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On Cryptotypes

You know the feeling of encountering an unrefutable objection to an idea you hold dear? It’s not pleasant. Steven Pinker‘s new book, The Stuff of Thought, so thoroughly dismantles the “Whorfian hypothesis,” that I am left with the feeling There Is No Santa Claus. To usefully oversimplify, the Whorfian hypothesis (also referred to as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or linguistic relativism) states that the language(s) in which we live shape(s) our habitual thought(s). I am kidding about the last (s). I think!

So despite some recent attention to the implications of and evidence for linguistic relativism (see this New Yorker article on Dan Everett‘s work with the Pirah?? in Brazil), I am slowly learning to buy myself my own presents. Luckily, I don’t have to throw away my selected Benjamin Lee Whorf essays just yet. (It was actually a present from someone else. Sometwo else.)

In an unfinished essay from 1936, unfortunately titled “A linguistic consideration of thinking in primitive communities,” Whorf explains his idea of the “cryptotype.” This is a long selection, but maybe you will love it:

A covert linguistic class may not deal with any grand dichotomy of objects, it may have a very subtle meaning, and it may have no overt mark other than certain distinctive “reactances” with certain overtly marked forms…It is a submerged, subtle and elusive meaning, corresponding to no actual word, yet shown by linguistic analysis to be functionally important in the grammar. For example, the English particule UP meaning ‘completely, to a finish,’ as in ‘break it up, cover it up, eat it up, twist it up, open it up’ can be applied to any verb of one or two syllables initially accented, EXCEPTING verbs belonging to four special cryptotypes. One is the cryptotype of dispersion without boundary; hence one does not say ‘spread it up, waste it up, spend it up, scatter it up, drain it up, or filter it up.’ Another is the cryptotype of oscillation without agitation of parts; we don’t say ‘rock up a cradle, wave up a flag, wiggle up a finger, nod up one’s head,’ etc. The third is the cryptotype of nondurative impact which also includes psychological reaction: kill, fight, etc., hence we don’t say ‘whack it up, tap it up, stab it up, slam it up, wrestle him up, hate him up.’

…Another English cryptotype is that of the transitive verb of a covering, enclosing, and surface-attaching meaning, the reactance of which is that UN- may be prefixed to denote the opposite. Hence we say ‘uncover, uncoil, undress, unfasten, unfold, unlock, unroll, untangle, untie, unwind,’ but not ‘unbreak, undry, unhang, unheat, unlift, unmelt, unopen, unpress, unspill.’

Of course, all of these things “one does not say” are exactly what you’d hope a poet would. The first anti-cryptotypical poet I would like you to consider is Graham Foust.

Take a look at his “Number One Hit Song,” which ends with “Fake and un-ancient, / inexact as hands, / I would move as if by choice into my life.” “Un-ancient” is not “a transitive verb of a covering, enclosing, and surface-attaching meaning, etc.,” but it does fail to obey certain efficiency standards.

Or consider Anthony McCann, whose “Holy Week” has “mountains deeply mislabelled in sun.” It is a little beyond me to construct the rules for the cryptotype concerning “deeply,” but I’m pretty sure this line violates it.

Or think of Catherine Wagner, whose poem, “The Scary Several Light,” uses the adjective “several” to split light into separate, respective parts. English imagines “light” to be homogeneous, entirely one substance–to render it “several” is to disrupt that.
These anti-cryptotypical lines produce several feelings in me. First, I notice the “wrongness” of the words. Then I notice how excited I am by the wrongness of the words. I am very, very excited–I think because the rules governing cryptotypes are so subtle, so generally unstated. I know the prohibitions regarding swearing, or even the violition of subject/verb agreement, but I only see a cryptotype when the rule is broken. It’s like suddenly understanding walking by breaking your femur. Or it is like catching a glimpse of a language’s nipple. And the poem is the Super Bowl. And it’s anyone’s game.

The Kenyon Review was founded in 1939. The resources for the new literary journal were provided by Gordon Keith Chalmers, President of Kenyon College, while the inspiration to establish the journal and raise the national stature of the institution had come from his wife Roberta Teale Swartz, herself a poet and a friend and protege of Robert Frost. Frost encouraged the idea and visited Kenyon more than once. The poet and critic John Crowe Ransom was recruited to Kenyon by Chalmers with the express purpose in mind of his launching a distinguished magazine. During his 21-year tenure, Ransom published such internationally known writers as Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, William Empson, Mark Van Doren, Kenneth Burke, and Delmore Schwartz, as well as younger writers: Flannery O'Connor, Robert Lowell, and Peter Taylor, to name a few. It was perhaps the best known and most influential literary magazine in the English-speaking world during the 1940s and '50s. In 1969, discouraged by the quarterly's financial burdens and sagging reputation, Kenyon College ceased publication of The Kenyon Review. The journal was revived in 1979, and in June 1990, internationally acclaimed poet and editor Marilyn Hacker was hired as the Review's first full-time (and first female) editor. She quickly broadened the quarterly's scope to include more minority and marginalized viewpoints. In April 1994, the trustees directed that The Kenyon Review be continued, but with significant cost-reducing and revenue-enhancing initiatives. Hacker left and David Lynn (acting editor in 1989-90), Kenyon English professor, was named editor on a two-thirds time basis. The magazine's financial picture has since stabilized and improved dramatically. The creation of a Kenyon Review Board of Trustees and a renewed commitment by Kenyon College combined to guarantee the financial health of the Review and to free its editors to pursue increased excellence. Such is the status of The Kenyon Review today.