Linguistics

Linguistics

Linguistics seem to lie on the boundary between natural science and academic enterprise.

Linguistics as a Natural Science

On the one hand, the acquisition of language is a natural human phenomenon, as it the ability to communicate with other humans in a variety of modes.

Even where there is no common language, a pidgin quickly develops, and this pidgin becomes Creole when the next generation acquires its language.

Moreover, language undergo constant transformations, changing their phonemes, their syntax and their semantic contents. Languages borrow from each other and gain and lose breadth, scope and vocabulary.

All these developments provide linguists with the natural phenomena that are the object of scientific investigation.

Linguistics as an Academic Enterprise

On the other hand, in order to maintain its scientific status, linguistics has to veer away from the non-natural aspects of language, i.e., the cultivation of language as part of human civilization and culture. Written languages and the inculcation of agreed languages that are not mother-tongues, but are often “father” tongues, i.e., taught in an orderly manner as part of an educational program – these fall outside the realm of a natural science.

In fact, this civilized aspect of language undermines the infrastructure of linguistics as an empirical science by constraining the natural development of languages, maintaining prescriptive forms that direct language acquisition towards an accepted cultural norm.

The conscious inculcation of a language in the context of educational practices, blocks the natural evolution of language, and forms that may have evolved into other forms, become set in writing and passed on to succeeding generations in the consensual form agreed on by the civilizing culture.

Linguistics: Reducing the Scope

Unsurprisingly, on this boundary between natural science and cultural practice, linguistics as an academic discipline has chosen to emphasize the empirical and evolving nature of language and has constrained its field of inquiry to living, and therefore evolving, languages.

The discipline has chosen to exclude the civilized aspects either by assigning written languages that are acquired in the context of cultural, rather than natural, processes, to the category of “dead” languages.

Latin for example, though it was the lingua franca of the entire western civilization and a major study subject in all schools well into the twentieth century, has been relegated to the status of “dead”, since it is transmitted in writing as a learned language, rather than acquired in infancy as a natural language.

As far as linguists are concerned, Latin has been dead since the fall of the Roman empire, and since its usage from that time on required education and learning, it is not considered a fit subject for linguistic study (and is therefore dead), despite the fact that it was widely used as the major means of communication between educated persons, and served as the lingua franca of poetry, religion, commerce, philosophy, etc.

From Descriptive to Prescriptive

The rejection of cultivated language as an object of empirical study, has led linguists to reject the special status accorded by speakers to written and preserved versions of language and re-conceptualize the written versions as variants on equal footing with the non-institutionalized dialects.

Thus, for example, William Labov has argued that AAVE (African American Vernacular English), is an English variant with its own grammatical rules, which should be respected as an independent dialect, on par with standard English.

Since the discipline of linguistics focuses on the change and evolution of language, it must respect all variants as empirically equivalent, therefore refusing to privilege any form of language as having a unique position as a “standard” version.

Through an inverted transformation, the descriptive becomes prescriptive: i.e., the conscious desire of a civilization to maintain a standard version of its language is rejected as extraneous to the business of language, for “empirically” no value can be assigned to one dialect over another, so the linguist is called upon to reveal the “empirical” truth about language (arising from the predetermined emphasis on natural language acquisition and the rejection of cultivated language acquisition) and prescribe a different and more egalitarian perception of language.

The rejection of cultivated language as an object of empirical study, has led linguists to prescribe the rejection of prescription and the acceptance of newly appearing variants as legitimate contenders with the “so-called” standard versions.

Thus the loop from descriptive to prescriptive comes full circle:

1.      Only naturally learned mother-tongues are valid empirical objects of investigation.

2.      Languages preserved in written forms and acquired through education are dead.

3.      Naturally acquired languages are alive.

4.      Natural languages constantly change form.

5.      There are many different dialects and forms of a language.

6.      All forms are empirically equal.

7.      The cultivated language of a civilization is just another form.

8.      The emphasis on a single “standard” form is arbitrary and non-egalitarian, prejudicing speakers of natural dialects who have not had the benefit of the education necessary to acquire the expansive cultivated form of the language.

9.      Society must acknowledge this prejudice and give “non-standard” dialects equal footing.

10.  As responsible scientists linguists are called on to prescribe the proper perception of language, rejecting the privileged status of the standard version.

Linguistics and Scientoism

In light of the above, the shift from empirical students of language to academic advocates for language egalitarianism, seems to be an inevitable consequence of the initial constraints adopted by linguistics as a discipline.

However, the role of cultural reformers now assumed by linguists carries the burden of proof. Civilizations are not eager to part with their cherished language heritage, and the great institutionalized mechanisms of cultivated language acquisition are not easily dissuaded from carrying out their role as purveyors of a standard form to which all speakers must adhere.

It is here that scientoistic practice must be implemented in order to exploit the trust placed in science to cause a shift in public sentiment towards both standard and non-standard versions.

If it can be “scientifically” proven that the “standard” version prescribed in schools is just another variant, unfairly elevated over other variants, then civilization may be convinced to part with its centralized and non-egalitarian approach and cease its indoctrination of the masses.

The Rhetoric of Truth-Saying

Linguists are reformers, position themselves as scientists exposing a truth to a prejudiced audience. Language users must be convinced of their unfair tendency to view the written and cultivated versions of their language as paramount and embrace the evolutionary changes naturally taking place in the language, not as a threat to the standard version, but as legitimate dialects in their own right.

The following is an example of “revolutionary” rhetoric taken from a recent message on the ITA mailing list, entitled: Nurit Dekel’s Reply

Dr. Dekel, a published linguist who studied spoken Hebrew, (e.g., her book “A Matter of Time”), claims that modern Hebrew is in fact a separate language, which she calls “Israeli” (or perhaps “Israelisch” or “Israelian). There were many irate responses as mailing list members pointed out that most Hebrew speakers can freely understand the Bible, the Mishnah, Medieval Hebrew poetry, etc., so that there was no need to sever current usage from more ancient language layers.

Following this heated debate, a member of the group sent Dr. Dekel a synopsis of the discussion. Her response was quite long and more or less reiterated her position.

Beyond the contested issues (discussed below), of special interest is the unique rhetoric adopted by Dr. Dekel in addressing the ITA group:

“I thank everyone for the feedback. I am aware that this issue is problematic, and also aware that many people disagree. I have no problem with this. Each person has a right to think whatever he or she wants.”

This opening clause is very democratic, open minded, and perhaps reminds one of Voltaire’s famous dictum: “I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend your right to say it to the death,” but with a certain postmodern tone that does not seem to have the fervor of dying for another’s right to express an opinion. Indeed, the next paragraph reveals the fact that though everyone has a right to differ, Dr. Dekel holds those who exercise this right in low regard:

“The situation today is that most people disagree with the theory because they have been habituated to think in a certain way, and because there is some kind of taboo on this subject in Israel”.

Thus, the seeming largess of the opening sentence is quickly replaced by a neo-Marxist-flavored conspiracy theory, wherein the reason people disagree with Ms. Dekel is that they have been indoctrinated. They only disagree with her because the powers-that-be have habituated them to think wrongly (i.e., they are not free, like Dr. Dekel, to think in other ways), in fact, this inculcation is so deeply ingrained that Dr. Dekel diagnoses a taboo (for a quick exposition see Taboo).

Taboos, of course, are social mores that may be quite silly or unreasonable (to an enlightened mind) but are blindly adhered to by the ignorant. Moreover, those who break taboos are often faced with dire consequences, and may therefore be considered brave and selfless people who are willing to place their own well-being in jeopardy for the sake of truth, liberty and reason.

Having cast her detractors more or less in the role of indoctrinated and superstitious savages, she now proceeds to paint her own role:

“I am well aware of the fact that this is a call of ‘the emperor is naked’”.

In the original Andersen story we find:

A child, however, who had no important job and could only see things as his eyes showed them to him, went up to the carriage.”The Emperor is naked,” he said.

This child, not yet indoctrinated, is the epitome of empiricism. A child who could ‘only see things as his eyes showed them to him…’, a child who cannot be suspected of any agenda, any bias, any self-interest – he is the one who can see the truth and say: “the emperor is naked”!

Indeed, the point of the story is that anyone can see that the emperor is naked, but only a child is pure enough to speak out the truth.

Thus, Dr. Dekel has positioned her theories as a non-mediated, directly perceptible truth. An empirical fact as clear and poignant as a naked emperor, if only her detractors would detach themselves from their indoctrination, they too would perceive this self evident truth.

Dr. Dekel continues:

“The linguistic policy in Israel has done an excellent job, and most of us walk about incessantly correcting each other’”.

Obviously Dr. Dekel is opposed to people correcting each other, yet the people are not to blame. Rather, it is the system, the faceless “linguistic policy” that has done an “excellent job” of inculcating us with an incessant itch to linguistically criticize each other.

Dr. Dekel continues:

“I am happy that this stimulates argument. One of the respondents rightly wrote (and thanks!!!) that many can’t bear the thought that Israelish is not a unique continuation of Hebrew. This is a psychological problem. Not a linguistic one”.

Those who reject Dr. Dekel’s findings suffer from an emotional-psychological problem.

This rhetoric, which has now added the burden of emotional and psychological problems to those who reject Dr. Dekel’s findings, now serves as a prelude to a condescending assumption of responsibility for the “unwashed masses”:

“I am aware,” says Dr. Dekel, “that it is very difficult to free oneself from something that one is used to, and that I have my work cut out for me… clearly, this will also take time to ingest. Something that is the opposite of what you thought and believed before. This is completely alright. It is expected… and acceptable…”

Dr. Dekel’s educational mission is now fully delineated. Faced with people who have been indoctrinated by the system, who are enthralled by taboos and who display emotional and psychological disturbances – she has nevertheless taken it upon herself to enlighten them.

The rest of her letter is devoted to reiterating her basic argument that Israelish and Hebrew are different languages, and many classic rhetoric devices may be found in her arguments, of which I will list but a few.

It seems that Dr. Dekel’s central claim hinges on an arbitrary distinction between written and spoken language. If a literary people write in a language for thousands of years, the language is still considered dead, because purportedly no one spoke it. If people prayed in the language everyday, this doesn’t count because that is for “liturgical purposes” and if people did business in that language all over the world, it doesn’t count because it is “a specialized commercial language”, if people wrote poetry and philosophy in that language – the language is considered dead because it was, purportedly not spoken.

This distinction is arbitrary and obviously based on “Ipse Dixit”, i.e., it is thus because I have said it is thus, and other colleagues in my branch agree with these distinctions, so this is the “scientific” classification.
Indeed, this position is based on the fact that since the beginning of the 20th century, linguistics as a discipline has focused on evolutionary changes in languages – changes that are reflected in speech patterns.

Based on this arbitrary distinction, Dr. Dekel proceeds to describe current spoken Hebrew as a form of “creole language” worthy of a different name, and also (probably following Zuckerman), offers a small fable regarding its origins:

“The teachers who taught Hebrew thought in other languages so that they obviously consistently “erred” in their Hebrew speech in certain places. There is also evidence for this. These children took these “failing” systems and made them into a new law, wherever their language was not orderly. Thus was Israelisch born.

No evidence is provided for these amazing claims that Israeli children were obliged to create a Creole language because the Hebrew speakers who taught them were thinking in other languages. If Dr. Dekel is referring to the generation of Bialik, then this is doubly surprising. She no doubt bases her contention on Zuckerman’s work, which posits (no less arbitrarily, see below) that the loans incorporated in Hebrew from European languages have created a completely different language: Israelisch.

In the original discussion, when Dekel was presented with an ancient poem, a “written” (ergo “dead language”) document that is understood by modern “speakers” of Hebrew, as a tangible refutation of her claim that Hebrew was unintelligible to modern speakers, she offered the following argument:

“As to the poem, I would like to see one Israeli use this language in everyday communications – including its words and structure, who has not been yet hospitalized in a mental asylum.”

Besides the insinuation regarding the mental stability of her detractors, the entire argument is again based on the idea of “every-day communications” being totally divorced from other layers of the language, and therefore distinct.

Dr. Dekel explicitly reiterates her axiom:

One should distinguish between written and spoken language… No one belittles the sources of Israelish, nor ignores the fact that one of them is certainly Hebrew… but the differences between Hebrew and the new language are too many for the two languages to be considered a single language, from a linguistic point of view.”

So, first one arbitrarily distinguishes between written and spoken language, then focuses on the spoken language, which is now analyzed into its constituent parts as a form of Creole. Yet nothing said goes beyond the declarative: this is so, because I say so. I say that Hebrew and Israelisch are like Zebras and Donkeys, different species, and this makes them so. (This would make native Hebrew speakers who speak Israelisch as a second language into Zeedonkeys).

So, the linguistic point of view has reached such fine distinctions that it is now possible to separate native speakers of Hebrew from the written expression of their language and convince them (once their taboos have been overcome) that they have become bilingual. Indeed, the argument is so difficult to support that Dr. Dekel is forced to make another amazing analogy:

“To the same extent that we understand this poem, we can also understand Aramaic texts from the same period. Yet I have not heard anyone say that we are speaking modern Aramaic.”

The axiom has now come full circle. A triangle has three sides. How do we know this? Because by definition a three sided shape is a triangle. How do we know that the poem is not intelligible to current speakers of Hebrew? Because it is an ancient written text (and therefore dead). Aramaic is also an ancient written language. Conclusion: Just as Aramaic is a written language that is no spoken, so is Hebrew a written language no longer spoken. quod erat demonstrandum.

The fact that the poem is easily comprehensible to most modern Hebrew speakers and quite similar to other, modern works, is irrelevant, since the arbitrary categories established by Dr. Dekel have already excluded it.

Following these arguments, Dr. Dekel presents an amazing passage that has nothing to do with linguistics, but I suspect is the core of her position, and may represent the revolutionary vision that is driving her hypotheses. It is at this particular point that she calls on “science” in a general way to validate her position:

“The feeling that we, a chosen people, have managed to do what no one has done before us – to revive a dead language – is a wonderful feeling, and it is very convenient to boast of super-human powers that were bequeathed to us by way of brainwashing. This is so ingrained that we can no longer distinguish between it and reality.”

The vision of Hebrew as a “dead” language brought to “life”, is the one propagated by Ben-Yehuda, to which members of his own generation refer quite cynically, since there were many Hebrew-speaking-and-writing creative geniuses during his period and throughout history, and the expansion of lexical content does not a new language make. Hebrew simply never died, so there was nothing to resurrect. It’s only fault is that it managed to preserve its identity with little change (and is therefore considered dead), in the same way as the Jewish nation never lost its self-identity, even though it had no State to contain it. In fact, the arbitrary axiom that Hebrew died and was resurrected, is the mainstay of Dr. Dekel’s claim that there are no speakers of Hebrew. As far as she is concerned Hebrew remains as dead as it ever was.

Thus, since according to Dr. Dekel, long-dead Hebrew was never revived, all those who believe in the resurrection have been brainwashed to think of themselves as superhuman, and have lost the capacity to distinguish between fact and fancy.

“It is a deception,” write Dr. Dekel, “… I am sorry to disappoint you, but from a scientific point of view, a language cannot be resurrected, even by a chosen people.”

As the “scientoistic” trump card is dealt, the brainwashed believers must face the harsh light of scientific fact. Moreover, those who still resist the verdict of “science” are now scientifically analyzed by Dr. Dekel:

“It is my opinion that those who protest against Israelisch are engaged in a kind of psychological warfare that stems from some kind of fear to lose something of our being as Hebrews. He who is secure in his identity, will lose nothing of himself by using the term “Israelisch”

So the neologism “Israelisch” or “Israeli” to denote a new language, is stated as an axiom. Why is this term applicable or relevant? Because it has been axiomatically determined that Hebrew is a different language from that spoken by Hebrew speakers. And only the insecure will balk at this determination.

Definitions, Categories, Neologisms

One of the hallmarks of science is that it constantly invents neologisms to describe the various phenomena it scrutinizes and creates categories as part of the theoretical analysis of phenomena. This activity provides considerable maneuverability for linguists who have a social message to convey.

A case in point is an article entitled “Hybridity versus Revivability: Multiple Causation, Forms and Patterns”, published by Ghil’ad Zuckerman, a professor of linguists self-described as an “ARC Discovery Fellow in Linguistics”.

The article’s title conveys the central distinction made between natural and cultivated language acquisition. “Hybridity” addresses the natural evolution of language, wherein a language accrues grammatical forms and vocabulary from other languages as it is evolves from one language into another. English, a well-known hybrid language shares a Proto-Indo-European origin with both German and Russian, a Proto-Germanic origin with German, and has considerably drawn on many sources including many French and Latin words.

“Revivability” on the other hand, refers to the attempts of a specific civilization to “revive” a version of the language that is perceived as having been dead, and is now being revived.

Like Latin, the “deadness” of the language is a given created by the parameters of linguistics as a discipline, i.e., it is a language whose forms have been preserved in writing and which is acquired through education. Thus, though the language was very much alive as a lingua franca used for religious, commercial, poetic and philosophical expression, it is considered dead.

Another twist in this ipso-facto argument is that the “dead” language may be discounted as a source, and only the original “live” language, before it died, can legitimately bear the name of this language. To take Latin as an example, only the Latin spoken in Roman times as a naturally acquired language (which subsequently died  and was embalmed as the language of civilized elites for millennia) may be considered as a live language, so that if people, who had acquired it through education, should begin speaking it to their children, it would be considered a “revival” since the children would be acquiring it naturally. The fact that Latin had already been acquired by the parent to the point where he/she is able to converse in it, is not taken as a sign that Latin is very much alive, since it was acquired through education and therefore dead by definition.

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