Sunday, December 3, 2017

Why is linguistics such a magnet for dilettantes and crackpots?

Talking gibberish: The study of languages has long been prone to nonsense. Gaston Dorren.

Ah, for the days of fact-free linguistics! The pre-scientific era might have produced a lot of codswallop and hogwash, but how entertaining it is to look back upon. Scholars erred in ways that few modern linguists ever would. Today, their field of study is a respectable social science, exacting in its methods, broad in its scope and generous in its harvest. Without phoneticians, computers wouldn’t be able to process spoken English. Without sociolinguists, prejudice against dialects and non-Western languages would still be rife – or rather, rifer still. Forensic linguists help to solve crimes, clinical linguists treat people with language impairments, historical linguists shed light on language change and even on prehistoric culture and migration – the list goes on and on. As in other disciplines, pertinent questions and rigorous methods to answer them have been at the root of success.

When natural philosophy began to slowly develop into physics and other natural sciences, learned speculation in the human domain did not immediately follow suit. But it too gradually developed into what we now call the social sciences, and the study of language was one of the earliest adopters of the new methods. Its practitioners would pore over ancient texts written in long-dead languages and long-forgotten scripts, and compare them ever more systematically. This led to a breakthrough in the late 18th century, when there emerged new ideas about the historical origins of modern languages. Most of these ideas have stood the test of time.

But the budding discipline did not merely come up with new answers, it also changed the questions. Scholars of yore, when reflecting upon language, would wonder things such as: which of the contemporary languages was spoken by the first man? Which one is superior to the rest? And which of the human tongues deserves the label ‘divine’? Modern linguists will not touch those with a 10-foot pole. The oldest language is unknowable, but it was certainly different from anything spoken today. The ‘best’ language is impossible to define in any meaningful way. And as for ‘divine’ – the very word is meaningless in relation to languages, except in a cultural sense.

Not so in the olden days. Indeed, the answers seemed pretty obvious to many thinkers, if only thanks to that most anti-scientific habit of mind known as ethnocentrism. To the ancient Greeks, determining the world’s most excellent language was a perfect no-brainer: it could only be theirs. People who spoke differently were ‘barbarians’ or babblers. The Romans were only slightly more broad-minded. Their appreciation extended beyond Latin to other languages with a tradition of writing, especially Greek (which might conceivably even be superior), but also Punic, spoken by the Carthaginians, and Etruscan. All scriptless languages, however, were sneered at. Even in the late 5th century, with Rome’s power gone, the Roman aristocrat Sidonius Apollinaris called the Germanic language of the new rulers ‘an instrument of but three strings’.

Other cultures were equally self-complacent. In the last centuries BCE, the people of North India felt that their Sanskrit was nothing less than divine, and 1,000 years later the Arabs would feel likewise about the language of the Quran. For the Chinese, civilising the neighbouring peoples was practically tantamount to familiarising them with the only great language. The French of the Enlightenment, not to be outdone, deemed their language better than divine – it was logical.

This claim was perhaps most famously defended by the 18th-century writer Antoine de Rivarol on grounds that were both illogical and plain wrong. He argued that the French word order (subject first, followed by verb and then object) is both unique and more logical than any other. But not only is it extremely common among the world’s languages, it’s also an order that French itself very often does not respect – and these are only some of the more obvious objections.

As silly as it is, the notion of ‘French as the pinnacle of logic’ became an idée reçue. The cover of my first French dictionary, published in the 1950s (and not even in France!) claimed that the language was ‘an unsurpassed creation as a vehicle for the mind’. The Arabs, Chinese and Greeks would beg to differ.

Today, the language of choice is English, especially in most of the Western world. And sure enough, it has inherited French’s status as the allegedly superior language. How rich in vocabulary it is, how suitable for song and science, how clear, concise and, in a word, cool. And how this makes me – as a non-English speaker – chuckle. English is not a bad language as languages go but, a century from now, all the exultant praise will sound as silly as it would have sounded less than a century ago, before its rise to dominance.

Speakers of big languages are not the only ones to get carried away by love for their lingo. Quite a few people in Tamil Nadu in South India used quite literally to consider the Tamil language a goddess, and some still do. And early medieval Irish monks spun this elaborate yarn to prove that Irish Gaelic stood alone: after God had destroyed the Tower of Babel and confused the tongues of man, King Phenius of Scythia travelled thither with his son and 72 scholars. Out of the best elements of all the confused languages they found there, they created a new one: Irish.

As for the oldest language, this was Hebrew. At least, this is something that Christians commonly believed for more than 1,000 years. (Only Saint Ephrem the Syrian held that his own Syriac was older.) The Church Father Augustine, for instance, wrote in the 5th century:

so when the nations, by a prouder godlessness, earned the punishment of the dispersion and the confusion of tongues, … there was still the house of Heber in which the primitive language of the race survived. … His family preserved that language which is not unreasonably believed to have been the common language of the race, it was on this account thenceforth named Hebrew.

For a long time, it was considered heresy to doubt that the Hebrew language and script of the Bible were inspired by God – including the so-called vowel points, which were actually added by rabbis several centuries after the beginning of our era.

Even today, Christians who take the Bible literally adhere to the traditional view. In 2011, the Dutchman Willem Westerbeke published a theological tract titled ‘God Spoke Hebrew’. And as in Christianity, so elsewhere: one Thakur Prasad Verma in 2005 claimed not only that Sanskrit was the original language of all humankind, but that it was a direct gift from above: ‘Vedas are verbal transformations of God.’ And in a scholarly tome, too.

Outside the churches, the consensus slowly began to crack and crumble from the Renaissance on and, between the 16th and 18th centuries, one scholar after another came up with other ‘first languages’ (see table below). German was a popular candidate, but the 17th-century Swedish scholar Olof Rudbeck favoured his own mother tongue, for a reason that was nothing if not creative: Sweden, he argued, was Atlantis, and thus the cradle of human civilisation.

                                        [Full article in the link above.]

No comments:

Post a Comment