I learned something fascinating the other day in my linguistics class. When I first heard about it, it made me have a small existential crisis about what I did and did not know. However, furthering my knowledge on the subject, I found myself amazed and excited. What I learned was something called 'phenomenal objects', which sounds quite extraordinary and possibly overwhelming since the word phenomenal usually means something quite big and exceptional. In a way it is, but it's also something quite simple and we come across it everyday.
To put it clean and simple, it is something that we know through professional experience what someone else doesn't that we are able to enlighten them to. That probably doesn't sound all that extraordinary and you're probably thinking that I must be easily excited. Although that is true, let me explain it in a little more detail with some examples and maybe you'll find yourself amazed and excited by it just as I was. It comes from a guy called Charles Goodwin and is explained in his article 'Professional Vision' written in 1994 from the journal American Anthropologist. Goodwin writes about professions and the language used by the professionals within them to explain to the reader the way they can shape events in their specialisations.
It is summarised in the conclusion of the article, where Goodwin writes:
'Central to the social and cognitive organisation of a profession is its ability to shape events in the domain of its scrutiny into the phenomenal objects around which the discourse of the profession is organised.'
Still confused? Then let me explain it with a basic example. You wake up one morning and you have a pain in your leg. You don't know why there is pain but it's enough to make you go and see a doctor. You explain to them the kind of pain it is, where the pain is at its worst, when it started, and so on and so forth. With their professional authority as a doctor, they are able to diagnose the pain as arthritis. That diagnosis is the phenomenal object. The doctor was able to shape an event to create something new with the language of his profession that was not known to you.
Another example would be that of an archaeologist. You see a patch of dirt and keep going on with your day. An archaeologist sees the same patch of dirt and examines it, touches it, tastes the dirt, and is able to identify a whole bunch of stuff about it. Turns out the patch of dirt that you would have probably walked past without much thought has a significant historical connection with a group of people. That is the phenomenal object. You didn't know it had that connection but now you do thanks to the trusty archaeologist who happened to be around the same patch of dirt at the same time as you.
Another one? You're feeling stressed and upset about an event in your life. You're confused about what to do so you see a lawyer. You tell the lawyer everything about the event and after 10 minutes of venting, crying, and blabbering on, the lawyer looks at you with a twinkle in their eye and says 'there's a legal issue here'. They explain to you that there was a form of abuse that occurred that you can take legal action against. Suddenly, your emotions towards an event mean something that you didn't know before. It's a phenomenal object.
The lawyer wouldn't be able to use his profession to diagnose the pain in your leg as arthritis, nor would the archaeologist be able to determine a legal issue around abuse with his professional knowledge. Would a doctor be able to tell you the historical significance of a random patch of dirt with his professional authority? Probably not. This is where it gets exciting, or at least it does for me. Through study, a person learns the specifics of their degree, diploma, or whatever qualification they're going for. Every qualification will have some form of theory or written work, which teaches a person the language of the profession they wish to get into. This means that person has the ability to explain to someone else what they might not know and vice versa, shaping events through specialisation. People can have some knowledge on particular subjects. For example, a person might be able to suggest the pain in your leg is arthritis because they read it somewhere. However, they don't have the professional authority to diagnose it. Without the authority, there is no phenomenal object.
Language is fascinating to me, but this concept of phenomenal objects really emphasised why I love doing what I do. To know that I can shape events and create new ideas in the minds of other people inspires me. To know I have this power in my own specialised field where others don't blows my mind... and it's through language, which is something everyone uses and yet they don't know the power of it. Think about what you're studying, where you're working or what your career is. Think about what you know that others don't about what you do, the specific language that you need to use in those fields. You are a creator of phenomenal objects. IS THIS NOT EXCITING OR INSPIRING?
The power of language is immense.
This only scratches the surface on just how powerful language can be. I don't know if this excites you as it did me, but it's definitely extraordinary what language can do.
Now here's something I'll leave you with. In the profession of writing and authorship, is a book a phenomenal object? Is the story a phenomenal object? Are the characters, ideas, themes, symbols, etc. phenomenal objects? Let me know what you think.
Charlotte is a reading and writing lover who has completed a creative writing intensive course at the University of Oxford and is a current university student studying a double degree in journalism and creative writing. If you are curious to learn more, check out the 'About' page.