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Padraig Murchadha

I’d like to draw attention to a book titled "Empires of the Word." It’s subtitled "A Language History of the World," meaning that it chronicles major language communities instead of the ethnic, political or geographic communities that we call tribes and states and nations, the traditional subjects of histories. It’s different from historical linguistics, which aims to determine the origins of languages and relationships between them. In fact, it’s different from any other treatment of language or history that I know of.

The author, Nicholas Ostler, credits another linguist with first chronicling a single language community in the 1920s, but his own ambition is much larger, to relate a history of the world by telling the history of its languages. It’s a grand ambition and Ostler succeeds on many levels, even though he’s handicapped by the lack of records on thousands of languages that have been spoken over time. “All languages have their own histories,” he writes, “but few are well enough documented to reveal very much about them.” Nevertheless, Ostler has produced a pioneering work of scholarship.

Language is a fundamental marker of humanity. It distinguishes us from other creatures and, Ostler says, it structures the very way we think. He writes that language “organizes not just the human mind but also the large groups of human minds that constitute themselves into societies,” which is to say that people who speak one language think differently than people who speak another language.

This is an assertion much in dispute. Ostler is saying that our minds are controlled by the languages we speak, rather than vice-versa, our languages being the instruments of our minds. Other linguists point to experiments suggesting that the structure of thought is prelinguistic—that infants possess thought patterns before they can understand language.

Linguistics has always been a hotbed of dispute. Even the notion that we are distinguished from other creatures by our language faculty is disputed by those who believe apes can master a language of sorts. Disputes are what make an academic discipline interesting—what fun is it to study a stable, uncontested body of knowledge?

What can’t be disputed is the importance of language to our understanding of our world. Whether or not language shapes our thoughts, language is how we communicate our thoughts to one another, and it’s by virtue of communication that we learn about our world. Think about it: if we learned about our world only through our own personal experience, we’d each live in a small world indeed.

How language enables communication—how language works—is what’s most interesting about linguistics to me. I was drawn to this study by a friend who worked at the Post Office with me in the late 1960s. I’ll call him by his initials, JP. He was, and remains, the smartest person I ever met. This smartest person I ever met was a Seventh Day Adventist who believed in the inerrancy of the Bible and was studying theater in Temple University’s graduate communications program because he thought it would help him better understand the Bible.

Here I should note that in the late 1960s, theater was considered a highly sophisticated, cutting-edge field of study, encompassing not only a rapidly evolving dramaturgy but also numerous hypotheses and theories culled from political science, sociology, psychology, philosophy, systemics, communications, anthropology, all the liberal arts and even some of the hard sciences (the Heisenberg Principle was hijacked to substantiate experiments in unscripted performance). It’s hard to convey a sense of the intellectual ferment bubbling in theater departments then—it was one of those situations where you just had to be there.

Upon graduation, JP received a fellowship to earn a doctorate in information theory at Ohio State and, once there, sent me his dissertation research proposal, which fairly summed up numerous conversations we enjoyed at down times during the night shift at the Post Office. Simply put, JP proposed to prove that everything works like language works.

Take the universe. Seriously.

Consider our solar system as a word, made up of letters (the sun, the planets, asteroids and comets and such), each of them juxtaposed in ways governed by astrophysics in the same manner that letters are juxtaposed in a word in ways governed by grammar. It’s the juxtapositioning of letters that makes a word intelligible, just as it is the juxtapositoning of heavenly bodies that makes a solar system intelligible. Reposition the letters in relation to one another and you’ve got a different word. Reposition the planets and you’ve got a different solar system. Reposition the letters or planets in a way that violates grammar or astrophysics and you’ve got an incoherent entity—you don’t have a word or a solar system.

Take this analogy as far as you might. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is like a very long sentence made up of very many words, again governed by the grammar of astrophysics. And the universe is like a very long paragraph—a paragraph of novel length, you could say, with a beginning, a middle and an end, just like a novel. A novel can be written as a single paragraph, but it would be awfully difficult to follow the narrative thread. Without paragraph breaks and chapters it would be like trying to look at the universe as a whole, instead of as quadrants and sectors and however else astronomers segment it to assist their reading of the skies. You couldn’t see the trees for the forest.

Now consider the word I just used to describe what astronomers do when they peer into space: reading. It’s that casual use of linguistic terms to explain diverse phenomena that JP noticed in his studies, citing as one example a book by J.O. Hertzler on social processes, in which she borrowed linguistic terms for her chapter headings. Do a book search on the word “language” in Amazon.com and marvel at the sheer diversity of subjects explained in linguistic terms: Languages of the Brain, Organic Chemistry as a Second Language, The Secret Language of Leadership. The list goes on and on. Consult almost any book on genetics and you’ll see the working of DNA—the stuff of life itself—described in linguistic terms.

JP thought that there must be some reason so many people in so many disciplines resort to linguistic terms to describe the working of whatever it is they’re explaining. Ease of communication with readers surely figures into it, but JP noticed something else: all those things actually do work like language works.

Take our solar system again. It ultimately derives meaning from the conventions of astronomy, which dictate that a solar system consists of a star orbited by planets. So, too, a word ultimately derives meaning from the conventions of language, which dictate that only a certain ordering of letters can be a word in that language. Or, if we want to be more rigorous, a certain ordering of phonemes—written letters are representations of sounds.

This is to state the obvious, that context is everything. It’s in the context of a word that a letter has meaning, and it’s in the context of a solar system that a planet has meaning. But everything about language is obvious, so obvious that even a toddler can grasp it. No wonder writers reach for linguistic terms when explaining complex subjects.

That, basically, was JP’s doctoral thesis, that the working of the universe and everything in it is hidden in plain sight. But his real goal was to show that God is hidden in plain sight in the Bible, in John 1.1: "In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.” It’s a verse that has provoked theological debates on the Trinity. JP thought such debates missed the point. As a good Seventh Day Adventist, he took the verse literally: God is and works like language works, and humans are endowed with linguistic faculty because we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-30). We think and act differently in different social contexts, just like words take on different meanings in different sentences, and our own works work like language works: the leg of a table we build has meaning only in the context of a table (this is a small joke—a table is a shopworn prop for philosophical disquisitions).

As I said, JP was the smartest person I ever met, and I didn’t take his insights lightly. I kept them in mind over the past 40 years, and time and again I noticed what JP noticed, that whatever phenomenon I have studied or observed could be explained in linguistic terms. But for me, the question is not so much about how things work, but why they work the way they do. Why is it that everything should work like language, rather than some other way? Why does evolution work the way it does (yes, it works like language)? And why should the universe have evolved to support life the same way a language evolves to support communication?

This last question begs to be answered by the Anthropic Principle, but I think I’d better save that for another post. In the meantime I’ll point to another Biblical verse: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:20)


There's a good discussion of this sort of thing at TowardsClarity.org.

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