Posts Tagged ‘functional shift’

The electric effect of Shakespeare

December 11, 2007

Remember the Shakespearean functional shift that we discussed a while back?

Here is another piece on functional shifts, and what it does to our brains:

I took this hypothesis—about grammatical or linear shapes and their mapping onto shapes inside the brain—to a scientist, Professor Neil Roberts who heads MARIARC (the Magnetic Resonance and Image Analysis Research Centre) at the University of Liverpool. In particular I mentioned to him the linguistic phenomenon in Shakespeare which is known as “functional shift” or “word class conversion”. It refers to the way that Shakespeare will often use one part of speech—a noun or an adjective, say—to serve as another, often a verb, shifting its grammatical nature with minimal alteration to its shape. Thus in “Lear” for example, Edgar comparing himself to the king: “He childed as I fathered” (nouns shifted to verbs); in “Troilus and Cressida”, “Kingdomed Achilles in commotion rages” (noun converted to adjective); “Othello”, “To lip a wanton in a secure couch/And to suppose her chaste!”‘ (noun “lip” to verb; adjective “wanton” to noun).

The effect is often electric I think, like a lightning-flash in the mind: for this is an economically compressed form of speech, as from an age when the language was at its most dynamically fluid and formatively mobile; an age in which a word could move quickly from one sense to another, in keeping with Shakespeare’s lightning-fast capacity for forging metaphor. It was a small example of sudden change of shape, of concomitant effect upon the brain. Could we make an experiment out of it?

We decided to try to see what happens inside us when the brain comes upon sentences like “The dancers foot it with grace”, or “We waited for disclose of news”, or “Strong wines thick my thoughts”, or “I could out-tongue your griefs” or “Fall down and knee/The way into his mercy”. For research suggests that there is one specific part of the brain that processes nouns and another part that processes verbs: but what happens when for a micro-second there is a serious hesitation between whether, in context, this is noun or verb?

The result?

Preliminary results suggest this:

(A) With the simple control sentence (“You said you would accompany me”), NO N400 or P600 effect because it is correct both semantically and syntactically.

(B) With “You said you would charcoal me”, BOTH N400 and P600 highs, because it violates both grammar and meaning.

(C) With “You said you would incubate me”, NO P600 (it makes grammatical sense) but HIGH N400 (it does not make semantic sense).

(D) With the Shakespearian “You said you would companion me”, HIGH P600 (because it feels like a grammatical anomaly) but NO N400 (the brain will tolerate it, almost straightaway, as making sense despite the grammatical difficulty). This is in marked contrast with B above.

So what? First, it was as Guillaume Thierry had predicted. It meant that “functional shift” was a robust phenomenon: that is to say, it had a distinct and unique effect on the brain. Instinctively Shakespeare was right to use it as one of his dramatic tools. Second the P600 surge means the brain was thus primed to look out for more difficulty, to work at a higher level, whilst still accepting that fundamental sense was being made.

In other words, while the Shakespearian functional shift was semantically integrated with ease, it triggered a syntactic re-evaluation process likely to raise attention and give more weight to the sentence as a whole. Shakespeare is stretching us; he is opening up the possibility of further peaks, new potential pathways or developments. Our findings show how Shakespeare created dramatic effects by implicitly taking advantage of the relative independence—at the neural level—of semantics and syntax in sentence comprehension. It is as though he is a pianist using one hand to keep the background melody going, whilst simultaneously the other pushes towards ever more complex variations and syncopations.

Take a look!

Hat tip: Jonah Lehrer for the link.