LINGUIST List 11.1929

Wed Sep 13 2000

Disc: Linguistics & Nominalising Languages

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Dan Moonhawk Alford, Re: 11.1926, Disc: Linguistics & Nominalising Languages

Message 1: Re: 11.1926, Disc: Linguistics & Nominalising Languages

Date: Wed, 13 Sep 2000 17:01:38 -0700 (PDT)
From: Dan Moonhawk Alford <>
Subject: Re: 11.1926, Disc: Linguistics & Nominalising Languages

Ah, my dueling companion -- so we meet again, ready to clash as in the
days of EvolLang lore, you with your rapier ken, and me with only an eagle
feather and my pipe. What a difference there is between your response and
Benji's -- incredibly confrontive and dismissive vs. ready to dialogue and
assist me in saying things in an acceptable way. I'm really in a
dialoguing mode right now, but I'll do what I can for things I haven't
already discussed with Benji and Mark.

On Wed, 13 Sep 2000, Larry Trask wrote:

> 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.

Thank you. More than zero. I 've already answered the fear and control.

> > 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.

Larry -- once more, as in years of lore, the speakers specifically of
Algonkian languages say they can talk all day long and never utter a
single noun. I usually take pains to point out that this is true in "daily
talk" (social alpha level of my model), but of course not in teaching
mode; but then they're earased. ;-) See my dialogue with Benji for the
rest of the answer about recovering them or not.

You've seen me pass along this claim at least a score of times. If you
choose to dismiss it out of hand because it flies in the face of the work
of past centuries of dedicated, honest, European researchers of these
languages, fine. I'm sure you represent a great many of the people who may
still be reading this discussion. But I was one of those researchers --
and because of the help I've gotten from Native academics since I left the
res, I see how UCLA's fascination with Chomsky failed to adequately train
me for my encounter with Native American languages -- and structuralism in
general, I might add. Of course, my area of specialty was African
languages then. Duh! Amazing how little things, like avoiding going to
VietNam, add up to bigger, unexpected things. How could it train me for
languages that shuffle 80 kinesthetic/relationship roots to create new
words on the fly -- more verby than nouny, where one word can also be a
full sentence -- especially when linguists dismiss out of hand the native 
participants claims of what it's like from the inside, especially when
they can speak both languages and we can't? But we've been here before.
> > 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?

Oh, you caught me! I was thinking my favorite languages but didn't say so,
leading you to the erroneous conclusion that I was generalizing to
indigenous qua indigenous. My bad!
> 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?

Well, Larry, I guess the only way to say it is that I've been present at
discussions by American Natives where they did comparative etymologies on
their languages ... and you haven't seen such a nascent Native American
linguistics in action. You think I make this stuff up, don't you?! But of
course, I rarely search my databanks for examples until forced to in one
way or another. My answer just above anticipates [snip] below on

> > 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.

Again, old duelling terrain for us, my more than worthy adversary. Some
people justifiably feel that Western Science has been an obstacle to
living harmoniously with the eco-systems of Earth, living without polluted
air and waters, and that it was the Endarkenment's left-brain-only
principles, torturing Nature's secrets from her (to steal from Bacon, I
think), with little regard for seventh-generation consequences (what we
quaintly call holistic or comprehensive thinking), that followed slavishly
have brought us to the brink of ecological crises. 

The part as an object, stripped of its environmental relationships and the
whole, then seen that way -- that's our still current cultural/cognitive
heritage. Holistic (respect) thinking and real dialogue tend to foster
actions imbued with wisdom.
> > 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 linguistics.

Sorry, Larry, Benji's got a better phenomenological handle on this than
you seem to. The map is not the territory. Nouns do not exist in languages
- only in the minds of linguists (and tortured students) who in after the
fact analysis proclaim that in a particular utterance, x was used as a
noun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition, etc., using the professional
lens of what parts of speech Latin had, as the base, and then all the
flotsam and jetsam that don't fit neatly into the boxes.
> > 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. 

My speaker-friends reject that assumption, tempting tho it is to those of
our training. 

> 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 nouns?

Yes, I'm assured they can, just like speakers of all human languages. But
let's factor in, as well, that the 80-root structure is generally used
culturally in a generalist way, on my alpha social level, to allow
intelligibility for children and elders alike.

So where do you go to by granting that? Have we reached the merest
possibility that such a premise could be valid, as with Benji, for even
discussion's sake?
> > 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.

Yes, old terrain again. And I should've used left-brain for parallelism. 
I'm not sure how to characterize without offending you the thinking style
which Native Americans find offensive -- nay, childish, if truth be
known. And I was using it before po-mo reared its ugly head.

> 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?

How Traskian of you to anticipate my own examples of brilliant non-linear
thinkers, who were aided in no small part by non-euclidean geometries in
their thinking, and try misguidedly to use them against me, much like
Malotki treats Whorf. They broke out of left-brain-only entailments and
made people see things new ways. This is what I mean about physics
encountering meaning only in the 20th-century, once new thinking tools
were recognized. But then, aren't you the one who proclaimed publicly that
"analysis" always includes "synthesis"? We must work on totally different
student projects! ;-)
> > 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?

Of course -- in seeing language as symbolic patternment! Why do you think
Humboldt founded this discipline in the first place? Just to trace the
family relatioships of Indo-European languages?! It was the translation of
Sanskrit, and Panini's linguists, that rescued us from the clutches of
Greek and Roman musings, and put us on a sound footing, as it were. Is
your claim then that NONE of the aforementioned linguists owe ANYTHING to
Panini? Silly argument.
> > 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.

Yes, I believed the same like a good culture-bearer until I finally
learned the language over many years and found my culture's admonitions
full of its own susperstition. I can only talk from my own personal
experience with it, which belies all your statements made from no
experience. There's nothing to believe in, Larry -- ya just gotta do the
math and allow for occasional coincidences which are meaningful to you and
you alone. If you won't take the years to learn it, there's nothing I can
or even want to say to try to convince you of anything. You have your
ontology, I have mine. Your gross mischaracterization of what Jung
characterized as "the psychology of the ancients" should be marked with an
evidential meaning, "so its said, but not from personal experience."
> > 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.

Right, and philology never gave birth to anything but ... well,
philology. ;-) That's okay if you wish to think so, and you probably have
lots of readers cheering you on! ["Yay!" goes the crowd.]
> > (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?

Yes -- and they got Humboldtian linguistics training. Of course all the
high-falutin' words from our French vocabulary tends to mask the fact. All
systems of public control in English are dominated by French, not
Germanic, vocabulary -- keeps the riff-raff out! ;-)

> > 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.
I never made a living at it, nor even contributed to that of others. I
don't do charts any longer, but that's no sign of recantation, oh fearsome
Inquisitor. I learned what I learned and will not be scared away from my
knowledge by unfounded ridicule by my colleague.
> > 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
> handled.

Yes, of course, Larry -- but you convenient forgot to include the
peculiarities found in the American Indian languages under discussion
which are not found in the many, many other languages around the world --
the combination of no nouns and no copulas, which makes hash out of
Western logic, Western monocausal deterministic science, etc. The question
is: with that much work to create suitable grammatical fictions called
nouns, is it really *compatible* with such a nouny notion of "science"? Or
would that distort too much the insights that flow from these languages
the way quantum insights spring from non-euclidean mathematics?
> > 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.

Pass -- I'll stand on my hypothetical for now.
> > 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.

Well, if you can explain to me the quantum leap from in-"compatible" to
impossible, and accusing me of all people of Eurocentric prejudice because
of it, I'll eat my hat. 

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