Some of you may have noticed that I am something of a naive polymath. Or, at least, that I seem to have accumulated a lot of esoteric and largely useless knowledge for a guy who never quite got around to finishing high school. I guess I have a sort of Faust complex, but I've never been willing to commit to more than hocking my soul. (And to quash any rumours before they start, let it be known that I never failed to redeem the ticket.) I just gotta know, you know? Lately I have become rather obsessed with linguistics. I thought I knew a bit about the subject. I mean, my military career in communication electronics got me into information theory, and Shannon led to NLP, which eventually led to Chomsky (I compulsively followed the links before Sir Tim gave us the web), and ol' Noam was the be-all and end-all of linguistic theory for a very long time. It all made perfect sense. Then I began to experience aphasia.
That hasn't shown up in my public life, and that makes sense. There's little point in trying to blog, post cogent comments or answer technical queries when you can't glue the words together, either because the words or the glue is missing, and I haven't has anything like a hot potato in my inbox for quite a while. Even picking up the phone is pointless at times. Only my closest face-to-face friends have seen what I have sometimes become, and then only when I thought I was well enough at the beginning of a long conversation.
If you know how language works, you ought to know how it breaks. One ought to be able to predict modes of failure. If one part of the brain gets stuck, you might expect to lose structure; if another goes, then you might find it difficult to fish in the big bucket o' words for the right one. What I have been experiencing doesn't jibe well with what I knew.
Let's take the vocabulary failure instance first (in transmissive rather than receptive mode). Sick or healthy, we have all had occasions where the exact word we want to use seems to be just slightly out of our grasp. We know we know it (and we know that we'll wake up at about 2:37 next Tuesday morning with the word frontmost in our consciousness, a general sense of urgency about the word, and absolutely no idea why it's so damned important), and can usually slip in a substitute after a short interjectory "uh" (those outside North America may wish to read that as "er"). No harm, no foul. I thought that a pathological vocabulary slip would work much the same way, but I found that my indexing failure was somewhat more catastrophic. For instance (and this is contrived for illustrative purposes) if I were to try to name a particular shade of red and missed, I would find that it wasn't just "carmine" that was missing, but everything related to crimsons. And if I tried to climb back up the tree, I'd find that "red" was gone, along with "colour", "shade" and "tone". Hell, I couldn't even name things that were red to get the analogy across. Have you ever tried to make an onamatapoeic noise for an abstract concept? I have. I found that my mind is organised very much along the lines of Roget's classic thesaurus (the big one that's conceptually organised, not the little alphabetical list of synonyms they sell to schoolchildren) — when things go missing, great conceptual swaths disappear, not just words. Mainstream linguistic theory doesn't suggest anything like that level of coupling.
I am still trying to find a way to express the more structural failure modes. That will be harder because the recording of the experience in my brain was made through the filter of the failure itself. I'd love to tell me what was going on, but it's going to take a while to wade through an unorganised bucket of words and impressions that are more Rorschach than Rembrandt. The trick will be in teasing out the actual experience, uncoloured by pet theories or preconceived notions.
As always, the best opportunity to examine how a complex system works is to examine closely what happens when a part of it breaks. As a person who has experienced the breakage, was aware of it at the time, who can describe the phenomenon from the victim's perspective, and who has witnesses who can tell me what they saw "in the wild" (as opposed to in contrived interviews), I am in what seems to be a unique position to contribute to the knowledge pool.
Or maybe I'm just looking for a new way to feel important. Whatever. It makes me happy.