Medieval grammarians were obsessed with etymology because (according to a recent review in the London Review of Books) the study of word origins ‘perfectly expresses the medieval conviction that language is a comprehensive, fully rational system, in which any part may be logically derived from the whole – just as “logic” itself derives from Logos, the all-creating word’.
The notion that ‘everything is in everything’ was a core precept of the Jacotot Method, also called ‘universal teaching’ (Rancière 1991 – I’ve blogged about it here), in which a single text (in Jacotot’s case it was a bilingual version of the 18th-century French novel Télémaque) served not only as the tool that revealed the secrets of the French language, but also the key that opened the intelligence of the learner. As Rancière (1991: 26) understands it: ‘That is what “everything is in everything” means: … All the power of languages is in the totality of the book. All knowledge of oneself as an intelligence is in the mastery of a book, a chapter, a sentence, a word’.
Thus every word, phrase, sentence, chapter is subject to intense scrutiny – but always as a microcosm of the whole. ‘This is the first principle of universal teaching: one must learn something and relate everything else to it … The student must see everything for himself, compare and compare, and always respond to a three-part question: what do you see? what do you think about it? what do you make of it? And so on, to infinity’ (ibid. 22-23). In fact, as Rivière (ibid. 27) points out, ‘the procedures used matter very little in themselves. It could be Télémaque, or it could be something else. One begins with a text and not with grammar, with entire words and not with syllables…’
Cut to the 21st-century and the notion that ‘any part may be derived from the whole’ is a fractal one: ‘A fractal is a geometric figure that is self-similar at different levels of scale’ (Larsen-Freeman 1997: 146). Language, like other complex systems, is fractal in nature: patterns at one level of delicacy are reproduced at every other level. It takes only a very short text to display many of the basic design principles built into language, such as text organisation, sentence structure, word formation, as well as vocabulary distribution and frequency. In William Blake’s words, the text is ‘a world in a grain of sand’.
Take this one, chosen more or less at random from a joke book for children:
Two elephants went on holiday and sat down on the beach. It was a very hot day and they fancied having a swim in the sea. Unfortunately they couldn’t: they only had one pair of trunks!
In just three sentences the text displays a classically generic story structure, involving actors (two elephants), circumstantial details (on the beach, a hot day), a sequence of past tense actions, and a complicating event. It also has a basic joke structure, consisting of a narrative and a punch-line, which here takes the form of a play on words.
The 37 words further divide up into function words (also called grammar words) and content words (also called lexical words). The former include such common (and typically short) words as a, on, of, the, and was. The latter are the ones that carry the main informational load of the text, such as elephants, beach, hot, and unfortunately. In the elephant text, the relative proportion of these two types of words is roughly 50:50, and this closely reflects the ratio of function words to content words in all texts. Moreover, the proportion of common to relatively uncommon words in the text exactly reflects the proportions found in much larger collections of text: 30 of the 37words (i.e. roughly 80%) are in the top 1000 words in English. Not only that, but of the ten most frequent words in English, six are present in this text, some of them (a, and, the) occurring more than once.
The fact that this tiny text is a microcosm of all text is consistent with what is known as Zipf’s Law (Zipf 1935, 1965). This law states that if a word is nth in frequency in a given language it is likely to occupy the same ranking in any single text in that language. So, the most frequent words in the language are likely to be the most frequent words in any text in that language, and their order of frequency will also be roughly the same. Zipf also showed that there is a correlation between the length of a word and its frequency. Short words occur often. Again, this is evident in our short text.
Coursebook texts are generally rather long, in the belief (possibly mistaken) that learners need to be taught how to read, when what they actually need is the language knowledge (lexical, grammatical, and textual) to enable them to transfer their reading skills from their first language into their second. Long texts have the disadvantage that they take quite a long time to process, leaving little classroom time for the kind of detailed language work that exploits the text’s linguistic properties. In fact, as I’ve attempted to demonstrate, even a very short text, such as the elephant joke, is packed with pedagogical potential. What’s more, Zipf’s Law relieves us of the worry that short texts might not be sufficiently representative.
As with the Jacotot Method, the choice of text is immaterial. ‘The problem is to reveal an intelligence to itself. Anything can be used. Télémaque. Or a prayer or song the child or the ignorant one knows by heart. There is always something that the ignorant one knows that can be used as a point of comparison, something to which a new thing to be learned can be related’ (Rivière 1991: 28).
Everything is in everything.
Larsen-Freeman, D. (1997) ‘Chaos/Complexity science and second language acquisition’, Applied Linguistics, 18, 2.
Rancière, J. 1991. The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five lessons in intellectual emancipation. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Zipf, G.K. (1935, 1965) The Psycho-biology of Language: An Introduction to Dynamic Philology, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
(Parts of this article were first published in the Guardian Weekly, March 18th, 2005.)
 The Great Puffin Joke Directory, by Brough Girling, Puffin Books, 1990.