Non-standard Linguistics (new series) 3 Greek and Greek Philosophy

Hi again, everybody!


Demetris Nicolaides is a professor of physics at Bloomfield College in New Jersey. In his book (In The Light Of Science: Our Ancient Quest For Knowledge And The Measure Of Modern Physics, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, 2014), he examines anew the major shift in thinking exhibited in the works of the pre-Socratic philosophers of the seventh, sixth and fifth centuries BCE (Thales of Miletus, etc.). These thinkers turned from the mythological ideas of their day and began to seek rational accounts of the natural world.

Nicolaides argues that the conceptual breakthroughs of the pre-Socratics actually anticipated much of later science, and indeed that much of the work of contemporary scientists involves the same fundamental problems. The perception of the dramatically novel ideas of these early thinkers as ground-breaking (and as the precursors of theoretical science) is wholly mainstream (and very familiar to scholars of ancient philosophy); but these stronger interpretations arguably involve a degree of special pleading. Nicolaides is himself obviously of Greek ethnicity, and where one’s own group identity is involved it is all too easy to over-interpret works written long ago in radically different cultural and intellectual contexts (and in markedly different varieties of the language in question, with no surviving native speakers) – especially where, as in this case, the material is known only from fragmentary quotations by later authors. One is reminded of attempts by some Muslim thinkers to interpret various passages in the Qur’an (typically vague, or expressed in terms of the very different concepts of the day) as importing the insights of modern science.

In the publisher’s ‘blurb’, it is suggested that Nicolaides also ‘makes a convincing case that … the power of the Greek language … played a large role [in this intellectual revolution]’. This specific aspect of his position invites skeptical-linguistic attention.

Over the decades, various non-mainstream writers have proclaimed the special status of specific languages and their ensuing suitability for use in various domains or especial effectiveness in life generally. The cases made for such claims are typically weak, to say the least. Predictably, the language identified is often one favoured by the author, typically his/her own language or its ancestor. Because of its long history and respected status, and the admittedly profound intellectual achievements of ancient Greek civilisation, Greek is a major focus for non-mainstream claims of this (as of other) kinds. So too is Classical Latin; the importance of a knowledge of Latin for the understanding of the grammars of other languages and/or of logic has at times been grossly exaggerated. All such claims require close scrutiny.

As a matter of fact, Nicolaides’ treatment of language in this context is quite brief: the main discussion of Greek per se occupies only six pages (pp. 80-81, 85-88). He begins by highlighting the Greek writing system: as the Greeks became literate again in pre-Classical times, the Phoenician abjad (one symbol per phoneme, but with only consonants represented) was converted into a full essentially phonemic alphabet in which the vowels too were represented (by re-assigning consonant symbols not needed for Greek). Nicolaides proclaims that this made Greek ‘the first easily read and written language of the world’; but this view seems to arise out of a pro-alphabetic bias rather than from any empirical evidence (in his support he also quotes Bertrand Russell, who was many things but was not a linguist). It should be noted here that Leonard Shlain (see below) has argued that the adoption of alphabetic writing had a DAMAGING effect on culture. More seriously, it appears that all known alphabets and abjads are descended from a single ancestor script, suggesting that the very idea may have occurred to would-be codifiers of language only once. And, as I have stated in this forum, some prominent linguists hold that strictly phonemic alphabetic writing is in fact psychologically UNNATURAL.

When he resumes his discussion of Greek specifically (p. 85), Nicolaides admits his ignorance of the linguistics of Greek but endorses as ‘generally accepted’ the partisan notion that Greek displays ‘extraordinary richness’, ‘a plentiful vocabulary’, ‘thorough and rigorous grammar’ (it is not clear what these two adjectives mean in context; the grammar of ancient Greek was in fact rather chaotic), ‘diverse phonology’ (not explained in detail; in fact, Greek had only an average-sized inventory of phonemes), and in consequence ‘a highly expressive and communicative nature’. But, even if this were all true, it would not follow that Greek was especially suited to empirical science. It might even be argued that some specific features of the language (such as the ready expression of abstract notions in constructions such as ‘the good’ or ‘the unbounded’) encourage the development of metaphysics and the philosophy of mathematics rather than empirical science or mathematics as actually used in science. In any case, instead of attempting to justify these claims, Nicolaides at once resumes his discussion of the (unrelated) issues involving the alphabet; and when he returns to the language itself (pp. 86-88) his treatment is vague and unconvincing. He also weakens his case where he suggests in a blatantly folk-linguistic manner that some (unidentified) languages (in contrast with Greek) can be described as ‘poor’ and indeed are obstructive of clear thinking and communication.

Whatever the strengths of Nicolaides’ other ideas, these specifically linguistic aspects of his thesis cannot at present be taken seriously.

More next time!

Mark N

3 Responses to Non-standard Linguistics (new series) 3 Greek and Greek Philosophy

  1. carlfink says:

    “… as the Greeks became literate again in pre-Classical times, the Phoenician abjad (one symbol per phoneme, but with only consonants represented) was converted into a full essentially phonemic alphabet in which the vowels too were represented (by re-assigning consonant symbols not needed for Greek).”

    Again? Had they been literate in some non-phonetic language (hieroglyphics) before the Phoenician script?

  2. marknewbrook says:

    Thanks for your interest. Most scholars now accept the Ventris-Chadwick decipherment (initially 1952) of the ‘Linear B’ script used in Crete and elsewhere in southern Greece during the 2nd Millennium BCE. The script is a syllabary (one symbol per syllable), like Japanese kana; thus, phonological (‘phonetic’) but not alphabetic. Ventris & Chadwick deciphered it as early Greek, so the LANGUAGE was essentially the same (older phase) although the SCRIPT was totally different from the Greek alphabet (and not related to it). The script seems to have fallen out of use towards the end of the 2nd Millennium (the so-called Dark Age) and there is then no trace of writing in Greece until the emergence of the alphabet some hundreds of years later. Does that help? MN

  3. Sean Manning says:

    Parenthically, there are some reasons to doubt how novel the Presocratics were. Quite a few people who boast about them have not read much early literature in other languages, and certainly not in the original. A project which seriously compared early Greek, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Indian, and Chinese thought would be valuable but would require a team of scholars from different disciplines who understood the uncertainties but were willing to give their best attempt at an answer anyways.

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