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Whose emic? Mine, Yours, Theirs?

March 21, 2012

The emic structure of a particular system must, I hold, be discovered.” – K. L. Pike

Yesterday, I deleted the post I’d written, one with the title “Whose emic? Mine, Yours, Theirs?” I deleted it because it was, I felt, too personal. It was too much of an insider essay.

Today, I want to try again. I’d like readers to grapple with the personal nature of our observations about things. And my hope is we can share knowledge. So what about emic? What does “emic” mean?

The word emic is the coinage of Kenneth Lee Pike. He invented it as one of a pair of terms, “emic and etic.” The neologistic couple of phrases, since their invention, has been used by many people in many academic disciplines in many helpful ways. Let me show you some of that. Then I’ll tell a bit more.

Look at these 4 images first:  1. a table of references to emic and etic by discipline (up through the late 1980s); 2. a table of published implicit and explicit definitions of the terms (up through the late 1980s); 3. a chart showing reference to this pair of terms in books digitized by google; and 4. the Oxford English Dictionary (online) full definition of emic.





Now, let me tell you that if you’re having trouble with the OED definitions given here, then not to worry.  Pike wrote a 762-page tome where that first definition appears, and the intent of the entire book was to explain emics and etics as part of a method of knowing that relates “language” to “human behavior.”  All of Pikes many essays, articles, lectures, classes, seminars, and books after Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of the Structure of Human Behavior somehow related to what he meant by “emic and etic.”  His fellow linguists, notably Evelyn Pike (his wife), Eunice Pike (his sister), Robert Longacre (his colleague in linguistics), and Thomas Headland (his colleague in linguistic and cultural anthropology) also worked with him on and with “emics and etics.” And, while they were working, others began to use the term. If click on the first 2 images above, then you get Headland’s discussion of a debate Pike had with anthropologist Marvin Harris over the terms and their definition and their use.

Although Pike first coined the terms in 1954, the origins have deeper roots. One of his teachers, linguist Edward Sapir, in 1933, published “La réalité psychologique des phonèmes” [The psychological reality of phonemes] in Journal de Psychologie Normale et Pathologique. This thought that reality is also psychological was a thought that profoundly influenced Pike as he studied the reality of sounds a person makes when speaking. Pike, as a teacher, would often talk of “talked-about reality” as the only reality we can really talk about. The reality of phons, allophones, and phonemes for the linguist dealing in phonetics and phonemics gave Pike the language he needed, the neologistic metalanguage he needed, to begin discussing various ways of talking about reality.

If you think that that’s sort of a family and academic-insider discussion, then you’re right. So what? So what does that have to do with you?

Well, for starters, you’re reading my post here. And you’ve scrolled down this far. You’re obviously wanting to know what else I might tell you about emic. So let me tell you something else personal. Suzanne, one of my co-bloggers here at this blog you’ve been reading, has said that Pike is a scholar who’s had an “immediate and lasting influence on how [she] read[s] the Bible.” She said that when, at a different blog of hers, she was noting that I also view Pike as an immediate and lasting influence on how I read the Bible. I can’t speak for her, but for me it’s Pike’s concepts of “emic” and “etic” that are so very helpful.

To me, emic refers to insiderness, etic to outsiderness. The former notion is more like subjectivity, the latter a bit more like objectivity. To be emic with a language is to be a native speaker of a mother tongue and to have (often unexplained) “native speaker intuition” about what “sounds right,” whether the rightness is “grammar” or “word choice” or “pronunciation” or the like. Let me keep this personal, then. Let me talk with you as if you and I are face to face, or at least as if our language together here at the blog were something we more shared, as insiders together. Let me be personal with you as we discuss this abstraction of a word.

As I get into the things, the ideas, let me try to come back now to the person, the personal. Pike was my linguistics teacher, and I studied also with Evie Pike, Eunnie Pike, and Bob Longacre in the late 1980s for a graduate degree in linguistics. My spouse and I have eaten a meal with the Pikes in their home (they were so very hospitable); Ken Pike and I had numerous conversations; and I took a graduate seminar with him on his linguistics theory with only a few other individuals from various humanities backgrounds.  (There was only one other linguistics student in the seminar besides me, and the others included a painter, a philosopher, a classical pianist, a clergy person, and a historian).  Pike guided me through my seminar paper on the emics and etics of shame, guilt, and fear in the context of Christian missionary evangelism to the nonChristianized. (I’m not sure he discovered all of the reasons for my doing that paper except for the fact that my own parents were in the employ of the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention in Vietnam the last decade of the war there and were in Indonesia after that for a longer period up to the time when I was researching in the seminar). Tom Headland, who you’ve already heard about, wrote three different obituaries for Kenneth Pike (for American Anthropologist and for the National Academy of Sciences and for the Summer Institute of Linguistics); and he is a more recent friend of mine. What we have in common is an interest in the fact that Pike’s work is largely ignored today, among the Bible translation organization he worked for, in the discipline of linguistics, in anthropology where emic and etic are still used, in composition studies and rhetoric. (Pike published numerous articles in composition studies journals and, with anthropologist Alton Becker and rhetorician Richard Young, he co-wrote a once-acclaimed book, Rhetoric: Discovery and Change.) For me, there’s another personal thing about “emic” and “etic.” Their roots seem gendered. As I began dissertation research on sexism, feminism, and Aristotle’s Rhetoric, I was startled to learn of resistances to word coinages, even and especially those that used the suffix -ic. Without naming her at the time, I wrote a blog post at another on that for the professor on my committee who’d objected to my use of the word, feministic. Carolyn Osiek had objected, wondering if I, a man using the term as a feminist, might be objectifying feminisms somehow. What I was learning when I wrote the post is that scholars of Greek rhetoric have been recently discovering how Plato and then much more Aristotle had invented Greek terms using the suffix, ική;this was their insider marker of something they were objectifying. Only then did I start to connect what they’d done to what Pike, as a Western language insider scholar, was doing, emically, with language. An emic view is the rather un-investigated perspective of the system of thought of us insiders.

When we laugh involuntarily at an inside joke, that’s emic. When we have to explain why we laughed, or have to explain the joke, to the outsider who didn’t get it, then that’s etic. Pike said that scholars, observers, not only need both, but we use both perspectives. In fact, he says that both used together allows for dimensioned views, sort of the way two eyes allows a stereoscopic 3-D view and two ears allows listening in stereo.

Now, I want to come back to the personal again. I think I said somewhere already for blog readers that I’m a missionary kid. I believe I’ve kidded around at one blog profile once upon a time saying “I’m still growing up.” At no time has that fact come home to me more than recently. A few days ago, my father died. My mother planned a memorial service for him, a beautiful remembering. Their children, my siblings and I also spoke publicly. Literally hundreds of people attended the service, and many now are remembering my dad. There are emic remembrances and etic ones. Especially after Dad changed so much in many positive ways in his final months, there are discussions and meanings and talks and significances for us who were with him then that are emic. Insider stuff. I think I was the only one, of all the speakers at his memorial service, to recall (and I said this while my mother and I looked at each other, I on the platform and she on the front row) that he was not always easy to love. And yet I find as I miss my father profoundly, I want to hear what others knew about him, how they saw him, understood him, even if they looked at him differently. Etic stuff for me. I eavesdrop. I listen in. I overhear. Then I want to compare, to dialogue, to remember together with others, to correct, to adjust, to investigate, to complicate, to nuance. That’s the stereoscopic view that Pike, with his “emic and etic,” encouraged. So I’ve also read books my Dad read, read them in his study (where I was forced to sleep only because there were too many other overnight guests in the other rooms of Mom’s home after he passed on), read what he underlined and highlighted and what he marked in the margins. This is personal, and this is emic. He was not one personage but was still the same person. I’m trying again to be a blogger, blogging in “the world of things and the world of persons.” That last line is one from one of my Dad’s books, from his copy of Edwin Hudson’s English translation of Paul Tournier’s Le personnage et la personne.

Tournier’s book, my father’s book by this medical doctor, has helped me understand better Dad in various ways. It’s helped me think about insiderness, about emic, about the personal talked about realities. So if you’re still reading, then let me share just a bit more of what I’m discovering from a few lines from Tournier, who like my father who worked much of his life helping orphans was himself an orphan. I’ll add that my father’s father passed on when he was just five years old; and my father passed on when I was fifty years old, and in fact it was on my 50th birthday when he died. How do I discover what it’s like to be an orphan like my Dad? Tournier writes (near the beginning and then near the end of the book) the following:

I was three months old when my father died, so that I know him only from the biography written by one of his friends, from obituary notices, from the poems he left, from articles, letters, photographs, and from stories about him, told me long afterwards….  And yet, when a man describes to me his father — a father with whom he spent his whole childhood, I cannot be sure that the portrait he paints is any more faithful than the one I have of mine.

The person is something very different from a nice, round fully-inflated balloon. Rather it is an imponderable, an inner experience which can take place in sickness as well as in health. It is a germ that develops. What is a grain of wheat? You have not defined it when you have weighed it, measured it, and submitted it to chemical analysis and microscopic examination. It contains a whole plant which you cannot yet see. What is a silkworm? You cannot define it without seeing in advance all its metamorphosis. What is a child? You cannot describe him without thinking of the whole life of the man, with all its unknowns, for which he is preparing.

I just want to end this post with a tribute to my father. He helped many people and taught many of us many things many mostly toward the end of his own life as he battled cancer. It was in learning that he taught most, and he learned much. In his final months, he learned how to reconcile with family friends and enemies; he made amends, insisted on loving those most different from himself, neither harbored nor allowed resentments, and demonstrated incredible interest in, curiosity about, and gratitude for each individual he talked with. But he didn’t do any of that because he was sure he would die soon. Rather he fought to live and followed the doctors’ orders and held out hope and prayed earnestly for healing. I have not defined him though I’ve tried to share him with you some. There is much yet about this father of mine that I hope to remember, much yet to discover. This is emic, personal, I hope you’ll discover, to me.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Dana Ames permalink
    March 21, 2012 1:35 pm

    Dear Kurk,
    may your father’s memory be eternal (that is, in the memory of God as the Eternal One) and may you and your family be granted much consolation, on every level.

    On another note, the quote by Tournier is as good a description as any of the EOrthodox point about why we cannot know Essence, and can know Person not absolutely definitively, as in the weighing and measuring, but only through Energies – all those relational metamorphoses.

    Still reading your blog.

    Sending you a virtual hug.


  2. March 21, 2012 1:50 pm

    Dear Dana,

    You’re so very thoughtful, and your blessing touches me deeply.

    How good to hear from you! I wasn’t aware at all of the Orthodox understanding on the inadequacies of Essence but the necessities of Person. Your use of Energies and relational reminds me of Pike’s use of “wave” and “field” as perspectives.

    Thanks for reading. Thank you even more for the hug.


  3. March 21, 2012 9:43 pm

    May the angels lead him into Paradise,
    May the choirs of martyrs welcome him,
    And lead him to the holy city,
    The new and eternal Jerusalem.

    May he come to be where Lazarus is poor no longer.
    May he find eternal rest.
    May he find eternal rest.

    (A text that is often sung at Catholic funerals.)

    I am sorry for your loss, and was touched by your closing tribute to your father. Peace be with you as you journey through this time of grief and discovery.

  4. March 22, 2012 6:04 pm

    Thank you, Victoria, for this text, the very meaningful lines. I’m quite moved, especially by the clause,

    where Lazarus is poor no longer.

    Dad had been some concerned about the poor while he was here with us. But, in his last months, he came to understand how poorly he had loved and did all he could, I’m discovering, to do more without a hint of judgmentalism. Your kind words encouraged me to expand the tribute in this post.

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