LINGUIST List 11.1946

Thu Sep 14 2000

Disc: Linguistics & Nominalising Languages

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Dan Moonhawk Alford, Re: 11.1932, Disc: Linguisics & Nominalising Languages
  2. Larry Trask, Disc: Linguistics & Nominalising Languages

Message 1: Re: 11.1932, Disc: Linguisics & Nominalising Languages

Date: Thu, 14 Sep 2000 09:38:16 -0700 (PDT)
From: Dan Moonhawk Alford <>
Subject: Re: 11.1932, Disc: Linguisics & Nominalising Languages

On Thu, 14 Sep 2000, Kenneth Allen Hyde <kennyUDel.Edu> wrote:

> > the speakers specifically of Algonkian languages say they can talk all
> > day long and never utter a single noun.
> I'm not going to argue with this, because I'm sure that it's quite true
> that this is what native speakers of these languages report. One question
> that does immediately leap to mind, however, is whether there is a reason
> to accept this report at face value? 

Nobody took anything at face value; bad assumption that that was all I did
as a linguist of 30-some years. That's the punchline of a much longer
discussion and analysis. I've known some of these speakers for over 20
years, and have been discussing this with them for most of that time. Most
have doctorates, are linguistically savvy, and have read Whorf in the
original language (i.e., instead of through the eyes of others). I've been
in high-level discussions between them and eminent quantum physicists,
I've sat in ceremony with them, I've partied late into the night with some
of them -- and I trust their own native intuitions about their own
languages, especially when they, not I, go back and forth between theirs
and English all day, every day, and they know what they have to do inside
their own heads to manage it. Let's say my discriminative criterion is
that over decades I've learned to trust their wisdom over and over about a
multitude of things, including their nascent indigenous linguistics
observations, far more than I would a typical reservation "informant." 

Have I yet made clear why I do not bring forward their claim to this
august List as a trivial matter but one I believe is informed and deserves
serious consideration and discussion, as now seems happening?

> Does anyone have actual corpora of the appropriate data, and has
> anyone done the necessary analysis and coding to verify this report? 
> After all, if there is one thing that sociolinguists have shown over
> and over again, it is that people tend to over-report language
> behavior that they value, and under-report behavior that is
> stigmatized.

Until these indigenous linguists produce such, see Whorf p243, the Nootka
example where three NPs in English melt into 3 verbs plus infixes -- no
nouns anywhere to be seen. It's been sitting there in Whorf the whole
time, and he even did it in an arresting graphic so people wouldn't miss
it! Of course he couldn't forsee generations of linguists taught to sneer
at the mere mention of his name, scaring them away from reading his
writings or mentioning ANY of his ideas, a dark age we seem finally to be
emerging from.
> But what I wanted to bring up was not this argument, but rather the issue
> of nouns and verbs, and other things, which seems to be a the heart of the
> discussion. Both sides seem to be discussing noun-oriented languages and
> verb-oriented languages and the concepts of nouns and verbs without making
> the terminology precise. One side says "oh, nouns are things in language"
> and the other side says "oh, nouns are only things in linguistic
> analyses," but both sides continue to talk about these so-called things.
> Verbs, of course, get the same treatment.
> Let's be a little more precise. We are actually talking about several
> different levels of experience. There is the "real world" level,
> which is the world around us which comes to us, moment by moment, as a
> vast multi-sensory experience/perception event. There is the
> "language" level, which consists of various mental "objects" that are,
> in part, created by our categorization of the "real world" as well as
> the systems that process these objects. Also, there is the
> "linguistics" level, which is a metalanguage level where we describe
> and talk about the objects and systems of language. Mind you, these
> are not the only levels to worry about, but they are probably the most
> important for the current discussion and will do for going along with. 
> Also, I won't, for this discussion, get into any of the mediations and
> interpenetrations between the various levels.

[snip of excellent distinctions and discussion]
> Now, I don't work on Native American languages (right now, at least
> *grin*), but from what the various participants in this discussion
> have said, it seems like an alternative analysis is possible. Rather
> than speaking of noun-oriented languages and verb-oriented languages,
> it seems like we could simply say that some languages (such as
> English, or French) set the noun/verb distinction fairly close to the
> middle of the static- dynamic perception event continuum. Other
> languages, such as the Athabaskan languages, might be said to set the
> noun/verb distinction near the static end, resulting in a language
> where most perception events are encoded by language objects that we
> label verbs in our metalanguage. NB: I am using the static/dynamic
> description for the sake of exposition only. It is quite possible that
> other labels may be more relevant for specific langugages.

I like it! And then, for short, we can call them "more nouny" and "more
verby" languages -- back almost where we started but one circling down on
the spiral with new distinctions. ;-) It's reminiscent of my treatment of
iconic vs arbitrary: on the one hand, strictly arbitrary; but on the
other, a similar balancing continuum between iconic/arbitrary, with
English leaning to the arbitrary side and Amerind to the primarily iconic.
> Oh, one point, since this was also at the heart of the debate, is that a
> linguistic metalanguage that was based on a soi-disant "verb-oriented"
> language would not necessarily be better than one that was based on a
> "noun-oriented" language. 

Gosh, did "better" enter the discussion before now? I thought we were
discussing alternatives.

> I personally would expect that there would still be a tendency to
> grant concepts from the metalanguage more "reality" than they actually
> have. In other words, there would still be the tendency to think that
> terms of the metalanguage were features of the "objects" and systems
> of the language level, or even the perception events of the "real
> world" level. These conflations and confusions would be different
> than the ones that we find in some of our own linguistic theory, but I
> doubt that there would be any fewer of them. =)

This is typical for expectations from the outside of the other way of
thinking. Could be right -- who knows?!
> > 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
> Conversely, how could training in such a language prepare someone to
> analyse and describe languages that "shuffle" thousands of roots and
> affixes to generate new words, where each word has very clear nominal,
> verbal, or other features that change depending on the morphological
> composition? Equally poorly, or equally well (depending on your
> pessimism/optimism orientation).

Again, who knows, unless we open dialogues with them so we can get to
*trust* each other and listen deeply?

> > The map is not the territory. Nouns do not exist in languages
> "Noun" is a metalinguistic term which is useful when talking about
> languages. This doesn't mean that nouns don't exist, just that we
> have to recognize that their only reality is of our own making (and is
> arbitrary). Perhaps it would be better to say that something exists
> and we choose to call that something "nouns."

> > I'm not sure how to characterize without offending you the thinking style
> > which Native Americans find offensive -- nay, childish, if truth be
> > known.
> Perhaps you are looking for the distinction between focusing on the
> "real world" level versus focusing on the "language" level? In other
> words, one style (which some people call "right-brained" thinking)
> attends to the non-categorized perception events while another style
> attends to categories of events. Both styles, of course, have their
> advantages and disadvantages. My instinct would be to say that those
> people who attend to the non-categorized perception events will
> probably be more likely to notice subtle interrelations between event
> moments, but less likely to generalize. On the other hand, the people
> who attend to the categorized perceptions will be more likely to
> recognize broad general patterns, but may miss the fine-detail
> connections. Hopefully, as linguists we will all bring a balanced
> approach, using both styles of thinking to develop our descriptions
> and models of language. =)

Indeed! In your dichotomous labelling, you forgot to include "whole-brain"
thinking, which characterizes quantum physics (which most people
understand next to nothing about), Native "seventh-generational" and the
best of linguistics thinking. This is precisely why the whole-brain model
is a perfect basis for the next incarnation of Western Science, folks! I
truly don't understand why linguists of all people fight me on this! The
alternative "science" is Newtonian science, which excludes meaning
altogether, yet linguists love to call linguistics "scientific"! What up
wit' 'at?!
> > the combination of no nouns and no copulas, which makes hash out of
> > Western logic, Western monocausal deterministic science, etc.
> Why would the lack of nouns in any language (or group of languages) have
> any bearing on the validity of logic as a tool, 

I've written on this before, and feared repeating, but take a syllogism
like "Socrates' teacher was a woman. All women are mortal. Therefore
Socrates' teacher was mortal" and remove NPs and copulas. What's
left? Certainly no useable logic such as we give the name "logic" to.

> or on the scientific method (which was never "monocausal" except when
> it was dominated by religion and became addicted to the "prime urge"
> idea)?

Really?! So *that* explains the plethora of Whorf critics who mistakenly
attributed the "strong-form" of monocausal determinism to him! I wondered
why they did that! Please re-read your classical physics and notice the
many ecological class-action suits around, such as the current Lummi
Indian one where they basically have to prove what barrells from what
plants dumped the specific chemicals killing their fishbeds.

> Neither logic nor science says that nouns must exist (nor verbs, for
> that matter). Of course, if you start from one or more false
> premises, you might construct a logical argument that "proves" that
> nouns are a necessary condition for language, but that doesn't mean
> the logic is wrong, simply that the premises were.
All you have to know is the difference between the Euclidean and
non-euclidean geometries that underlie classical vs relativity/quantum
physics in order to see the object vs relationship models of mathematics
underlying science. The rest follows. Q.E.D.

warm regards, moonhawk
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Message 2: Disc: Linguistics & Nominalising Languages

Date: Thu, 14 Sep 2000 18:12:12 +0100
From: Larry Trask <>
Subject: Disc: Linguistics & Nominalising Languages

Moonhawk writes:

> 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 

Gee whiz, Moonhawk. I'm sorry if I seem confrontational, but I'm afraid
I disagree with every word you say, so there's not much room for
common ground.

> vs. ready to dialogue 

Hmmm. I hadn't realized 'dialogue' had become a verb. Must have had
my back turned. But you know what an old curmudgeon I am. 

> 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


> > I don't know how many nouns counts as excessive in Moonhawk's eyes.
> Thank you. More than zero. 

More than zero? Gosh, Moonhawk -- you've really got a down on nouns,
haven't you? Strange. Probably every language on the planet has nouns,
so you appear to be dismissing our entire linguistic achievement, as
a species, as not up to your exacting standards. ;-)

Why do you hate nouns and not verbs? What are the Rocky Mountains
up to, exactly, that we'd be better off naming them with a verb instead of
a noun?

Maybe I should start a counter-campaign against verbs -- nasty,
slippery, slimy things that they are. We certainly don't need the
horrid things. See page 286 of Andrew Carstairs-McCarthy's article
in J. R. Hurford et al. (eds), Approaches to the Evolution of Language
(Cambridge, 1998), for a splendid example of verbless English. After
all, you know where you are with nouns, the sturdy little fellows. ;-)


> > 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. ;-) 

Several things. First, let's assume for the moment that your Algonquian
informants are accurate. Then, what you're telling me is *not* that
Algonquian languages lack nouns altogether, and *not* that nouns are
rare to absent in Algonquian discourse generally. All you're telling
me is that nouns are rare or absent in *certain styles of discourse*.
Therefore, we are not talking about a characteristic of Algonquian
languages, but only about a feature of certain styles of discourse --
a very different thing.

*Every* language has several styles of discourse, distinguished by
various linguistic features. If rarity of nouns is a feature of
certain styles of Algonquian discourse, that's an interesting
observation, but you have no right to elevate a feature of certain 
styles to a characteristic of the languages.

Second, why should we believe these reports? We linguists have
learned, painfully, that speakers do not always report their own speech
accurately. We must listen, of course, to what they tell us about
their languages, but we must not believe every word they say. This
is why fieldworkers do not proceed merely by interrogating speakers,
and instead work hard at obtaining recordings of spontaneous speech.

All of us have our own stories about the unreliability of speakers'
reports of their own speech. I have some from my own work on Basque.
Many readers will have seen Labov's report of the NE American
construction illustrated by this example: 'These roads are terrible
any more.' He found a number of speakers who swore blind to him
that they never said such things, and that such things were not
even possible -- yet who said these things spontaneously ten minutes

I recall that once I told a British acquaintance of mine, a physicist,
that he pronounced the English modal auxiliary 'can' as [kn] --
with a schwa -- when it was unstressed. He denied this heatedly.
When I repeated my statement, he became so furious I was afraid he
was going to hit me. The fact that my statement was true was
irrelevant: he felt that I was accusing him of bad English. In short,
he was reporting what he *thought* he should report, and not what
he said. It didn't even occur to him to try saying something like
'I can do it' and to listen to his speech: he already "knew" what the
"facts" had to be. 

I can add another example. Years ago, I worked at a place with an
Arabic department. All the Arabic teachers were Egyptians. One day,
a British friend asked one of the Egyptians "When you chat with your
colleagues, do you usually speak classical Arabic or colloquial Arabic?"
The reply: "Oh, we usually speak classical Arabic."

Wrong. Completely wrong. They always spoke colloquial Arabic,
of course.

Now, my Egyptian colleague was not dishonest. He sincerely *believed*
that he and his friends normally chatted in classical Arabic, and
he was reporting his beliefs about his speech, not the objective facts --
which could hardly have been more different from his report. He 
didn't even know what language he normally spoke. 

I know nothing about Algonquian languages beyond the snippets I've
seen in the linguistic literature. The numerous examples I've seen
come largely from stories (a favorite ploy of fieldworkers), but
sometimes from everyday speech. They contain just as many nouns
as sentences in any other language I've ever seen. 

Indeed, the Algonquian languages famously have a noun-gender system --
somewhat unusual in North America, where gender is uncommon. And
they could hardly have a noun-gender system if they didn't have nouns --
now could they?

Are there any Algonquianists out there who can comment on this?
> 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. 

What is the claim? That Algonquian languages have no nouns? Plainly
false. That Algonquian speakers practically never use nouns at all?
Plainly false. That nouns are rare to absent in certain styles of
discourse in these languages? Possibly true -- but so what? If
it's true, then you've identified a linguistic marker of certain styles
of discourse -- no more. But is it true? Is this claim backed up
by hours of recording of spontaneous speech in Algonquian languages?
Or are you merely believing it because somebody has told you so,
and you'd like to believe it?

Remember my Egyptians.

> 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 

I am not surprised. Here, at least, is something we can agree on.

> -- and structuralism in general, I might add. 

More surprising. I would have thought a good grounding in American
structuralist linguistics was an excellent preparation for studying
native American languages. After all, it was very largely the study
of native American languages that led to American structuralism.

> 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 -- 

These observations are not exactly rare in the work of the Bad Guy
linguists who don't believe everything native speakers tell them.

> 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.

Indeed. In fact, I know of no linguist who dismisses speakers' reports
out of hand. But I know of plenty of linguists who prefer to base
their conclusions on the objective observation of spontaneous speech,
rather than on what speakers tell them. And the work I've seen on
Algonquian languages reports lots and lots of nouns.

Moonhawk, are you suggesting that we should throw away our observations
of what speakers do, and simply listen wide-eared to whatever speakers 
tell us and copy it down? Is this part of your program for escaping
the dead hand of linear-thinking western science and replacing it
with a more successful holistic model? ;-)


> > 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. 

Sorry; not relevant. I was talking about an indigenous linguistic
tradition arising in a healthy Hopi culture before the European
incursions. But that possibility is gone.

Native American languages and cultures have been devastated and often
destroyed, and the survivors live under the heavy hand of European
culture, including linguistics. It is understandable that these
survivors should band together, as best they can, to consolidate
against their common enemy. It's also understandable that they might
*now* see some value in turning to the examination of their languages
as one way of developing solidarity. I know of other such cases
elsewhere in the world, Basque being a good example. But this is
not at all the same thing as developing a spontaneous indigenous
tradition of language study. 

> You think I make this stuff up, don't you?! said it, not me. ;-)

> But of course, I rarely search my databanks for examples until forced to 
> in one way or another. 

No comment. ;-)
[on the nature of science]

> 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.

Well, the Linguist List is not the place to pursue these matters.
Suffice it to say that I agree with none of this, and that I find some
of it outrageous.

Just let me mention two names: 'Anasazi' and 'Easter Island'. Two
magnificent ecological disasters perpetrated by indigenous peoples
who had never heard of western science, or even of Europe.
> 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.

Then why Anasazi? Reply, please. 

[on my assertion that speaking of "removing the nouns from linguistics"
is a category error]

> 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.

Moonhawk, I don't believe a word of this. If nouns don't exist in
languages, then neither do verbs -- even though you keep telling us
how wonderful the verbs are. And neither do morphemes, or tenses,
or words, or anything else recognized by linguists.

How can you keep extolling the virtues of verbs when you don't believe
that verbs exist? For that matter, how can you criticize European languages 
for having too many nouns when you don't believe that nouns exist?
Do I detect a tiny inconsistency here? ;-)


> > 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.

It is not a question of being tempting, or of being accepted or
rejected by native speakers. It is a question of examining
spontaneous speech and finding out what it's like. Without good
hard data to support your position, and lots of it, you are relying
entirely on the technique mathematicians call 'proof by intimidation'. ;-)

> > 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, 

Moonhawk, I don't care what you're assured of. What evidence have
you got? In the absence of persuasive evidence from spontaneous
speech, I refuse to believe that Algonquian-speakers can explain
the workings of a car engine without using any nouns.

Remember my Egyptians, who couldn't even report accurately what
*language* they spoke. 

[on my objection to the use of 'linear' as a term of abuse]

> 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. 

Oh, feel free. I am not so easily offended.

> And I was using it before po-mo reared its ugly head.

Ah -- since you apparently share my view of the po-mos, doesn't
it worry you that they seem to have aligned themselves with you? ;-)
[on my examples of Einstein, Feynman, and the quantum physicists]

> How Traskian of you to anticipate my own examples of brilliant non-linear
> thinkers, 

OK. Let's see if I follow this. You accuse "western scientists" of
something called "linear thinking" -- which is bad. I point out that
the thinking of western scientists is often as non-linear as you can get --
assuming this term has any meaning. And now you respond by agreeing that
"western science" involves non-linear thinking after all. Right?
So what's your beef? Western science is non-linear and therefore good,

> who were aided in no small part by non-euclidean geometries in
> their thinking, 

The quantum physicists? What on earth has non-Euclidean geometry
got to do with quantum physics? Anyway, what's special about
non-Euclidean geometry? Are you now declaring this to be "non-linear"
or "holistic" or something? It looks to me like just another piece
of the scientific and mathematical tradition you object to so much.

> 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. 

So did Newton. So did Mendeleyev. So did Darwin. So did every
scientist of distinction. Making people see things in new ways
is very largely our definition of distinction in science.
So what is your position?

> This is what I mean about physics
> encountering meaning only in the 20th-century, once new thinking tools
> were recognized. 

Eh? Scientists, mathematicians, and others have been inventing new
thinking tools since antiquity. You don't think trigonometry was
a new thinking tool? Or Euclidean geometry? Or algebra? Or the
atomic theory? Or the periodic table? Or natural selection? Gad.

> But then, aren't you the one who proclaimed publicly that
> "analysis" always includes "synthesis"? We must work on totally different
> student projects! ;-)

I'm afraid I don't recall ever saying this -- at least, not in these words.

[on the suggestion that Panini invented western linguistics]

> Of course -- in seeing language as symbolic patternment! Why do you think
> Humboldt founded this discipline in the first place? 

Humboldt? Now it's Humboldt who founded linguistics, and not Panini?
This is becoming surreal, Moonhawk.

> Just to trace the family relatioships of Indo-European languages?! 

It's been years since I read Humboldt, but I don't recall that working
out the IE family tree was ever one of his priorities. His interests
were quite different.

> 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. 

I find this a very surprising summary of the origins of linguistics.
But I won't pursue this here: other readers are perfectly capable
of reaching their own evaluations. I'll just mention that I'm surprised 
to see Moonhawk singling out that proto-Chomskyan Panini as his hero. 

> Is your claim then that NONE of the aforementioned linguists owe ANYTHING
> to Panini? Silly argument.

I said no such thing, Moonhawk. Here are your words, verbatim.

> Funny that linguists fell for this, given the
> fact that our brand of science comes from Panini in India. 

This is not an assertion that *some* linguists owe *something* to Panini.
This is an assertion that Panini invented our linguistics. And that's
what I was objecting to.

[snip passage on astrology -- to general relief, probably ;-)]

> 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."

I don't recall saying anything about "the psychology of the ancients",
and I can't even guess what this phrase is supposed to mean. As for
Jung, I'm afraid he is not one of my heroes: seldom has anyone acquired
such eminence for so little reason.

[on my insistence that astrology gave rise to no science]

> Right, and philology never gave birth to anything but ... well,
> philology. ;-) 

Moonhawk, is this supposed to be an argument? 


> > 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. 

Really? OK; please explain how Bloomfield, Bloch, Hockett, Harris,
Chomsky, Weinreich, Labov, Lakoff, and the rest are specifically
Humboldtian in their approach, or at least specifically German.
Me, I would have said that Bloomfield and the American structuralists
were positively non-Humboldtian, if not actually anti-Humboldtian.

> 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! ;-)

A strange remark. If we called our subject 'tongue-craft' instead of
'linguistics', would it *ipso facto* be any different?

I used to teach physics. Some everyday English words are also
technical terms in physics, like 'work', 'force' and 'power'.
And I found this to be a problem. Many students found it difficult
to dissociate the physical concept of work from the everyday sense
of the word. But they had less trouble with Latinate terms like
'angular momentum', which they could approach with no preconceptions.

By the way, a question. Some European languages use the same word
for 'time' and 'tense'. Does anybody know if this usage causes
problems for students of linguistics in those languages?

[snip more astrology]
[snip language engineering]

> 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. 

Sorry, Moonhawk: I don't believe a word of this.

> 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"? 

You are taking it for granted that native American languages have no nouns.
This is false.

> Or
> would that distort too much the insights that flow from these languages
> the way quantum insights spring from non-euclidean mathematics?

First, there is no "non-Euclidean math", but only non-Euclidean geometry.
Second, so far as I know, quantum mechanics has nothing at all to do
with non-Euclidean geometry. You must be thinking of general relativity.
Third, quantum mechanics developed squarely out of 19th-century classical
physics: it was not born *sui generis*. Fourth, if speakers of native
American languages have ever come up with novel scientific insights,
on a par with quantum mechanics, then I have yet to hear about them.


> > > 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.

What "quantum leap"? You asked if only certain types of languages were
compatible with our brand of linguistics. I replied "No; of course not --
we've all known this for ages." So what's your complaint?

Sorry to be such an old grouch, folks, but I'm sure Moonhawk is
expecting no less from me. ;-)

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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