Well-formedness in speech and movement

I’ve been learning Chen style tai chi for almost a year. I’ve been wanting to write about the experience for most of that time, because I’m seeing much stronger links back into the rest of my life than with previous martial arts practice, but I’ve been at a loss for how to start. I’ve decided to let go of the concern about starting right or making a whole, and just start writing about little facets as they occur to. This in itself is an application of wú wéi, one of the many Daoist principles that has started making more sense to me because of tai chi practice, but I can explore that topic some other time.

While I won’t try to introduce the discipline in any general sense, it will help to have some clue what I’m talking about, so here are a couple of videos of the grandmaster, Chen Zhenglei (it’s a family style, so he’s the great-great-great….grandson of the founder) demonstrating the foundational form. This is the form I’m currently learning, though much of the training consists of other exercises to help refine it.

Anyway, one of the things that I have noticed as I train is that even though I can only articulate a small subset of the principles that tai chi is built on, I’m starting to get a feel for more of them. When I started, the whole sequence seemed arbitrary to me: a prankster instructor could have made up all manner of crap and got me to follow. After a few months of training, I realised that this wasn’t the case any more, because well before I had learned the sequence of moves I could tell when I was doing something out of sequence and should stop and ask for direction. These days I know the sequence of steps reasonably well, but I’m seeing the same effect with details: I often know that I’m making a mistake at point x without necessarily knowing quite what I should be doing.

In today’s class, my teacher mentioned that one of her peers had come up with a notation for the form, based on primitives like whether the arm moves inwards or outwards in a given step, and there’s a regularity to this notation. Hearing this, I realised that this difficult-to-articulate sense of rightness or wrongness has a direct analogue in linguistics: the notion that a given sequence of sounds or words can be well-formed or not well-formed in a given language. There’s a lot of technical underpinning to this that I won’t embarrass myself trying to explain, but one aspect of well-formedness is that a well-formed sequence just sounds right to a native speaker of the language, while a sequence that isn’t formed sounds wrong. Another aspect is that well-formedness can be expressed in formal rules, such as grammar, but these rules are hard for a native speaker who hasn’t had formal training to articulate.

The example at the front of my mind right now is vowel harmony in Turkish. Vowel harmony is a set of rules that determine which vowel should be used in a prefix or suffix. For example, to make a noun plural, you can add the suffix “lar” or “ler”, but the vowels in the noun determine which one. “araba” (car) takes -lar, while “tren” (train) takes -ler. If the vowels aren’t all ‘a’s or ‘e’s there are still systematic rules for which version of the suffix to use, though they’re a little less obvious, e.g. “kedi” (cat) takes -ler, while “balık” (fish) takes -lar.

I’ve been learning Turkish for about 3 years, and in spite of having heard plenty of Turkish growing up my progress is very slow, and if anything I reckon my wife’s doing better than me without that advantage. But the one thing I have always found easier than other native English speakers is vowel harmony. After 3 years of study I can actually spell out the rules explicitly and could teach other people, but well before I could I had a good feel for what sounded right, presumably because I had the sounds of the language in my head well before the meaning of any of it. I’m now at a similar stage with tai chi: I catch myself making mistakes all the time, but often have to ask or look up what I should have been doing.

There’s another interesting parallel, too. Many of the well-formedness rules for a given language are rather arbitrary and language-dependent, as a quick comparison of word order between English, Turkish and German would make very obvious. But vowel harmony turns out to be strongly rooted in physiology, in the sense that the correct choice of vowel is almost always the one that makes the word easier to say quickly, because it requires the tongue and/or lips to move the shortest distance. In the same way I suspect that some of the well-formedness rules of Chen Style are about what makes this Chen Style as opposed to, say, Yang, but it’s becoming clear to me that others are about which sequence of moves actually makes sense physiologically. The wrong way is often much harder work than the right one, or has an obvious drawback like taking me off-balance.

Perhaps after a few more years of training I’ll be able to revisit this idea, spell out some of the rules explicitly, and be able to articulate why the rules are as they are, like I can for vowel harmony. But for now I’m just happy to be noticing that these rules exist and are useful to understand.

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