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Conservapedia:Linguistic determinism

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Linguistic determinism is a quasi-theory pulled from his ass suggested by Andrew Schlafly which tries to explain the development of history by reference to fully unidentified much less articulated properties of ancient and modern languages. Students of his World History Course have been fortunate enough to be first to receive an education on this pioneering new theory, and from the very genius who created it.

It is not to be confused with the theory of linguistic determinismWikipedia's W.svg as the rest of the world knows it, an idea which was supported by Wittgenstein (in his early work), among other philosophers and scientiests, but now generally finds little favour with linguists.

The central claims of the theory[edit]

1. Certain languages have much more expressive power than others. Latin for example, could in a few words express something that takes a whole sentence to state in English...or if translating literally to English, a few words:

Concepts that take sentences to describe in English can be expressed in just a few words in Latin, such as "caveat emptor" (meaning "the burden of examining a product or service is on the buyer before he pays his money, so that he gets as much in value as he paid" or, more literally, "let the buyer beware").

2. Concepts do not exist or are not understood by a group of people until they have a word to describe it. If a concept existed or people knew of it, they would give it a name. So tyranny and simple numbers only appeared in the Middle Ages, when those words were developed (according to Schlafly). Only one word, the modern word, matters in this proof. If a culture had a word that might suggest tyranny, if it was not written down as the modern English "tyranny", it does not count as the concept "tyranny".

3. The theory is unique in that it not only explains facts, it creates facts. For example, say you want to know whether or not genocides took place in the Middle Ages. You could research this along the normal guidelines of the historical method. However, you can save yourself the bother by checking the date of origin of the term "genocide" in a dictionary (make sure it's Merriam Webster!) You'll see that the word genocide was not in use in the Middle Ages, and therefore we can deduce from #2 that there were no genocides in the Middle Ages.

4. There is a hierarchy of languages, with a distinction between "primitive" and "advanced" languages. For example, Old English was a primitive language, while Modern English is an advanced language. The heirachy's list is not yet pulled out of the hat contemplated. No explanations are given as to what would make a language more or less primitive, though it is believed that the inclusion of Latin (due to example #1) helps. Languages can be upgraded or downgraded like software.

5. Because of the hierarchy of languages, certain cultures and nations have flourished where others have not. Latin was the cause of Rome's success (though not, apparently, its fall). In a quasi-Marxian fashion, Schlafly has characterised this view as "Every language has advantages or disadvantages, and the path of world history is in some ways the triumph of superior languages over inferior ones." [1]

Quotes from Conservapedia's World History Lectures[edit]

  • "As we shall learn in this course, language is a central part of a society that has much to do with its success or failure. Societies with useful and powerful languages prospered; those with difficult-to-use and weak languages failed."[2]
  • "Egypt's complex, picture-based language probably hindered its growth. The picture-based language was not as easy to use as the alphabet-based Phoenician language later adopted by the Greeks and Romans. How would one express Christian concepts like salvation, faith, hope and redemption in hieroglyphics? That would be very difficult to do."[3]
  • "It was ancient Greece that developed the first language powerful enough to express the concepts at the foundation for Christianity and to enable those principles to be spread throughout the world."[4]
  • "A language is essential to the progress and survival of a society - the better the language, the more successful the society is able to become. Peoples and cultures having only primitive languages could not withstand against peoples and cultures having more powerful languages."[5]
  • "But much more is needed in language in order to express the intangibles, such as religious concepts. Christianity could not develop and spread without a language capable of communicating its concepts. Had Christ come into this world in 2000 or 1000 B.C., would there have been a language powerful enough to express His ideas? Probably not. Note that even Ancient Hebrew lacked vowels, and most non-Hebrew languages were very primitive."[6]
  • "Recall that the language of Mesopotamia was cuneiform, based on wedge-like characters. Can you imagine such primitive writing conveying the concept of "Holy Spirit" or "sin" or "redemption" or "faith"? It was an inadequate language for religion, far too primitive for the needs of the powerful concepts of Christianity."[7]
  • "This Phoenician alphabet was one of the greatest advances in the history of mankind, perhaps greater than the invention of the wheel, because now language could begin to describe powerful concepts and abstract ideas. This laid the foundation for the accomplishments of Ancient Greece, which in turn laid the foundation for the teaching and spread of Christianity."[8]
  • "There were two basic reasons for the Greek success: language and political structure. The Greeks developed a complete alphabet that facilitated the expression of powerful ideas."[9]
  • "Just as language shapes a culture's success and way of thinking, religion plays a large role in society."[10]

Analysis[edit]

So what do we get out of this? Well, for starters, the idea that a language is more or less powerful than another doesn't really mean anything. If a word for a concept is needed, it'll be created or borrowed from someone else who's already named it.

Second, talking about a language being "primitive" does not mean what Schlafly thinks it means; as a general rule, languages over time tend to go from complex to simple grammatically, while their vocabularies (and idiomatic usages) expand. If there is any sensible meaning to the concept, Lithuanian is the most primitive Indo-European language on Earth[11], and the stupendously complex Finno-Ugric languages are even more primitive than that.

What's even sillier is Schlafly's conflation of language and writing system:

  • The complexity of Chinese and Chinese-derived writing in the modern era hasn't held back China or Japan; indeed, among other documents, the official standard for the DVD format is written in Japanese.
  • Schlafly's grouping of languages as diverse as Sumerian, Akkadian, and Elamite as "cuneiform" is embarrassingly wrong. "Cuneiform" simply denotes wedge-shaped writing, which can be logographic, syllabic, or alphabetic. [12]
  • His statement that Hebrew "lacked vowels" is false and again demonstrates his shaky understanding of the difference between a language and its writing system. (His implicit assumption that a language cannot be expressive without vowels is also not true-- even American English allows some vowel-less syllables and words.) Further, note that Aramaic, which Jesus spoke, used a similar script to Hebrew, also lacking vowels.
  • His comments on the development of the Greek alphabet are horribly wrong -- obviously the Greeks took the Phoenician alphabet, but not the actual language, for starters, since Phoenician was a Semitic Canaanite dialect closely related to Hebrew and Greek is Indo-European. In addition, it overlooks the previous history of Bronze Age Greek literacy; while we don't know much about the penetration of Linear B writing into the general Greek population, it (and its ancestor Linear A, recording a still-unknown language, and its sibling Cypriot, used to write Cypriot Greek well into the classical era) was widespread enough to serve as a common writing system for several significant areas in Greece till the fall of the Bronze Age. Considering the language Linear B represented was demonstrably Greek (even if more "primitive"), what exactly Schlafly hopes to prove with his comments about Christianity having to wait for Greek to develop is... um. [13]

So what does all this prove? Well, one thing's for sure -- Schlafly's got a lot of nerve talking about linguistic determinism when he clearly knows less than nothing about the subject.

See also[edit]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. For all claims, see the World History Lectures at Conservapedia
  2. World History Lecture One: Mesopotamia.
  3. World History Lecture One: Egyptian Achievements.
  4. World History Lecture Two: Introduction.
  5. World History Lecture Two: Invention of the Western alphabet.
  6. World History Lecture Two: Invention of the Western alphabet.
  7. World History Lecture Two: Invention of the Western alphabet.
  8. World History Lecture Two: Invention of the Western alphabet.
  9. World History Lecture Two: Ancient Greece.
  10. World History Lecture Three: Introduction.
  11. Lithuanian is generally agreed to be the most grammatically conservative of all Indo-European languages, retaining the most structure of the common ancestral language in current use, but it's unlikely that it lacks for expressive power, having been used as a language of imperial administration during much of the early modern period and no doubt picking up much vocabulary from German and Russian, as well as the usual international Latin and Greek sources.
  12. http://www.ancientscripts.com/cuneiform.html
  13. Note also that the Philistines are believed to have been of Greek ancestry, though quickly assimilated into Canaanite culture upon their arrival. What, if anything, this implies for Schlafly's model of linguistic development is unknown, but hilarious to imagine given the Philistines' bad guy status in the Bible.