texts and scripts 4 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 9)

Hi again, everybody! I’m getting my next blog in early, as I’m going to be REALLY busy next week! This present blog is the last instalment of this section.

Joscelyn Godwin is a musicology lecturer who has also written prolifically and positively (though not altogether uncritically) on various ‘fringe’ topics such as theosophy and the ‘Hollow Earth’. Godwin presents a strange mixture of amateur linguistics and occultism. He seems largely unaware of mainstream phonetics and phonology, relying mainly on earlier amateurs such as Richard Paget for background. His own contribution to phonetics predictably involves matters of pitch, tone and frequency, and – though he makes some errors – he has genuinely interesting notions to contribute in this area. However, he then moves into mysticism, and in the later sections of his book even his ‘facts’ are often mistaken. For instance, Ancient Greek did not have only seven distinct simple vowel phonemes (those of Godwin’s title). Only the imperfectly systematic alphabet suggests this, and the real figure (for most dialects) was at least ten. It must be acknowledged, however, that the ancient thinkers involved in this discussion may have focused on orthography rather than phonology so much that they too ignored the evidence of the spoken usage or judged it irrelevant. This was common before linguistics began and was especially the case where Ancient Greek was in question, for various reasons including dialectal diversity and the high status of the written word. Godwin may thus be simply following earlier thought in erring in these ways.

Some writers, usually of a conservative bent, argue that the established scripts used to write various culturally important languages are imbued with special status or significance and must not be replaced or seriously altered. This view is held by some who resist proposals for the reform of alphabetic spelling but is especially salient in respect of scripts such as the Chinese logography, which bears an unusually close relationship with the Chinese language and is particularly well-suited to it, at least in some respects: it distinguishes effectively between homophones, which are numerous, and it allows for seriously divergent pronunciations of the same morpheme in different fangyan (‘dialects’). Alphabetized spellings of Chinese, such as the modern Hanyu Pinyin system used to write Mandarin, are inevitably fangyan-specific and unable to distinguish between homophones.

Some authors, however, perceive the established script as so highly valued that it is almost ‘sacred’ in character and must not be altered even to small degrees. Tienzen Gong goes so far as to identify Chinese (with its script) as ‘Pre-Babel: the true Universal Language’, claiming to be setting up a ‘new paradigm of linguistics’. He cites F.S.C. Northrop as stating that ‘the Easterner … uses bits of linguistic symbolism, largely denotative, and often purely ideographic in character, to point toward a component in the nature of things which only immediate experience and continued contemplation can convey. This shows itself especially in the symbols of the Chinese language, where each solitary, immediately experienced local particular tends to have its own symbol, this symbol also often having a directly observed form like that of the immediately seen item of direct experience which it denotes … As a consequence, there was no alphabet. This automatically eliminates the logical whole-part relation between one symbol and another that occurs in the linguistic symbolism of the West in which all words are produced by merely putting together in different permutations the small number of symbols constituting the alphabet’ (emphasis in original). These comments about alphabetic writing are essentially uncontroversial; however, the use of the terms denotative and especially ideographic suggest a mistaken, quasi-cross-linguistic interpretation of Chinese script, which is naturally language-specific and thus logographic rather than ideographic. Gong accepts Northrop’s general analysis but obviously rejects his rather negative verdict on the philosophical consequences of the use of Chinese script.

Leonard Shlain argues that the development of literacy and in particular the adoption of alphabetic scripts in ancient times (at the expense of logographic scripts such as Chinese script) reinforced the brain’s ‘masculine’ left hemisphere at the expense of the ‘feminine’ right, upset the socio-psychological balance between the sexes and triggered massive, unwelcome changes in apparently unconnected areas of human thought and society. These chiefly involved shifts in the direction of ‘linear’, non-holistic thinking, an excessive concern with logic and science, and the growth of patriarchal systems in which women and their ideas have been suppressed and undervalued. Many of the major cultural patterns and changes of the last few thousand years are, Shlain maintains, to be explained in these terms. Naturally, he would like to see this imbalance corrected. In developing his case, he ranges widely outside his own field of expertise.

Much of Shlain’s discussion of language and writing is badly confused, and some is simply wrong. Given that linguistics is central to his thesis, the major problems which he has in this area are crucial. He does not systematically distinguish adequately between languages (in their spoken forms or considered generally) and the writing systems used to represent them (a common problem for non-linguists). One very obvious instance of this is provided by his very strange discussion of the mutual non-intelligibility of pairs of modern European languages; Shlain blames alphabetic writing for this, but such languages are, naturally, mutually unintelligible in speech and equally naturally remain so in writing (in any language-specific script). In addition, Shlain does not distinguish adequately between alphabets and writing systems more generally; some of the negative consequences which he sees as arising from the use of alphabets would, if he were correct, come about even if non-alphabetic writing systems were used. He largely ignores the important phonological but non-alphabetic category of syllabary; and he mistakenly describes Chinese characters as ideograms (they are, of course, language-specific logograms) and Chinese itself as lacking in the grammatical category ‘word’. At an even more basic level, Shlain confuses the notions of phoneme and phone (‘speech-sound’) and his definition of the very word alphabet is utterly wrong; he naïvely defines an alphabet as ‘any form of writing that contains fewer than thirty signs’.

Furthermore, Shlain’s accounts of the origin and early development of language and society are highly speculative, inadequately referenced and at times overtly partisan, relying excessively on traditional beliefs and endorsing (rather uncritically) the currently popular but ideologically-charged theories of early matriarchal paradises which were later overthrown by literate males. His claims about links between writing systems (or other aspects of language) and cultural patterns are often implausible and/or inadequately defended. For instance, he suggests that the Phoenicians’ use of their abjad – the ancestor of the Greek and the Roman alphabets – was somehow associated with the alleged barbarity and uncultured character of their civilization. Overall, Shlain cannot be taken seriously.

Some other authors also attribute major cultural developments to the development of literacy or (typically less plausibly) to the adoption of certain types of script; for instance, of alphabets where vowels are shown, which, according to Rostam Keyan, contributes vastly to clarity and thus to the development of science.

More next time (in about 11 days’ time)! I’ll be moving on to linguistic aspects of (allegedly) channelled communications.


4 Responses to texts and scripts 4 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 9)

  1. Ed H says:

    I seem to remember, a long while back, reading a book by Robert Ornstein which claimed that scripts without vowels tend to be written right to left, and scripts with vowels tend to be written left to right, and that this has something to do with a switch from using the right brain to figure out which of several possible words a string of consonants might represent, to using the left brain to methodically assemble phonemes from letters, in order.

    I don’t know if this was his own idea, or whether his generalization had any merit. After all, most of the alphabets and abjads in the world are related to each other historically, so it’s not like we could study a bunch which evolved independently and notice patterns like this.

  2. Pacal says:

    THe absurd idea that Chinese writing is composed of ideograms is one of long standing and a complete myth.

    You read of such crap as chinese as 50,000 or is it 80,000 chracters or that Chinese as a chracter for every word and such like tripe.

    Well first of all a large number of Chinese chracters are literary one offs created by scholars to show off. It is my understanding that the number of such one offs is more than 10,000!

    And Chinese does not have one charcter for each word of Chinese. Chinese charcters almost always have a element that conveys a sound meaning. In fact from my understanding you can read a Chinese Newspaper klnowing 4,000-6.000 chracters.

    As you correctly point out Chinese is logographic and combination of sound signs and ideograms and thank you for popinting out that it does indeed convey the language very well. Thus Chinese is very much like Ancient Egyptian, Sumerian etc.

    In fact the idea that Mayan hieroglyphs were vistually entirely ideograms meant to convoy meaning directly and not a language held up the decipherment for decades if not a century. It turns out the system was logographic as anyone by merely counting the number of seperate signs could have deducded..

  3. Russian Skeptic says:

    Happy to come across your blog. This piece is excellent. Indeed some non-linguists do not distinguish between language and script. But it would be interesting to get another post – on some LINGUISTS who do not distinguish between language and textual records. I mean those for instance who treat reconstructed ‘Indo-European’ words as if they were real words occurring in some written records, or even reconstructed proto-languages as real languages spoken by ethinically distinct groups of people.

    • marknewbrook says:

      Thanks a lot for this.  Of course, we HOPE that our reconstructions are as close as possible to the actual earlier forms. in question  And sometimes (as in the case of some early Greek consonants as written in Linear B) later discoveries do confirm (or refute) our hypotheses.  But I agree that we cannot treat forms which are ONLY reconstructions as if they were really attested; any further reconstructions based on them are increasingly speculative (and must be acknowledged as such).  Mark  

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