Thursday, August 19, 2004

Some thoughts on modern linguistics

There is nothing more distracting in modern academic prose than the overuse of quotes, or what the Brits call inverted commas.

I'll demonstrate:

There is nothing more 'distracting' in modern 'academic' prose than the 'overuse' of quotes, or what the 'Brits' call 'inverted commas.'
John Lyons's Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics abounds with inverted commas as in this sentence:
But in both Greek and Latin there are 'exceptions' to the 'sound laws.'
More often than not the author's motivation is clear, and he deserves the wrath of Dr. Fowler:
superiority. Much misplaced ingenuity in finding forms of apology is shown by writers with a sense of their own superiority who wish to safeguard their dignity and yet be vivacious, to combine comfort with elegance, to touch pitch and not be defiled. Among them are: To use an expressive colloquialism—in the vernacular phrase—if the word may be permitted—so to speak—in homely phrase—not to put too fine a point upon it—if the word be not too vulgar—as they say—to call a spade a spade—not to mince matters—in the jargon of today—or the use of depreciatory inverted commas. Such writers should make up their minds whether their reputation or their style is such as to allow of their dismounting from the high horse now and again without compromising themselves.
Lyons, like so many other academics, is too busy being superior by avoiding language that might be perceived as authoritative that his book ends up a bland soup of non-committal nonsense in which the only accepted terminology is that of contemporary theory. This has something to do with the fact that most academics today view the world as a series of binary oppositions and choose the novelty of opposing tradition in some hyper-extended effort to challenge daddy's authority. Along with this there is often necessary the fallacy of ascribing to one's opponent positions he has never taken. The shadowy tradition that modern academics are always railing against is guilty most often of intellectual hubris and the sin of certainty, yet under the dimmest light it often becomes clear that our forebears had better command of their language than modern scholars who trump up false ambiguity as a weapon.

Philologists of the past published what they termed laws (e.g. Grassmann's Law, or Rask's, which is improperly called Grimm's Law), and Lyons faults them for the presumption of truth or certainty because they themselves didn't qualify law by inverted commas. Perhaps someone should buy Lyons and his friends a dictionary. A law is not a universal and eternal truth discovered by man, but a technical formulation imposed or a general principal agreed upon by men, and is always open to modification, retraction, and replacement. That is the definition of the term, that's what it meant to the men who published laws, and that's what it will always mean in their texts even if the popular sense of the term has shifted today. (It seems to me that the inability of modern academics to understand texts written in the past few centuries makes a case for the corruption of language. But I digress.)

Lyons writes as though his predecessors actually believed in laws as active forces working in the universe rather than as models serving to illuminate phenomena. Positivists and 19th century philologists knew that. It's time to strip away from relativists the monopoly they would claim for common sense.

This is why theorists (I shouldn't call them critics -- Housman would turn in his grave) are so fond of deflated terms like truth value and senseless plurals like knowledges (a necessary consequence of the faith of the church of relativism). For them, there is no truth, and all claims to knowledge are equally valid. What matters, then, is tolerance of the 'truth value' and 'knowledges' of others while being sure not to offend. This means qualifying one's own 'truth value' and 'knowledges' by constant appeals to relativism (and yes, those are inverted commas of superiority).

Lyons even has a hard time conceding that the Latin language has a case system, putting case in inverted commas as if to say that the bourgeois Western system of classifying language is an artificial construct that is hardly representative of language as a living thing (though I suppose it will have to do), and moreover it is hardly the only or the best system of classification. Doubtless the persons (or is it peoples?) of Papua New Guinea developed a more noble and equitable system, stamped out by Anglo-Saxon oppressors.

When Lyons asserts that speech does in fact precede writing he pretends that this is a revelation. But when he says that writing is an attempt to represent speech he is showinig his prejudice and lack of understanding. Writing is not an attempt to represent speech any more than speech is an attempt to emulate writing. Writing and speech are two modes of communication, one durable the other ephemeral (excepting sound recording, which requires advanced technology and has little to do with speech as such). Writing and speech take on widely different characteristics in literate culture, and writing admits of countless specialized uses restrictive of speech. It also requires different modes of communicating the same non-lexical information (i.e. emphasis, emotional interest, tone of voice, grammatical relations, etc.). Writing and speech are different things, and language may actually be better understood through traditional writing than through speech because the lack of performative cues and clues requires the writer to use the native grammar to its fullest capacity.

This prejudice in favor of speech becomes clear when we consider sign language, which has more in common with writing than speech, and actually forms the basis for the early pictograms of many written languages. The hearing-impaired may have limited to no speech capacity yet be fully able to process and create language. Further, the primacy of sound in the study of language ignores high-level reading, or what may be truly termed silent reading, in which there is no subvocalization and no mental reproduction of the sounds represented in speech. It is possible to read and to write rapidly without the crutch of the phonetic middleman, just as one easily understands speech without visualizing the written word. The mental reproduction of sound often slows our reading and muddles our comprehension.

The insistance on sound as central to an understanding of language is at the very least immature. Sound factors so heavily in language because of its adaptability and facility, but it has little to do with the fundamental mental processes that constitute language. A community of deaf-mute individuals would be no less capable of language than anyone else, though the mode of communication would of necessity be very different.

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