LINGUIST List 11.1926

Wed Sep 13 2000

Disc: Linguistics & Nominalising Languages

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Larry Trask, Disc: Linguistics & Nominalising Languages

Message 1: Disc: Linguistics & Nominalising Languages

Date: Wed, 13 Sep 2000 12:40:55 +0100
From: Larry Trask <>
Subject: Disc: Linguistics & Nominalising Languages

Moonhawk writes:

> As to the main point re: nouns being more static than verbs -- I couldn't
> agree more. In fact, I'd go farther: linguistic societies (language/-
> culture dynamics) that excessively nounify are after control by fear.

This is one of the most astounding statements I have ever seen.
I don't know how many nouns counts as excessive in Moonhawk's eyes.
But Australian languages look pretty nouny, so I guess we're meant
to understand that's why traditional Australian society is characterized
by perpetual warfare, bloodshed, and human sacrifice -- while the
comparatively verby Nahuatl was the language of the classical Aztec
civilization, well known for its kindliness and horror of bloodshed.

> Wow -- bingo! Indigenous epistemologies make an entrance for discussion's
> sake! What, indeed, would, say, an indigenous linguistics look like? Take
> away the "nouns" and you're really removing the verb's mandatoriness for
> X-number of NPs -- so take away pronouns as well, focusing on the dancing
> rather thab the dancers.

Moonhawk, are you telling us that there exist languages in which verbs
*routinely* -- in all or most modes of discourse, and not just in
intimate contexts -- occur without NPs, without pronouns, and without
pronominal agreement markers? If so, let's hear about these languages.

> Now, given that worldview, which is also inclusive rather than exclusive
> of the rest of Nature, what would "linguistics" look like? For sure it
> would have a larger-than-human focus on its subject matter, language,
> showing what we share with other Life as well as what is unique about
> us. 

Why would it do this? I know that you personally, Moonhawk, would like
to define 'language' as something shared by all or most living creatures,
and to define 'linguistics' accordingly. But why does it follow that
any linguistics developed in a non-European language would automatically
follow this line?

In fact, every linguistic traditon known to me, apart from the modern
European one, focuses exclusively on the one or two languages of
greatest importance to the investigators -- Greek, Chinese, classical
Arabic, or whatever -- and pays no attention at all to anything else.
Why would an indigenous North American linguistic tradition, if there
were one, necessarily be any different? If the Hopi, for example, had
ever developed a linguistic tradition, why would they have bothered their
heads about anything other than Hopi? 

> Its preoccupation would be "diving for roots" -- linguistically,
> epistemologically, and ontologically. Especially because each and every
> statement would have to obey the inexorable grammatical requirement of
> validity markers -- HOW do you know what you're stating? You experienced
> it? heard about it? common knowledge? dreamed it? thought it up? etc.

Again, why? Evidential systems are far from universal in non-European
languages. For example, evidentiality appears to be generally absent
in Australian languages. In the Papuan languages, William Foley reports
that evidentiality is completely absent except in a single family
(Engan, about eight languages) and a few unrelated languages adjacent
to it. Even in that hotbed of evidentiality, North America, evidentials
are described by Marianne Mithun merely as "not uncommon". Some North
American languages have evidentials; others don't -- sometimes even
within a single family. Some languages with evidentials have acquired
them only recently. So: why would a linguistics developed in a
non-European language automatically have evidentials?

> Is "science" (of language or anything else) "universal or culture-bound?

Universal -- even if, like every discipline, held back on occasion by
the culture-bound prejudices of its investigators.

> If no, does it mean some cultures are more 'science-compatible' than
> others?" 

No; not in principle. Of course, if your society is in thrall to
a powerful pope who threatens to burn you alive if you practice
certain kinds of science, that could be an obstacle.

> So provocative! If we delete all our nouns from linguistics, is
> there anything coherent left? 

This is a category error. Nouns are not a property of linguistics,
but of *languages* -- probably of all languages, though there are debates
about a few interesting cases. You might as well ask about the consequences
of removing vowels from linguistics, or of removing morphemes from

> Does our nominophilia rule our thinking
> about language? Are "root-y" language/culture groups just left out of the
> loop if they don't value talking in nouns?

No. Probably all languages have nouns, though the noun/verb contrast
is rather elusive in some languages, and perhaps even absent, according
to some observers. But the low discourse frequency of nouns reported
for some languages is probably only possible in discussing topics
which are very familiar to listeners. Can a speaker of one of these
noun-poor languages adequately explain the current oil crisis, or the
workings of a car engine, or the etymology of 'southpaw', without using 

> What does "science" mean? Diving for roots it means "knowing," but in
> cultural terms it describes a phase of European intellectual rigor which
> rewards linear thinking over whole-brain thinking. 

Oh, lord -- that awful word 'linear' again. Please, can we agree to ban
'linear' except in its mathematical senses? When used as a po-mo term
of abuse, as here, it has no identifiable meaning.

Moonhawk, are you seriously suggesting that Albert Einstein, while
following the wonderfully imaginative thinking that led to special
relativity, was merely engaging in some third-rate 'linear' variety
of thinking, and carelessly failing to use most of his brain? Or that
Richard Feynman was doing the same when he dreamed up Feynman diagrams?
Or the founders of that fabulously counter-intuitive system quantum
mechanics? Really? Which "non-linear" thinkers have come up with
more impressive achievements than these? Or even equally impressive?

> Seen that way, there is
> no science except the true Western European version; everyone else is just
> on the way to being Science. Funny that linguists fell for this, given the
> fact that our brand of science comes from Panini in India. 

Really? All of linguistics descends from the ancient Indian grammarians?
Boas, Saussure, Sapir, Jespersen, Trubetzkoy, Jakobson, Bloomfield, Weinreich,
Chomsky, Labov, Lakoff, and the rest -- just following in Panini's
footsteps, eh?

> But what about sciences, such as astrology, 

Astrology is not a science. It's only a belief system, like Methodism
or Buddhism -- or, for that matter, like Christian Science.

> whose principles of
> observation, correlation, and prediction, along with the use of math, 

These features are not enough to make a science. You gotta have some
results, some successes. Astrology doesn't have any.

Those hapless punters in Las Vegas, who record the numbers coming up
on roulette wheels in order to predict what numbers will come up next,
exhibit all the characteristics just named -- yet their guesses do not
constitute science.

> gave rise to our version of science 

No, it didn't. There is no sense in which physics or any other science
descends from astrology. You might argue that the beginnings of
astronomy were somewhat tied up with astrology, for obvious reasons,
but that's it. Astrology has never given rise to anything except
more astrology.

> (Newton and other founding fathers were
> astrologers) 

No doubt. So what?

Franz Boas and Edward Sapir were born and raised in Germany. Does it
follow that American linguistics is specifically German in its outlook?

> yet is disdained and called "unscientific"? 

For the very best of reasons: it is a hopeless farrago of nonsense,
and it doesn't work. It has no achievements to its name, beyond
providing any number of astrologers with a comfortable living. 

> What of cultures
> whose languages have no equals-sign copulas and don't value nouns -- are
> they hopelessly beyond the pale of ever even potentially becoming
> "scientific" 

No. Speakers of any language can express and discuss physics, or
linguistics, or anything else, in their language if they want to.
Of course, if they haven't done this before, then some work will have
to be done first. But such projects are carried out routinely these days.
Speakers of Finnish, Basque, and other languages have successfully
engineered those languages to enable any subject to be adequately

Even English-speakers have had to do this. In the 19th century, work
in historical linguistics was mostly published in German. When English-
speakers decided they wanted to write about the topic in English, they
first had to undertake some engineering to make this possible -- and
they found this a chore. Look at the translator's preface to the English
translation of Brugmann. And English and German are both European
languages, and fairly closely related.

> or do they have their own version of "science" which we have
> completely overlooked for centuries because of our True Science lens? 

They do not. If you disagree, then please present some examples of
successful science outside what you call "True Science". Successful,
I mean, in more than making its believers feel good.

> Are
> only thingy languages science-compatible for our brand of 'thing'uistics?

No. I find it rather distressing that somebody should be suggesting,
now, that linguistics, or physics, or anything, can only be adequately
expressed and discussed in languages of certain structural types.
To be blunt, I had thought this was a Eurocentric prejudice which
went out the window decades ago.

Larry Trask
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH

Tel: 01273-678693 (from UK); +44-1273-678693 (from abroad)
Fax: 01273-671320 (from UK); +44-1273-671320 (from abroad)
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