Thanks to one of my students, I have had the good fortune to again take up some consideration of linguistics proper, as opposed to the “classical philology” that I normally engage in, thanks to my inclination and training.

I have long had some quibbles with linguistics, particularly regarding the assumptions that it makes in certain areas. The statement, for instance, that no language is superior to another strikes me as remarkably silly on theoretical grounds, although I can see why someone might believe this.  Although I read a decent amount of linguistics in college – I actually spent a whole summer looking at the interaction between the connections between the semantics and syntax of expressions of necessity in Greek, Latin, and Hittite – I felt the need for a refresher, so I picked up A Very Short Introduction to Sociolinguistics. It was not long before my old quibbles resurfaced. In this text, Labov’s work on African American English (his demonstration that it is just as grammatical and expressive as standard English) is used to demonstrate the functional equivalency of all dialects within a language:

The reasonable extrapolation from such a useful test case is that no dialects are substandard, but some are non-standard.”

While not all varieties are equally developed across their entire range, they are adequate for the existing needs of their speakers. As these needs change – but only then – languages can be expected to change too: they have the potential for virtually limitless alteration and expansion.

Given the relativity of dialect and language, as far as I can tell, this pronouncement verges on the bizarre, if not the stupid.

First of all, the fact that so many educated lay-people (meaning non-language specialists) thought that African American English was somehow stunted or inferior must have rested on outright bigotry. I know this because AAE English shows linguistic features like iteratives, double negations, and even phonetic features like /ks/ for /sk/ – that are present in ancient Greek and Latin. As I remember, non-standard expressions such as “he be like” for “he said” have direct parallels in Plato. My point here is that an open-minded person who believes, without prejudice, that AAE is somehow degenerate will quickly (and gladly) lose that belief as soon as he begins to read the prestige languages of his own cultural and intellectual history. Few, far between, and rather dim are they who would call the language of Cicero or Pericles “degenerate”.

Second of all, yes, one can see how this would be the case between standard American English and African American English. Generalizing so broadly from the example of two very closely related versions of the same language is silly precisely because they’re so closely related. A much stronger argument could be formed on the equivalency of all dialects (and by extension, languages) if you demonstrated how widely separated and radically different languages can express the same things with more or less equal facility. But you can’t, because some languages don’t (although those that don’t are in the extreme minority).

Third, if the definition of language is mutual intelligibility, then “limitless alternation and expansion” does not imply infinite flexibility within language. It means that languages will die as they develop – which makes the statement self-contradictory, given the standard definition of “language” (which is adopted earlier in the book).
As far as I can tell, much of the trouble comes from two sources: 1) the desire to view human language as a phenomenon on par with other natural phenomena, and thus open to investigation the same way one would investigate physics or biology and 2) the dogmatic belief in utter human equality, regardless of what evidence or common-sense dictate. The author does have some choice words for the pseudo-science of Discourse Analysis, so I’m predisposed to think that he includes these nostrums uncritically on questions that you don’t really concern him as necessary nods to orthodoxy. But still.

Then we get this passage, which does, I think, point towards a way of thinking that can accommodate the existence of a language like Piraha (in which one cannot count) and the proliferation of more or less equally expressive modern languages, though the author fails to note the connection:

“Given the sturdiness of social prejudice and stereotype, the continued existence of low-status speech varieties might at first seem odd. If they are generally considered inferior, wouldn’t more speakers try to eradicate them? And wouldn’t shifting away from a language or, more likely, a dialect be a more popular option?”

Yes, yes it would be. Especially when the advantages of in-group belonging and covert prestige are overwhelmed by disadvantages inherent in the language. But given that human language is likely very, very old, much older than the records we have of it, why should we believe that the shift` from “limiting languages” would be happening today? Isn’t it far more likely that the most egregious examples would have been shifted away from and gone extinct very early in the human linguistic experience?  Such that the vast majority of existing languages would be able to martial linguistic resources sufficiently copious that the attractions of in-group identity and solidarity would override other considerations? In this case, the linguistic scene of recorded history would consist, more or less exclusively of languages that had similar ranges of expression in all relevant fields. Is it an accident that those languages least able to do things like “count” are always found in some far-flung jungle, protected from the general march of the world’s civilizations, and not smack dab in the middle of Europe? Is this not exactly where would we expect to find survivals, exempt from the evolutionary processes to which other languages have been subject?

Let us take up with Piraha again. The Piraha are not just culturally disinclined to count, but also linguistically unable, since the language lacks recursion, which is probably necessary for counting. It does not allow nested sentences. It does not contain numbers and despite attempts (Everett’s attempt lasted 8 months), in the end monolingual speakers could not even be taught to add 1 and 1 together to make 2. Of course, when a school opened in a Piraha village, the students could be taught how to do these things: in Portuguese. It is not a matter of intelligence, it’s a matter of the presence or absence of expressive resources, the richness of which can, in principle, vary between languages.
Saying that languages can develop doesn’t free us from the trap because of the definition of language. If languages refer to patterns of mutually intelligible speech, and French and Spanish are not mutually intelligible, and yet have very similar structures – how little would Piraha have to change before it could express, with equal facility, everything that modern languages express? How long before a person speaking this “new Piraha” would no longer be understood by a speaker of the “old Piraha” and therefore no longer be speaking the same language? I suspect that the more limited the resources of a language, the sooner its development would render it unintelligible to speakers who existed before the period of most rapid development (because more additions are necessary). Acknowledging that languages can be more or less developed is just acknowledging that some languages are better than others by less offensive means, because language development means language change, and language change eventually implies language death and creation. Saying that languages are “mere tools for communication” will not save us: there are better and worse tools.

This isn’t exciting because I particularly enjoy staying up until one in the morning to write about “inferior” languages. It’s exciting because our languages – the ones in which we find it so convenient to count and write history – could all be radically inferior to yet unconceived and perhaps inconceivable alternatives. Science as we know it seems flat impossible in Piraha (because counting is); what modes of thinking are impossible in English or any other modern language? What truths might be glimpsed in hints of expression the fullness of which we can only see the shadows of because of the paucity of our linguistic resources? What new modes of speaking might spark new levels of understanding both of ourselves and the world? But discussion of our potential inferiority is suppressed because the presence of inferiority implies superiority. And so, it is chased out and marginalized by an academy that is possessed of a very distinct ideological stance that it professes with religious fervor and equally religious logic: that the single most important thing is a belief in human equality, evidence be damned.

Creating the ideological space to discuss these ideas falls to the next generation of linguists, if we can only reach them and convince them of the primacy of logic over ideological conformity. Meanwhile, I will be finishing a commentary on Martial.


Justin Shelby