July 28, 2005

To hear the blatter of grackles and say invisible priest

In the response to all the the-ing-and-a-ing going on around here, Jason Streed at Finches' Wings has posted Wallace Stevens' poem "The Man on the Dump", which ends:

Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.

Jason comments that

I think Stevens might be having some fun with the ways various pronunciations of "the" can be combined. The meter of that last foot also seems open to more than one reading--is it a pyrrhic that sounds like two beats on "an old tin can," or an iamb that sounds like a heartbeat, or something else?

Or -- thinking in terms of meaning instead of sound -- is "the the" about the operator for creating a definite description, or about the pragmatic distinction between old and new information, or about the performance practice of rapidly repeating phrase-initial syllables?

In antiphonal response to Jason's citation of "the the" in the writing of Wallace Stevens, I'll give an example of "a a a" in the speech of Associate Justice David H. Souter. This is from the oral arguments in Eldred v. Ashcroft:

but that's I mean that's the
that's the issue al- in the alternative reading
and and why is it
a a a limit case
uh rather than a discretion within a general scheme
kind of
uh clause?

Here's an audio clip -- the person saying "that's right" in the background of the recording is Larry Lessig. I'll have more to say about this passage later -- it's interesting linguistically, as well as a central point (in my inexpert opinion) in the case.

One of the interesting things is that listening to the spoken form in context, you really wouldn't notice Souter's flurry of disfluencies. At least I didn't, until I transcribed it. But the most interesting thing to me is his choice of pronunciations for the and a, in this passage and elsewhere in the argument.

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 28, 2005 12:34 PM