Linguistics ‘Hall of Shame’ 19

Hi again, everybody! ‘Hall Of Shame’ continues (early this week since my beloved & I are going away until next Tuesday).


Owen Barfield was a member of the mid-twentieth-century group of Oxford writers, literature scholars and philologists centred on J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Tolkien himself espoused some implausible ideas about language grounded in literary and philological notions rather than in the then current work of linguists. He apparently believed, for instance, that he himself had acquired older varieties of English formerly used in his own home area near Birmingham (where his family had long resided) more readily than would students from other areas. No positive evidence of such effects exists, and, if they were genuine, they would in fact be difficult to explain in scientific terms (such characteristics are acquired, not genetically transmitted). For his part, Barfield developed a more articulated and wide-ranging non-mainstream approach to language. He lived to a very advanced age and long survived all the other ‘Inklings’.

Barfield’s most relevant works (Saving the Appearances (London, 1957); Worlds Apart (Hanover, NH, 1963); Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning, 3rd edn (Hanover, NH, and London, 1973)) deals mainly with poetic language, seeking ‘objective’ standards of criticism involving philosophical considerations on the relation between language and thought (although it is far from clear that he succeeds in this enterprise). Like Tolkien, he was less aware of twentieth-century mainstream scientific linguistics than of philology (also scientific, albeit in a weaker, partly pre-theoretical sense) and linguistic philosophy. He offers little concrete empirical evidence for his general claims, and his comments about non-Indo-European languages (for example, on Chinese word order) are oversimplified.

Barfield claims that poetry genuinely is the ‘best’ language, and that in early times all language had a poetic character, before ‘logic’ came to dominate both usage itself and most strands of thought about the subject. This poetic character, he holds, is still found in ‘primitive’ languages such as pidgins (in fact, no truly ‘primitive’ languages are known, although some linguists do hold that some features of pidgins may reflect earlier stages of language). Barfield objects to the notion that a language becomes richer and more poetic as it ‘ages’ historically. He judges that the poet Percy Shelley and others were profoundly mistaken in holding that a spiritual, creative awakening, accompanied by a strengthening of the relevant aspects of language, occurred in their own time, arguing that if language were indeed becoming more poetic all people would have been accomplished poets by his own time.

Barfield’s focus on the past leads him to interpret the semantics of words in a heavily etymological manner, with a focus on metaphor as a vehicle of meaning-shift. He also accepts Otto Jespersen’s view that there is very generally a movement during the ‘lifetime’ of a language from inflectional morphology with relatively free word order (as in Sanskrit or Latin), which he prefers, to isolating morphology and a fixed word order (as in contemporary English); in fact, this is at most an Indo-European tendency.

Barfield’s ideas are interesting, but from the point of view of a scientific linguist they are too heavily grounded in partly subjective judgments and insufficiently justified in empirical terms.

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2 Responses to Linguistics ‘Hall of Shame’ 19

  1. John Cowan says:

    I think you are over-interpreting what Tolkien says. When he wrote that he “took to early West-midland Middle English as to a known tongue as soon as I set eyes on it”, he was not writing in a technical context, but a private letter to W.H. Auden to express his feeling for the language of the Ancrene Wisse. What is more, it represented his recognition as a young historical linguist that the West Midland local varieties of Cheshire and Lancashire spoken by his immediate ancestors were direct descendants of “AB language”, which in turn was a direct descendant of Mercian Old English, with relatively little influence (yet) from Standard English and its ancestors. It is no accident that when he wanted to have the Riders of Rohan speak Old English, it is a distinctly Mercian Old English: the capital, for example is Edoras rather than standard West Saxon Eodoras ‘courts’, because this particular breaking did not happen in Mercian.

  2. marknewbrook says:

    Thanks to John for his very well-informed comments.

    He may well be right here about what Tolkien meant, although I am not TOTALLY convinced. But I still reckon that the time-gap and the ensuing changes between Mercian Old English and modern broad NW England dialects are too great for anyone to find extensive similarities other than as an OUTCOME of careful study.

    Mark N

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