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[Xmca-l] Re: no primitive language?



Verily, the good men do is oft interred with their bones....  Saussure
was a brilliant historical linguist, who made amazing contributions to the
reconstruction of proto-Indo-european, the language which ties our own
tongues to Sanskrit. As part of these contributions, he was faced with the
task of working out the vowel and consonant system of a language that
nobody had spoken for thousands of years. How did he do it?

By inventing structuralism. He figured out, quite correctly, that in order
to be comprehensible, phonological systems had to have perceptible
oppositions. So if you had a high front vowel like "i" at one end of your
mouth you had to have a low back vowel like "ou" at the other end. By
working backwards from the sounds we use today, Saussure was able to
reconstruct a whole system of laryngeal contrasts that probably haven't
been used in two thousand years. Fifty years AFTER his death, Hittite texts
were discovered that show that his guess was probably right.

Now, here's the mystery. After a brilliant career as a historical linguist,
Saussure suddenly declared war on history and decided to try to construct a
linguistics that was, rather like the extant ideas of mathematics, a purely
abstract and timeless system. Not ony sounds but also words and even
grammatical features like tense were to be understood in relation to each
other, not in relation to any actual human needs.

This turns out to explain the relationship of SOUNDING to WORDING quite
well. But as Larry points out (and as Vygotsky points out in his discussion
of why you can call a dog a cow and a cow a dog but you can't call a
blackbird a redwing and vice versa) it is a really terrible way to think
about the relationship of WORDING to MEANING. In other words, arbitrariness
is a good way to talk about phonology, and a terrible way to talk about
grammar. There's a very good reason why verbs have tenses and nouns have
plurals. You can do it the other way around if you really want (and in fact
English, unlike Korean, does have the annoying property of using "s" on
singular VERBS and then using 's' on plural NOUNS). But not so much and not
for long: the relationship of wording to meaning is just not conventional
in the way that the relationship of wording to sounding is.

And that brings us back to Andy's question. We can argue, as Saussure did,
that there are certain sounds that are "primitive" (Saussure believed that
laryngeal sounds were energy consuming and died out as a result, and I
suppose you could make the same argument for click languages like
isiXhosa). But when we make this argument we should be clear that what we
are calling "primitive" is really the baroque--a kind of extravagance that
some societies choose to lavish on language and others prefer to expend on
furniture. It is much harder to argue that some words are more primitive
than others simply because wordings evolve in social settings (anybody who
has tried to cook Chinese food in an English speaking environment will tell
you that English, despite its very rich vocabulary for roasting, baking,
grilling, etc, is not a good language for frying , while Chinese is exactly
the opposite, and it's easy to imagine that our vocabulary would be rather
primitive for describing hunting conditions in the Kalahari). And at the
level of grammar, which is by its very nature systemic, this argument is
simply impossible.

Here is the kernel of truth in Chomsky's idea that all languages, on an
abstract level, have the same grammar, and Derrida's comment that we all
speak only one language but the language we speak is not one. As Butzkamm
puts it, you learn language exactly once; it just takes your whole life to
get it right.

And getting linguistics right takes a lot more than just one life.
Saussure "corrected" his brilliant work on historical linguistics by
utterly turning his back on culture and on history, and in so doing
invented twentieth century structuralism. In his defense, he did tell his
wife and his students to burn the mansuscript of his General Course and not
to publish it; Bally and Sechehaye disobeyed his dying wishes. As Larry's
article suggests, he tried, too late, to correct his  correction.  And so
the evil men do lives after them.

David Kelllogg
Hankuk University of Foreign Studies


On 28 December 2014 at 05:23, <lpscholar2@gmail.com> wrote:

> I wrote out a section of an article by Franson Manjali exploring the
> *social* and the *cognitive* in Saussure’s understanding of language. It
> may add to this conversation on the lexical and the grammatical aspects of
> language. It is only one page I quoted but the article is fascinating
> exploring the themes of more and less arbitrary systems of language and its
> regularity.
>
> Annalisa, the beginning of the article explores Saussure’s debt to the
> Vedic scholars of language.
>
>
> The article is published at [Texto! Volume XVll, number 3, (2012). I could
> add more if others are interested, or the linguists among us could answer
> Franson Manjali reading of the *social*
>
> Larry
>
>
>
>
>
>
> Sent from Windows Mail
>
>
>
>
>
> From: Martin John Packer
> Sent: ‎Saturday‎, ‎December‎ ‎27‎, ‎2014 ‎3‎:‎57‎ ‎AM
> To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
>
>
>
>
>
> David, I know you know more about this than I know....  but the debate
> today centers on the Pirahã, no? Do they have color terms? Do they have
> number terms? Do they have recursion?
>
> Martin
>
> On Dec 27, 2014, at 5:35 AM, David Kellogg <dkellogg60@gmail.com> wrote:
>
> > Well, of course Carol's really right, Andy. We need to say what we mean
> by
> > primitive. Does it mean that the language is historically young? In that
> > case, the most primitive language is probably modern Hebrew. Does it mean
> > that the language is grammatically simple? Which aspect of the grammar?
> >
> > Let's take case, since this is Vygotsky's model for linguistic complexity
> > in the Lectures. Annaluisa will tell you about Sanskrit's eight cases;
> > modern Tamil has seven; Greek and Latin had about six. Tsez, in the
> > mountains of the Caucasus, has 64 cases (mostly locatives).
> >
> > English is probably the most primitive languages in the world from this
> > point of view; it has a distinction between "I" and "me" and "he" and
> "him"
> > but that's about it.
> >
> > David Kellogg
> > Hankuk University of Foreign Studies
> >
> >
> >
> >
> >
> >
> >
> > On 27 December 2014 at 19:14, Andy Blunden <ablunden@mira.net> wrote:
> >
> >> Thanks, Carol. :)
> >> I am OK from here then.
> >> Much appreciated.
> >> Andy
> >> ------------------------------------------------------------------------
> >> *Andy Blunden*
> >> http://home.pacific.net.au/~andy/
> >>
> >>
> >> Carol Macdonald wrote:
> >>
> >>> Syntax, semantics. pragmatics, phonology, discourse orientation: they
> >>> just give their own version of these aspects.
> >>>
> >>> On 27 December 2014 at 12:10, Andy Blunden <ablunden@mira.net <mailto:
> >>> ablunden@mira.net>> wrote:
> >>>
> >>>    Thanks, Carol.
> >>>    Can those "key characteristics" be given in a few lines?
> >>>    Andy
> >>>    ------------------------------------------------------------
> >>> ------------
> >>>    *Andy Blunden*
> >>>    http://home.pacific.net.au/~andy/
> >>>    <http://home.pacific.net.au/%7Eandy/>
> >>>
> >>>
> >>>    Carol Macdonald wrote:
> >>>
> >>>        Andy
> >>>
> >>>        It's true.  Languages all share key characteristics.
> >>>
> >>>        Carol
> >>>
> >>>        On 27 December 2014 at 12:02, Andy Blunden <ablunden@mira.net
> >>>        <mailto:ablunden@mira.net> <mailto:ablunden@mira.net
> >>>        <mailto:ablunden@mira.net>>> wrote:
> >>>
> >>>            I have heard, and I believe it to be the case, that there
> >>>        is no
> >>>            such thing as a "primitive language."
> >>>            I am not talking about the "language" of children raised in
> >>>            isolation, or the "home sign" of deaf children, I mean
> >>>        among the
> >>>            languages of actual historical peoples.
> >>>            I would just appreciate that if this is wrong, could
> >>>        someone on
> >>>            this list who knows about this kind of thing disabuse me.
> >>>            Otherwise I will assume this to be factual.
> >>>
> >>>            Thanks
> >>>            Andy
> >>>            --            ------------------------------
> >>> ------------------------------------------
> >>>            *Andy Blunden*
> >>>            http://home.pacific.net.au/~andy/
> >>>        <http://home.pacific.net.au/%7Eandy/>
> >>>            <http://home.pacific.net.au/%7Eandy/>
> >>>
> >>>
> >>>
> >>>        --         Carol A  Macdonald Ph D (Edin)
> >>>        Developmental psycholinguist
> >>>        Academic, Researcher,  and Editor Honorary Research Fellow:
> >>>        Department of Linguistics, Unisa
> >>>
> >>>
> >>>
> >>>
> >>>
> >>> --
> >>> Carol A  Macdonald Ph D (Edin)
> >>> Developmental psycholinguist
> >>> Academic, Researcher,  and Editor Honorary Research Fellow: Department
> of
> >>> Linguistics, Unisa
> >>>
> >>>
> >>>
> >>>
> >>