More bovine excrement to rebut

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Recently someone who runs some sort of online discussion forum wrote to ask me about the accuracy (or otherwise) of two bipartite claims. One said that "Language became prominent only after printed word entered our consciousness" and that "This caused the externalization and objectification of 'knowledge'," and the other said that in non-literate cultures "people have more verbs in their language" while we English speakers "have more nouns," and that "Our language [= English] is actor centered and their language is action centered."

I feel I have to make an effort to aid the benighted, so I responded to this cry for help. I made a few false starts on drafts containing phrases like "utter raving nutball" and "toxic, festering, postmodernist bullshit," which I then erased, and finally I settled down to write a kinder, gentler response. I didn't manage brilliantly — what I wrote won't win any prizes at a kindness-and-gentleness show, if they have such things — but I reined myself in a little (not voicing my suspicion that the writer's brain had been poisoned by reading Derrida, for example, because I think the accusation that someone has read Derrida is always offensive), and what I wrote back was as follows.

Dear Ken:

You have asked me to comment on two claims: (1) that "Language became prominent only after printed word entered our consciousness. This caused the externalization and objectification of 'knowledge'," and (2) that "Non literate people have more verbs in their language and we have more nouns. Our language is actor centered and their language is action centered."

I can actually be quite brief about them. Both are vague, but to the extent I can think of any way to make them clear, neither one deserves any credence.

Claim (1) makes a historical assertion that is ridiculous and a causal claim that is unintelligible. To imagine that language only became "prominent" after Caxton and others had developed printing is truly absurd. Perhaps the briefest and most salient thing I can say about it is to point out that the finest and most detailed phonological description of any language was done about 3,000 years ago for Sanskrit by an ancient Indian known to us as Panini (sticklers note: the first "n" should have a dot under it to indicate retroflexion). If language was not "prominent" for Panini and his devoted circle of followers, successors, and commentators, I don't know what it would mean for language to be "prominent". But Panini was not literate: his phonological description was cast in the form of a dense oral recitation rather like a kind of epic poem, and designed to be memorized and repeated orally. The wonderful Devanagari writing system had yet to be developed. (When it was, naturally it was beautifully designed for Indic languages, because it had the insight of a phonological genius underpinning it.)

As for what it would mean for the "prominence" of language to have "caused the externalization and objectification of 'knowledge'," I am baffled. This sounds like some sort of postmodernist claim, and I have no comment on it, except that it is empty unless fleshed out, and sounds extraordinarily implausible. Preliterate peoples not only know things, they also know that they know them, and can talk about who has the knowledge and who doesn't, and so on. Knowledge is a commodity for all of us humans. That seems like enough externalization and objectification to rebut the claim.

Point (2) is much clearer. It is not true that non-literate people have more verbs than nouns. Every language has more nouns than verbs. [Added next day: H. Krishnapriyan points out to me that the Paninian tradition also had something to say about this: "A listing of all the verbal roots (dhAtupATha) tries to list all of them, where as the corresponding listing of nominal roots lists only groups of nominal stems that undergo specific grammatical operations and does not attempt to be comprehensive and it is explicitly recognized that such a listing is impossible."]

Nor is it true that "our language" (English?) is actor-centered and theirs (every single one of the thousands and thousands of languages used by the non-literate peoples?) is action-centered. In every language you can talk about people and you can talk about actions. English has loads of sentence types with no actor at all (think of There was nothing that could be done or Palladium resembles platinum).

I don't know where people go to get ridiculous myths about language like this, but I wish they wouldn't go there. Nobody seems to understand that linguists have managed to find out quite a bit about the 7000-odd languages of the world, both the written ones and the non-written. People should read Language Log ( Again and again, through thousands of posts since 2003 (my post-April-2008 ones are listed at here and my pre-2008 ones here), we have tried to make it clear that you can CHECK claims about language, and (provided they meet some kind of standard of clarity and content) find out empirically whether they are true or false. It is not a domain in which people's off-the-top-of-the-head opinions and speculations have to be accepted: there is a science of linguistics, and over the past century it has made a wealth of factual discoveries about the human linguistic capability.

–Geoff Pullum
Professor of General Linguistics
University of Edinburgh

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