How the classics, philology, and linguistics intertwine

Comments on linguistic superiority complexes sparked this blog entry in me b/c what is dogging our profession now is the heritage of both classical learning and philology encountering the linguistics inspired by the study of non-Western languages, esp. African and Native American languages.

It is difficult to imagine a scholar of antiquity, of Latinity, who does not believe that there is something special about Latin and Greek. That is just part of the tradition. Philologists focus on written language, the literary products of a language and therefore on the quality of writing.

Linguists, OTOH, devoted themselves to studying languages for practical reasons, to enter the communities they were studying. They had little sense that Hopi would prove superior to Yoruba in their literary production. What did happen, of course, is that early studies done by colonial administrators and missionaries often revealed a fondness for the people who spoke the language.

This is the same thing that happened with scholars of ancient languages: they imbued the object of study, the language, with the positive characteristics of the people speaking the languages. Who hasn’t admired for a moment the warriors of Beowulf or the gentle nature of the Pueblo peoples – all stereotypes but powerful nonetheless?

Meanwhile, philosophers and scientists were beginning to look at language and, in the latter part of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries, focus on language as an abstract entity congealed into the science of linguistics. In that science, Chichewa and Wolof are the equal of Latin and Ancient Greek.

That runs counter to the earlier traditions of classicism and philology which elevated the written languages over the preliterate languages. How much a part was played by the fact that the languages of the preliterate were spoken by peoples under colonial rule of the countries the philologists were from is unknown to me, but I think it must have played some part. I do know that the written languages of India, the Far East, and the Middle East were held in higher esteem than those of the preliterate peoples.

So, coming down to our own times, what has the typical fl teacher inherited in terms of attitudes toward language (leaving aside the 800 lb gorilla of Prescriptivism in English)? Possibly a vague notion that a “dialect” is somehow inferior to the literary language of a country, that preliterate peoples speak only “dialects” (how often have you heard that someone speaks an “African dialect”, never a dialect of Malinke or a dialect of Bambara?). Most likely that languages outside of the literary circle do not have grammar or that their vocabulary is impoverished. One teacher of Spanish said that “those people in those little Mexican villages are liable to say anything” – i.e. no rules, entirely random, uncultivated, not ’culto’.

This is the negative side, resulting in attitudes we often hear even from our colleagues in fl depts. Keep in mind that traditions of classicism and philology also contribute greatly to our understanding of the dynamics of language, literature and civilization. Many of the anthropological linguists of the last century were immersed in the philological tradition: Edward Sapir, a founder of American linguistics, wrote reviews of literature. Nowadays, we don’t ask our linguists to be such; John McWhorter, with his passion for musical theater, is one exception, but linguists generally are not expected to be steeped in art and literature.

I insist that fl teachers be grounded in linguistics but many reject my call. You will still hear dumb things from them about language, echoing the comment of a history teacher at my old school who said the Apaches had to supplement their 300 word vocabulary with sign language. Sad

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