LINGUIST List 7.206

Thu Feb 8 1996

Disc: Linguistics & Millennium, Re: vol-7-102

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. Dan Moonhawk Alford, Disc: Linguistics & Millennium

Message 1: Disc: Linguistics & Millennium

Date: Tue, 06 Feb 1996 12:19:06 PST
From: Dan Moonhawk Alford <>
Subject: Disc: Linguistics & Millennium
I want to commend Dr. Nerlich for a great summary on Linguistics and the 
Millennium. And I am, as usual, truly disturbed by some of my 
colleagues' comments about science, and what they think 'real science' is:

Zvjezdana Vrzic argued (and we fully agree with this view) that "trying 
to be more like a 'real science' is probably justified in the sense of 
introducing more rigor into the field and certainly, politically useful, 
but it may be harmful if this 'comparing' and 'borrowing' is 
indiscriminate. The object of our study is different, both 'natural' and 
'social'" - and Pius ten Hacken and Jonathan Alcantara would add: cognitive.

Perhaps some weren't looking when it happened (I guess 'you had to BE 
there'!), but physics upped the ante on what 'real science' is during 
this past century with its relativity and quantum insights. The insights 
were about what 'reality' is, which linguistics is supposed to have at 
least a faint idea about when we describe the relationship of language to 

It seems everyone thinks 'real science' is 'more rigor,' as if 
linguistics has been deficient in that area recently! Unwittingly, all 
those who call for linguistics being more 'scientific' are indeed usually 
using the word as an academic knee-jerk buzzword meaning merely 'quite 
rigorous', which is currently supplanting other words used throughout 
history fulfilling the same function in different eras: 'philosophical', 
'logical', etc. Nobody seems to understand the incredibly pioneering 
stance that linguistics is in the position to provide in modern academe! 

	a) a particle physicist ('REAL science') once said to me after 
many long discussions, that if physics had to deal with meaning the way 
linguistics does, it could no longer be a 'real science.' Is THIS what we 
are aching to become? This way lies madness and those who want even MORE 
rigor after four decades of the reign of terror of the mathematicians, 
taking us away from anthropological HUMAN concerns, are really after more 
abstraction in my humble opinion.

	b) Unfortunately for my particle physicist friend, physics now 
HAS to deal with meaning, called in its parlance 'the quantum realm.' My 
combined experience in linguistics, Native America and modern physics 
over the past 25 years each allows me to make the following equation: 
What is 'quantum' to the physicist is 'spirit' to the Native American and 
'meaning' to the linguist and social scientist, according to the insights 
from the 'Dialogue between Indigenous and Western Scientists' sponsored 
by the Fetzer Institute from 1992-6.
	As 'meaning' is the complementary truth to 'structure' in 
linguistics, those are called 'quantum' vs 'old' or 'Newtonian' truths in 
physics, and the 'realm of spirit' as complementarily opposed to the 
world of the physical senses. None of these are metaphors for any of the 
others, but together they accurately represent the present state of 
Western fragmentation of thought, that they should be seen as separate.

	c) Therefore, although the very notion of 'science' has been 
drastically and irrevocably changed during this century's advances in 
physics, unfortunately again almost no linguists have kept up with the 
changing definition of reality: no description of reality, including 
linguistic reality, is complete without full particle, wave, field, and 
quantum descriptions of the phenomena in question. A few lone voices in 
the history of linguistics so far have tried to tell the discipline -- 
Whorf, Pike, Lamb: they have been treated badly. I am this generation's 
voice and know not to expect any better, but will be grateful to be 
proven wrong.

	d) Where European languages tend to focus on the 'particle' 
aspects of the world, this century's linguistics has shown the 
possibility that other human beings, specifically many Native American 
language/culture/s, tend to focus on the 'energy' aspects of reality -- 
verb-heavy rather than noun-heavy, paying attention to the dancing rather 
than the dancers, so to speak. (My Algonquian friends say they can talk 
all day long in their languages and never utter a single noun!) 

	e) What this means in perhaps more understandable terms is that 
while European languages are great for the 'arithmetic of things', many 
or most Native American languages are better described as calculus -- 
mathematical languages dealing with relationship, vibration, process, and 
transformation instead of with things. As such these languages are 
natural human equivalents of Western mathematical languages -- a fact 
unrecognized until recently -- more suited to talking about 'quantum 
reality' than our own European languages, which we have to escape from 
into mathematics to even glimpse the quantum realm (which I call 
Heisenberg's Lament: "we have reached the limits of our language").

	f) Linguists, who MUST deal with the meaning realm, have during 
this past century been loathe to accept our legitimate mantle as 
intellectual trailblazers and theoretical modelers of reality, and have 
mostly given that over to physics instead. But the mantle has been ours 
all along. 
	For instance, linguistic relativity was an idea well 
conceptualized and discussed in German linguistics in the 1800s before 
Einstein appropriated it in simplified form for physics and mathematical 
languages, and then Whorf reestablished it in linguistics for human 
languages with Einsteinian rephrasing in order to make it more rigorous, 
or 'scientific', for linguists -- who then mostly spurned it, not knowing 
its history and not being adept at complementary thinking beyond their 
own data. Understanding this simple fact makes moot most of four decades 
of Newtonian-science misunderstanding around a non-existent piece of 
critic-inspired imaginality which critics named the 'Whorf Hypothesis'.

	g) I'm not sure that others who are calling for linguistics to be 
more 'scientific' mean what I understand 'scientific' to mean, which 
includes 20th Century insights as well as the older 'facts' they seem 
more familiar with. 20th/21st Century science demands BOTH more rigor 
(structure) and more understanding of the wider meaning realm.

So I enthusiastically join my voice with all of those who are calling for 
the profession of linguistics becoming more 'scientific', but my voice 
means it in the 20th/21st Century sense, as opposed to a further 
exaggeration of the merely Newtonian half of that term, 'rigor', as many 
of my colleagues seem to be demanding, at the expense of context and 

My 'radical' alternative calls for nothing less than a return to 
human-centered linguistics that is relevant to BOTH academe and humanity: 
one that collects rather than makes up data; that delights in working 
with real human beings rather than primarily computer-driven mathematical 
models; that revels in the human abilities which defy the nets set to 
catch them (as when idioms crash structural machinery); that LISTENS to 
colonized indigenous peoples rather than automatically distorting their 
knowledge into known categories ('animate' means something much 'larger' 
in Native American languages than it does in Western ones, speaking to 
the quality of the relationship with an 'object' rather than a property 
of the 'object'), and blends the best of ancient wisdom with the best 
that our Western rigor can do in a complementary way as it strives to 
describe the particle, wave, field and quantum characteristics of human 
languages. Anything less is business as usual in an outmoded Newtonian 
sense of science. 

This summer I will be giving a keynote address on this very topic to an 
international conference on "Cultural Restoration for Oppressed 
Indigenous Peoples in a Post-Colonial State" (Saskatoon, SASK, July 
4-16). My working title incorporates the Mikmaq word for speech, "'Popping 
Wind' and Post-Colonial Linguistics", and I will articulate my view of what 
a 21st Century Linguistics could look like which blends our historic rigor 
and ancient aboriginal teachings in a complementary way within the context 
of a modern physics view of reality.

	-- Moonhawk
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