LINGUIST List 8.1030

Fri Jul 11 1997

Disc: Evolution analytic > synthetic

Editor for this issue: Martin Jacobsen <martylinguistlist.org>


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  1. John O'Neil, Re: 8.988, Disc: Evolution analytic > synthetic

Message 1: Re: 8.988, Disc: Evolution analytic > synthetic

Date: Fri, 4 Jul 1997 13:39:07 -0400 (EDT)
From: John O'Neil <oneilhusc.harvard.edu>
Subject: Re: 8.988, Disc: Evolution analytic > synthetic

I want to respond to part of a post which particularly caught my
attention.

From: "Patrick C. Ryan" 
>What really separates "primitive" languages from advanced ones, is the
>insistence of nominative-type (G. A. Klimov) languages on an overtly
>expressed transitive subject.
>
>The mindset that this produces is directly responsible for the
>scientific approach that has resulted in the technology of the late
>20th century.
>
>However we may wish to theorize, it is a fact that the scientific
>advances that have us all in a state of perpetual uneasiness, have
>come about through scientists who speak nominative-type languages, or
>who got their training in nominative-type languages.
>
>Science is simply a matter of correctly linking cause and effect.
>Nominative-type language are used to organizing their thoughts by
>reflex into a cause and effect algorithm.

However, even accepting the premises, this doesn't hold together
logically -- in fact, one would expect just the opposite.
"Nominative-type" (itself a somewhat slippery term) languages hardly
use transitivity at all in determining which argument is the
nominative subject of a sentence. Both transitive and intransitive
sentences have nominative subjects, and among intransitive sentences
both "unergative" and "unaccusative" sentences have nominative
subjects also. Not a very fertile ground for cause-&-effect thinking.

On the other hand, one could make a more plausible argument that
"Ergative-type" languages (to borrow Mr. Ryan's terminology) *do*
organize sentences along an agent/patient axis more directly. The
transitive subject -- likely an agent and thus a cause -- is in the
ergative case, while the object or the intransitive subject -- usually
patients and therefore "effects" -- are in the absolutive case. Hence,
an Ergative-type language more directly reflects a cause-&-effect
logic of the world.

To follow Mr. Ryan's argument, we would expect that speakers of
*ergative* languages should have developed modern science, not
speakers of nominative languages. Alas, that is not the result he was
looking for.

John O'Neil
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