LINGUIST List 10.1323

Thu Sep 9 1999

Disc: Universal Word Order

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Dan Moonhawk Alford, Re: 10.1320, Disc: Universal Word Order

Message 1: Re: 10.1320, Disc: Universal Word Order

Date: Thu, 9 Sep 1999 10:03:11 -0700 (PDT)
From: Dan Moonhawk Alford <>
Subject: Re: 10.1320, Disc: Universal Word Order

This morning Larry wrote, in part:

> the more one looks the more one finds, and here is another, more detailed,
> comment on word order diversity that I received and am passing on to the
> list. In my September 3 submission I had not mentioned the author because
> his name had not been included with the message fragment that I received.
> This time there is a name, however.
> Bill Lewis (University of Victoria, Canada) wrote the following:
> - begin quote: -
> The first division is between those languages who follow any word order
> strictly for pragmatic reasons, having other systems of argument
> disambiguation:

... "and those who don't" seems to be the logical extention.

> No order: Sahaptin (Sahaptian; Oregon, Washington), Papago (S.
> Uto-Aztecan), Warlpiri (Australia), Sanscrit (and others; Indo-European)
> (Others, like Yimas (Lower Sepik; New Guinea) and Basque are free but
> for the usual final position of the verb.)

I believe this part of your quote is why I was giving you a bad time,
Larry. You seemed to be giving only two choices and not representing the
kinds of languages (such as Sahaptin, or the River People's language --
the people who put up Sapir for 6 mo at a time, and still remember Ed and
Ben) that are root-driven with complex morphologies and sometimes
non-existent syntax (as when a word can also be a complete sentence). 

As a UCLA Chomskyan-trained linguist in the early '70s working on
Cheyenne, I found virtually nothing of the specifically Chomskyan
indoctrination useful -- only the harmonics of being linguistically
trained to look at language in a certain systematic way. In beginning a
dictionary (leaning on proto-Algonquian word lists full of nouns), I found
myself with an inexplicable predilection for nouns -- easy to use for
devising an alphabetic writing system.

Imagine my professional dismay on learning from native speakers, years
after I moved off the res, that the nouns are used in Algonquian languages
only in careful speech for strangers or language learners, making explicit
what is generally left implicit in daily speaking. Unlike Western
cultures, nouns are erased when the teaching is over, and systems of
science, law, religion, etc. are not based on them -- speakers are pointed
back to the verbs and deeper transparent roots the nouns and verbs are
built from, and therefore to dynamic, biologically described eventings
rather than static representations.

Wouldn't it be nice if our linguistics departments here in America could
return to being more general instead of so specialized, more
anthropological instead of theoretical, so that we could train linguists
again to work with the languages indigenous to this continent? The Bohmian
Science Dialogues held since 1992 have demonstrated that Whorf's insights
into indigenous languages were largely accurate, according to
linguistics-sensitive Natives. The Dialogues have also demonstrated that
the relationship-primary verb-only language structure possible in these
languages has intriguing correspondence to the mathematical languages of
non-euclidean geometry and topology necessary for quantum computations
(Nobel Laureate Brian Josephson recently proclaimed that the language of
quantum physics is the language of relationship), in contrast to our own
euclidean-like languages more suited to talking about 3D space plus time
than to integrated spacetime (perhaps a reason why 20th-century physics
insights have taken so long to percolate into our culture whereas the
Natives wonder why it took the Invaders' scientists so long to get to
where they are, and have been for countless millennia, despite the lack of
formalized math and science). So a little understanding of 20th-century
quantum insights, even from popular books, is a plus for any Native
language linguist -- required reading, IMO.

But that's only the half of it. For the arguably same reasons that von
Humboldt influenced a professional tradition lasting well over a century,
that any Ph.D. had to study Sanskrit -- for personal transformation in
translating the kinds of texts from which he formulated the Perennial
Philosophy -- I would like to point our present graduate students to
indescribable potential personal transformations that can occur when you
enter fully into a Native American community and open your heart to them
as well as offer your professional expertise. Then you can finish your
training by learning how to listen in a deeper way than you ever have,
with your heart as well as head, to everything you're told, bypassing your
normal academic filters. By joining in and playing your part in their
ongoing circle of communitas, you emulate the kind of linguist our
grandfather Sapir was.

warm regards, moonhawk

Visit Moonhawk's new webpage at
for recent presentations and hard-to-find classic articles.
(111,111,111 x 111,111,111 = 12,345,678,987,654,321)
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue