Week 4: Cherry's Chapter 3

Reading Questions, by Zach Tomaszewski

for CIS 702, Fall 2004, taught by Dr. Martha Crosby

1. What are the conventions of language that perform an essential social function? (p. 67)

There are a number of conventions in different social groups that serve to define that social group. One such convention is the choice of a particular word to refer to certain thing. Cherry gives the example of pavement--in America, this means the asphalt of the road; in England it means the sidewalk. American and traditional English have a number of different words to refer to the same thing--hood/bonnet, subway/tube, french fries/chips, etc. Which word a speaker chooses gives clue to his social group.

Another common identifier of social group is the expressions they use. Some examples include "ka-Bam", "you got a beatdown", and "take a long walk off a short pier". Some of these expressions carry very little meaning on their own, such as "like", "you know", and "brah". Whenever words and phrases define a group apart from others, they can also serve to bind that social group closer together.

Besides the function of demarcating social groups, language can serve more direct social functions. There is the phatic social maintenance that many common words and phrases serve--"hello", "how's it going?", "what's up?" These questions frequently don't need to be answered, but simply convey the message that the speaker has acknowledged the listener.

Word choice can also affect social function. There are different situations that require a more or less formal tone, possibly with more or less self-effacing terminology. Listeners can become offended or disturbed if the incorrect social level of language is used.

Thus, conventions allow us to use words to determine a social group, maintain social connections (even when no real messages are being transferred), and smoothly adhere to expected norms of address and communication in different social contexts.

2. Why do you think that a great amount of information is lost if a speech is literally transcribed into print as Cherry describes? (p. 77)

A lot of information does get lost when spoken words are translated literally into print. First of all, the gestures and body language are lost. Pointing and waving may have served to designate certain objects and not others. Along with the intonation of the words, body language can give clues to the speaker's mood, such as whether she is being sarcastic or is making a joke out of anger.

Related to gesture and intonation is the context of the two speakers. There is the physical environment, which can impact the tone of their conversation. Imagine the differences in tone in conversations at a church, a football game, or board meeting.

There is also the context of the relationship between the two speakers. In casual conversation, they may share references to past experiences together that they would need to explain if other people were to receive the message as well. When we speak, we usually know who our audience is and have a good idea what they already know about the situation.

We can see many of these differences when we compare the tones of written and spoken language. Since written language tends to be to a wide possible audience, it tends to rely much less directly on the physical and social contexts. Since points or nuances cannot be clarified with a gesture or intonation, written language needs to be clearer and better structured. Yet all of this takes time to construct. Literally translating spoken language removes many of the message's support without replacing this information through better word choice and structure.

3. What is redundancy? What important role does redundancy play in humans' communication? (p. 115)

Redundancy is using more information to carry a message than is strictly necessary. Because of this, if part of the message is lost or misunderstood, there is still a good chance that rest of the message will carry enough redundant information that the receiver will still understand the message. Syntactic redundancy involves the medium of the message. If you can still determine what a written word is despite a couple smudged letters, or can still catch the word of a song on a scratched CD, you are likely relying on syntactic redundancy. Semantic redundancy involves the meaning of the message. If you space out for a minute or two during a lecture but still understand the material at the end of the hour, it is likely because the lecture contained semantic redundancy.

Redundancy is important because it is often that, with the great variation of writing and print forms, we need to decode what a word is because we cannot determine some of the letters. The same is true of decoding different speakers' accents. Sometimes, as listeners, we think of other things, such as what else we should be doing right now or what we are going to say next. Semantic redundancy often allows us to recover from these lapses without embarrassing social encounters that may ensue from "I'm sorry, could you repeat that? I wasn't listening."

Cherry, Colin. On human communication: a review, a survey, and a criticism. Cambridge: Technology Press of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1957.