Saturday, August 14, 2010

Sentence Frequency and Originality of Expression

R: Tomorrow we'll have everything we need for a good long time. This place has got to have a stockpile of canned goods. Hopefully it was overrun by the undead before it could be looted by anyone.

S: Yeah, hopefully it's just full of flesh eating monsters and our baked beans are still intact in there... If someone had said last year that I would ever utter that line out loud, I'd still be laughing now... Jesus, I'd love some baked beans right now.
The above quote is from The Walking Dead, a long-running and popular post-apocalyptic comic book -- go ahead, guess what kind of apocalypse it was -- issue #13 in fact, wherein a crew of survivors is discussing a possible raid of an abandoned prison, in search of food. You or I may never find ourselves in quite the same situation, but surely one does not have to live in a world dominated by the walking dead to wonder at the linguistic possibilities...

"There's nothing new under the sun." We've heard that old song and dance before, but with hundreds of thousands of words in the English language, which can be arranged into an incompressible number of sentences, we humans have a very long way to go, indeed, before we have mined out all linguistic possibilities.

In fact, you and I probably explore new territory every day, creating original sentences -- sentences that have never been said or written before in the history of the human race! Usually, we do this without noticing, though sometimes we do, and we end up saying something like, "Wow, that was a weird sentence" or "Man, I never thought I'd say that." It's a very, very intriguing idea. Wouldn't be great, for example, to see the long list of sentences that have each been said exactly once? Or wouldn't you like to see how many original sentences a great writer -- Shakespeare, for example -- created in his life?

Originality is so highly praised these days -- at least as far as large corporations are concerned, who are in the habit offering up to the customer some twenty or so patterns on a t-shirt, for example, with the idea that the customer will then be able to "express their personal style." Literature -- or as the Jews put it, "The Art of Scratching on Paper" -- is no different in this respect. Originality of expression they call it -- or at least I do. Everyone wants it, it seems, but always it remains a hazy object.

Therefore, I can only speak and think in vagueries: I know when I'm writing like Shakespeare (never) and I know when I'm writing like David Foster Wallace (never......?) but, honestly, how am I to know what's trite? or cliche? or, well, unoriginal? I can't and you can't either, Mr. Scholar; likewise with so-called original sentences. Surely, we all will be kept up late into the night, wondering if someone has already said, "Pass the pineapple Jello ASAP, Martha, you inconsiderate slut!"

So you're not Shakespeare and neither am I, but please don't fret! We can't all wax poetic about a rose, or a bear or something... (well said, Abe), but not everything that's original is so great: say the word fuck enough times in a row and you're sure to make a new sentence. Furthermore, common sense tells me that longer a sentence is, the more likely it is to be "original," which hardly seems fair... And what about gibberish? Like the ravings spotted by the lunatics we're forced to get close to on the bus or subway? surely their incoherent ramblings are at least as important to our society as the works of Allan Ginsberg...

Nevertheless (anyone else loathe that word with a white hot passion?), as you can see below, I have decided to parse some of my writing -- a journal entry of sorts, taken while bumping along on the road to visit my grandpa. "Papa" we call him, a former Nazi soldier and wife-beater who is now, rightfully so, rotting away at his mind in a big empty house full of guilt in an isolated part of southern Ohio.

But the trip was fun! and this little parsing experiment keeps me thinking... Such parsing, taken into academic settings, could provide a great insight in the world of folk linguistics -- that is, the study of how ordinary people view language. If only there was something, some great control group in the sky, to compare the resulting data to...

Red - sentences that no one has ever said before
Orange - sentences I have said before
Blue - sentences someone else has said before
Black (and in brackets) - notes I added to this blog post

August 6, 2010
We are well along on the road here, on our way to Papa's house. I've been reading some Jack Kerouac -- ironic, no? [How could someone not have written that before?] And I'm writing now because I'm starting to get the beginning shivers of the shits. [I wish so badly that the preceding sentence is original...] The reason for the shaky handwriting is twofold.

So far, On the Road is just okay -- and it grudges me a lot to say that. Already I get the feeling that the circle of the Beatniks was entirely a man's world. This, naturally, leads to the idea of homosexuality -- angrily suppressed at times. In Jack's case at least, fact indeed has backed up the idea. [Dude, Jack, everyone thinks you're gay. Wait, let me rephrase that: everyone knows you're gay.]

"If she goes to Case, omg -- I'll be happy for her."
(momentarily stopped.)
"Isn't that where Uncle Chris works?"
"I think it's pronounced 'MEH-nerds.'"
"I can smell out a lie!"
Thirty miles, or so, from Woodsfield. [I've visited my grandfather many times before.] Using pen found on the floor. [and I've use a lot of floor pens in my day, too.]
Country is officially the only music on radio... and we just hit a butterfly. "I hate when that happens."
"They raised her up a lady, but there's one thing they couldn't avoid." [probably sung more than said -- sung by middle-aged "country" women on their way to Trace Adkins concerts] Even that drivel is now breaking up. Probably the high hills around us.

Now, on the radio: a laugh-inducing tribute to firemen -- "you hit another butterfly."

"Isn't that a hearse?"
"Uh... yeah."
"Well, it's for sale."

"Everybody's got the fever. That's one thing you all know." Oldies comes in too, barely. This song I don't know...

"Oh, look. A quaint water wheel."

"The nail-driving competition will begin at 11:30 am" -- Tyler county fair commercial.

50s, 60s, and 70s radio station. "I hate when they, like, wallow in a decade. They would never play this on [ ]." [I never could keep radio stations straight.] They a have a list of a thousand songs that they play over and over.

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