reflection). Writing, in short, proceeds in a different register from speech.
In assessing early taiji texts, one needs to gain a foothold on the linguistic competencies evidenced in the texts. The language used is specific to a certain time and a certain community, and includes aphorisms; technical martial terminology in the tradition of “hanghua,” “qiekou,” “yinyu,” “heihua,” i.e., professional or trade jargon or secretive formulae; metaphors, literary allusions, oral formulae (koujue) mixed with discursive exposition, and so forth. We have to work with our contemporary training in taiji—and thus, from the perspective of our own linguistic competence of that knowledge—in order to try to grasp the registers involved in the texts. All of these qualities make for something somewhat different from ordinary speech. In short, we have no choice but to approach these texts *as* texts.
[This message has been edited by Louis Swaim (edited 07-01-2006).]