Hi again, everybody! New series, on Folk-Linguistics (again not sure at what intervals).
The ideas about language which are popular among non-linguists (people who know little or nothing about linguistics) are known as folk-linguistics. It is, in fact, possible to regard non-mainstream amateur theories (such as those which I discuss in my book as referenced below and in my earlier series in this forum) as extreme manifestations of folk-linguistics. Most of the writers in question are people who may not know any linguistics but who think about language more than most people do, develop their own highly specific, seriously non-mainstream ideas about language, and take these ideas so seriously that they wish to persuade others of them and therefore publish on them.
More generally, folk-linguistic ideas and opinions are not necessarily mistaken, or even confused. Some of them are in fact accurate, and indeed insightful and helpful. But they often require more careful or technical formulation in the light of linguists’ findings and thinking. And in some cases they clearly are mistaken or confused, or at best dubious; some of them are in fact arguably damaging. They cannot be treated as reliably valid.
I will discuss various common specific and general folk-linguistic ideas in this series of blogs.
1 FIRST-LANGUAGE BIAS
As I have observed before, many non-linguists (understandably but unwarrantedly) believe, or want to believe, that their own language is especially important. This ‘folk-linguistic’ viewpoint becomes a problem if they begin to study linguistics. For instance: some of my first-year Singaporean students were proud speakers of Tamil (mostly Hindus, some Christians). Tamil is the most widely used member of the South Indian ‘Dravidian’ family, an official language in Tamil Nadu and in Singapore itself, and the vehicle of a highly respected literature dating back over 2,000 years. Owing to prolonged contact within India, Tamil and other Dravidian languages have come to share some linguistic features (pronunciation and vocabulary) with the unrelated ‘Indic’ languages of North India (Indo-European) – notably with Sanskrit, which is the classical language of that region and the main classical language of Hinduism. Although scholarly views on these matters vary, the earliest speakers of the Indic languages almost certainly arrived in India to find Dravidian already current there.
There are relatively few users of Indic languages in Singapore (Punjabi-speaking Sikhs form the largest group), and Sanskrit itself is not widely known there except among Hindu pandits.
It soon became clear to me that many ethnically South Indian people such as these students are determined to believe (whatever the evidence) that Tamil was the ‘older’ of these two languages (in fact, Dravidian is often believed to have been in India since the beginning of human language) – and indeed that any feature shared by Tamil and Sanskrit must have originated in Tamil. Even when a form is shared by Tamil, Sanskrit and other Indo-European languages such as Greek with which neither Tamil nor Sanskrit had any pre-modern contact, they are unwilling to accept the obvious conclusion that it came into Tamil from Sanskrit/Indic (‘That is one way of looking at it’).
Even those more advanced Singapore Indian students who had learned about the controversy surrounding the undeciphered Indus Valley Script (which was used in a very ancient civilisation in North India and may represent Indic, Dravidian or some other language family) would almost always be unshakable in their conviction that it must represent early Tamil or at any rate Dravidian. (I later met Indic-speakers who, despite lacking specialist knowledge, were just as confident that IVS represented early Sanskrit!) My Singaporeans were also unsettled when they learned that the earliest grammars of Tamil are clearly modelled on Panini’s very sophisticated and demonstrably earlier grammar of Sanskrit (both languages have extensive and impressive indigenous grammatical traditions).
More next time (when pos)!
For my book Strange Linguistics, see:
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