“There is a tradition of linguistic purism in Icelandic, and neologisms are frequently created from pre-existing words. Tölva (“computer”) is a portmanteau of tala (“digit; number”) and völva (“oracle or seeress”).”
Posts tagged linguistics
Inscriptions in pre-Roman Italy attest between 12 and 15 different languages, quite different from one another, and belonging to between 5 and 10 branches of at least 4 distinct families — 3 branches of Indo-European (Celtic, Italic, and Greek) plus Etrucsan, which was non-European. The Romans did not actively try to stamp out other languages — indeed, the retention of other languages by non-Romans favoured the policy of “diuide et impera” (“divide and rule”). Umbrians, for example, continued to make inscriptions in their languages for centuries after Roman annexation. But eventually the power and status of Latin prevailed, particularly after all resident of Italy became Roman citizens in the middle of the last century BC. At first other groups would just have used Latin for “outside” purposes, but gradually the centralising power of Rome “relegated the local speech, just as it did political initiative and concerns, to a secondary, subordinate, and ever retreating position.” Nicholas Evans, in Dying Words: Endangered Languages and What They Have To Tell Us
Australian linguist Nicholas Evans, in Dying Words: Endangered Languages and What They Have To Tell Us. I have a few critiques of Dying Words which I’ll need to mull over for a bit, but I definitely recommend it highly.
Each people leaves some things unsaid in order to be able to say others. Because everything would be unsayable. From this follows the enormous difficulty of translation, which sets out to say in a language precisely what that language tends to remain silent about. But at the same time, it can be seen that translation can be a magnificent enterprise: to reveal the secrets that peoples and times keep from one another, and that contribute so much to their separation and hostility — in sum, an audacious integration of humanity. Ortega y Gasset (via Nick Evans’ Dying Words: Endangered Languages and What They Have To Tell Us).
Anonymous asked: isn't it perfectly possible that despite being wrong on universal grammar, chomsky is nevertheless still right about the dangers of postmodernism?
in theory, maybe —
but in practice, I don’t think so, because postmodernism is almost by definition not a unified body of thought. The label encompasses a staggering variety of perspectives which have no unifying features save questioning the viability of any single all-encompassing theory of why the world is the way it is. when people are talking about “the dangers of postmodernism” they are in my experience usually —
a) Marxists or other Old Left types who believe in the primacy of class struggle as the root cause of any social development, and want the kids to get off their lawn, or
b) radical feminists who believe in the primacy of struggle between (fixed at birth, binary) genders as the root cause of any social development, and want the kids to get off their lawn and get changed into some sensible clothes, or
c) people who have an issue with the rampant individualism and inattention to material reality of the kids on the lawn, which is fair enough, but mistakenly attribute that development to postmodernism as such.
I’m not a linguist. But as I understand it, Chomsky’s deal is that he can’t believe that anything as complex and functional as language could come about without it being somehow inherent to the brain, innate, like sight. (like sight in that there are a lot of possible ways for brains to interpret light waves, but there’s really only one way that humans see, with some variation to be sure, but the experience of sight for any number of humans will be more essentially similar than a human’s sight and a dog’s sight, because of our neurology.) Others believe that it’s perfectly possible for complex systems to be spontaneously generated by something that’s not specifically focused on the generation of such systems. I’m talking about opponents of theories of universal grammar and innatist language acquisition, but I could just as easily be talking about, say, Foucauldians insisting that institutions don’t need to be set up as tools of the ruling classes to become sites of power and social control.
In short, I think Chomsky’s failure to grasp the idea that things don’t need to be purpose-built for any particular effect to have that effect is why he is wrong about both universal grammar and postmodernism.
anyway, Chomsky (part II)
If anyone is interested in Evans’ work, and wants to read an incredibly detailed scientific run-down of the case against Universal Grammar, this article is probably the most inflammatory, and it contains commentary from a whole bunch of people, including Chomsky’s biggest mistake, Steven Pinker*:
We had to read this in a linguistics class and then debate both sides of the innatist/cognitivist argument wearing masks of Evans and Levinson, and Chomsky and either Pinker or Jackendorff**, can’t remember which. I had to pitch in for the latter side. It was very difficult and we lost.
But for a really beautiful and fascinating plea for the world’s lesser-known languages to be taken seriously and listened to, Evans’ Dying Words: Endangered Languages and What They Have to Tell Us is a treat, and is extremely accessibly-written. If anyone wants to talk about the political consequences of such thinking about language (especially the issue of multilingualism), I’m all ears.
One thing though: Chomsky’s body of linguistic theory is far from only Universal Grammar. To his credit, he came up with all the standard tools for linguistic description (particularly in syntax), without which most of the important work on lesser-known languages could not be carried out at all.
* I fucking hate Pinker. Chomsky’s politics might be boring, unoriginal and blunt, but Pinker’s are boring, unoriginal, and absolutely positively fucking reprehensible. I think maybe my second and third posts ever were about how people who like him are sexist, racist dicks.
** Not as much of a dick as Pinker, so far as I’m aware.
there are a lot of really good comments being made on this post, mostly re: Chomsky’s Eurocentrism, inc. a lot from people of colour being like “UGH YES [revealing anecdote of Chomsky’s terrible influence]”, but also a lot of linguists saying stuff like “universal grammar isn’t stupid and Eurocentric, I know because I expect that when I study [non-European language] it will be quite similar to German, you have to be ready to see the similarities” and “lots of theorists have debunked the debunkings [provides no references]” and “I personally would rather not be seen as Eurocentric, and indeed draw on fragments of many non-European languages to support my analyses” and simultaneously “Chomsky isn’t even a thing anymore, lay off linguistics”
in sum, languages are awesome, linguists are annoying, read the commentary in the reblogs because it’s all either interesting and relevant or illustrative of the tendencies I was railing against
I rag on Chomsky’s vacuous and unoriginal political thought all the time. He is just, like, the most boring guy in the world, and I’m bummed that he’s the Anarchist Public Intellectual most people know. But Chomsky is not, by training, a social theorist or political scientist. This is fine, of course, we would be in a pretty state if only tenured Social Theory professors were allowed to think about politics.
but it does explain a lot.
By training, Chomsky is a linguist. He’s most famous in linguistics for advancing the idea that language is an inherent human trait, an idea derived from his assertion that all languages share an underlying biologically determined “deep grammar”. You can see traces of this kind of thinking in his insistence that all humanity needs is to be released from coercive governmental institutions, which will free our essential human nature. (see, of course, his debate with Foucault on human nature.)
I’ve always thought this was kind of silly, but I never realised how specific his ideas are, how Eurocentric, how thoroughly they’ve been debunked, and how much certain interests were invested in them. the other day linguistics student Pete was telling me about it, here’s the score:
- Chomsky believes that all languages operate according to the same (biologically determined) principles, and all that changes is the parameters that are applied. He points to certain “universal” rules; for example, that every sentence must have a subject, and that every language must have some structure that allows a sentence to infinitely nest clauses (e.g. “The cat on the mat on the hearth on the foundations of the house on the hill on the…”) read more about this. (link opens a pdf.)
- Student of Australian Indigenous languages Nicholas Evans points out that a lot of these supposedly universal rules do not apply to languages he has studied. He suggests that Chomsky’s thesis derives from Eurocentrism. In other words, there is no “universal grammar”, just a whole bunch of related languages. (preview Evans’ article/download pdf)
- Evans gets a whole bunch of hate mail from people who are really invested in Chomsky’s assertion that there exists such a thing as an inherent human nature that we can make claims about. A lot of them are super-Christian, apparently.
- Chomsky responds late, half-heartedly, and half-assedly; Evans’ work continues to be little known outside the field of linguistics.
- Meanwhile, Chomsky’s work on “universal” linguistics has led to a climate in the academy where a student of any language can be assumed, by extension, to be writing on all languages. It becomes possible to become an authority in linguistics without doing any comparative study of languages, while knowing only English. In the US in particular, this leads to a de-emphasis on the study of previously understudied languages, because what can they tell you that you can’t learn from any language, if there’s a universal grammar? it becomes difficult/impossible to get a higher degree in linguistics without making a contribution to some overarching body of theory. what this means is that basic descriptivist work of understanding less widely spoken languages is neglected, because you can’t just construct a grammar and a lexicon without using them as the basis for making claims about something “larger”. This has serious consequences for the study and preservation of threatened languages.
Chomsky is pretty happy to create a climate in linguistics that actively works against much-needed, quantitatively measurable, traditional linguistic work. Yet when he’s talking politics, he continues to sound off about the depredations of post-modernism and its supposed flight from reality, real issues, real numbers, real facts. The common thread here, I think, is that he doesn’t like difficult things.