Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Fuzzy Borders: Schizophrenic and Poetic Language

One caveat about the following:  not all schizophrenics produce language like that below.  Some of them speak structurally  normal language.  My interest has always been the ones with deviant speech, and the nature and causes of the deviance.

My last post could logically be followed by one on schizophrenic speech disorders and how they relate to thought, but it is also a lead-in to poetic language.  Here I begin to discuss the differences between schizophrenic speech and poetic language.When I've given talks on schizophrenic speech, often people in the audience have asked, "How is that different fron poetry?" And, to be frank, some schizophrenic speech does sound like poetry--but usually only a few lines out of a long discourse is poetic. One patient said, for instance,

My mother's name was Bill...and coo? St. Valentine's Day is the start of the breedin' season of the birds. I like birds, especially parakeets.  They work hard.   I once had a goldfish too, like a clown, Happy Hallowe'en down."
The metaphor of bill and coo, an old idiom for lovers' saying sweet things, is here  juxtaposed with the name of the holiday celebrating love, and the image of birds starting with bill and coo is connected to the breedin' season and the mention of a pet bird.  Parakeets are birds used as pets and  goldfish are also pets. That's the link between parakeets and goldfish

The "They work hard"  is a seemingly random statement, but I would note that it is a very common one, and, often is given as the reason that one likes someone.  You know, "He's a good man. He works hard.  That's the only link I can find to "They work hard" and the rest of the monologue.  So, she likes parakeets because they work hard.  The connection is between the word like and why you like someone. Working hard may be on answer to why someone is liked.  It just has no relevance here.  Hallowe'en is a day that people dress in costumes.  Clown also dress in costumes.  Then, the  rhyme of down with clown explains the non sequitor of Happy Hallowe'en down.

Poetry can be used as a poetic device, although poems don't have to rhyme.  So why do I give this as an example of schiophrenic speech rather than poetry?  There is, admittedly, a fuzzy border between schizophrenic language and poetry. Some schizophrenic speech is hard to distinguish from poetry, and schizophrenics can write actual poetry.  However, there are criteria that distinguish the two kinds of language in most instances.  Notice that, in the above, I analyzed the connections between phrases and sentences on the basis of the association between words and idioms, not on the basis of a topic to which words have been subordinated. 

That is, we normally produce utterances (or written sentences) so that they enhance the topic of conversation.  Here, even if the first statement was true, that is, it was a response to a question about her mother's name, which it wasn't, what follows has nothing to do with her mother's name.  Her mother's name wasn't Bill.  Even if it were, mentioning the idiom bill and coo is inappropriate.  In any event, this wouldn't be poetry because, instead of saying more things about her mother or her mother's name, the sentences get further away from the topic sentence, ending up with Hallow'en and down. 

It is true that, in conversation, we often find ourselves going from one topic to another, but this is always signalled by "That reminds me..." or "Not to change the subject, but..."  While you're on a given topic, however, you produce sentences and phrases relatable to that topic.  You don't select a word because it happens to rhyme with another one, or because it is in the same category as another word.  Also, if you ask a schizophrenic who speaks this way to explain or to repeat, they can't.  They'll either just keep talking, going from association to association wiith no discernible topic, or they will walk away. 

Usually, the first thing the schizophrenic says is a correct response to a question or statement, but he or she quickly veers off the topic.  Consider the following, for instance.  The patient was asked to identify a color on a set of plastic chips.  The one he was responding to in the following quote was a pinkish-orange color, the color of a salmon or of clay.  He correctly identified it as the color of clay:

Looks like clay. Sounds like gray. Take you for a roll in the hay. Heyday. May Day. Help. I need help.
Then, his second sentence starts with another phrase of the X-like group referring to sensory expressions: looks like, sounds like, feels like, smells like, tastes like.  Then, still keeping on colors, he selects gray because it rhymes with clay.  The idiom take you for a roll in the hay apparently was chosen because hay rhymes with clay and gray.  Then heyday pops into his mind because it repeats hay and also adds day to the rhyming sequence.  May Day also continues the rhyme and repeats day.  May Day means 'help' So he says he needs help.  He did, but that was a strange way to ask for help.

Even if you're not schizophrenic, you may note similarities between words that are not appropriate to the topic, but you don't form you next spoken phrase based on such similarities.  You say what is appropriate to the context.  Although there is excellent evidence that we store words in our mental lexicon according to their sounds, semantic categories and meanings, we usually filter out other words in the set that aren't appropriate.

As we shall see, in my  next post, the poet does note phonological and semantic similarities, but he or she uses only those that fit the topic of the poem.  Also, the poet can repeat his or her poem.  The schizophrenic in the midst of a psychotic bout, which is when he or she produces language such as the above, can not repeat or explain, as I noted above.  He or she just produces chains of phrases or words, even sometimes descending into complete gibberish. 

My book, Understanding Psychotic Speech: Beyond Freud and Chomsky goes into this in great detail. This is out of print, but Linguistics, Pragmatics, and Psychotherapy is still available and deals with things like anxiety disorderss and language use