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19 Februar 2004 @ 11:29
Adam Smith among the (Latin-speaking) savages  

Linguistic prejudices are funny things. I've just been reading Adam Smith's essay "Considerations concerning the First Formation of Languages, and the Different Genius of Original and Compounded Languages," in which Mr. Wealth of Nations speculates on the origins of the major lexical and functional categories. Of course, nobody has any idea what the first language(s) sounded like, so Smith bases his conception of 'primitive' language on the oldest languages with which he is familiar—viz., classical Latin and Greek:

The first savage inventors of language, we shall suppose, when they observed the approach of this terrible animal, were accustomed to cry out to one another, venit, that is, the lion comes.

Accordingly, he thinks of the rich inflectional systems of these languages, which in the equally irrational prejudices of many others represent the pinnacle of grammatical achievement, as characteristic of language that is still in its infancy. Smith does describe the progress from inflectional affixes (e.g., verb agreement, case, and grammatical number) to separate words (pronouns, prepositions, numerals) as a simplification, but for him it is a simplification that requires sophisticated thought.

Smith's discussion of prepositions at first seems to prefigure Saussure's dictum "Dans la langue, il n'y a que des différences":

The man who first invented the word above,1 must not only have distinguished, in some measure, the relation of superiority from the objects which were so related, but he must also have distinguished this relation from other relations, such as, from the relation of inferiority denoted by the word below, from the relation of juxtaposition, expressed by the word beside, and the like. He must have conceived this word, therefore, as expressive of a particular sort or species of relation distinct from every other, which could not be done without a considerable effort of comparison and generalization.

However, he then goes on to deny that case suffixes involve the same sort of "effort of comparison and generalization": because the case endings are attached to the nouns, those savages who went around saying things like sacer Herculi ('sacred to Hercules') clearly had not done the hard work of separating out the concept of 'to' from the concept of 'to Hercules'.

So how come the savages kept using the same case endings to denote the same relations with all sorts of different nouns? Oh, that's simple:

The general rule would establish itself insensibly, and by slow degrees, in consequence of that love of analogy and similarity of sound, which is the foundation of by far the greater part of the rules of grammar.

Moral: Prepositions are the product of comparison and generalization, which require effort and invention. Case suffixes are the product of analogy, which operates insensibly, and is obviously a Very Different Thing.

Everyone who has ever studied Latin can now stop complaining about having to memorize declension tables. It's easy!

Hac nocte dormit leo.

1. A feminist critique of the presupposition behind this definite description is left as an exercise for those readers who enjoy shooting fish in barrels.

Nuværende humør: amusedamused
Nuværende musik: G. P. Telemann, Triosonatas (TWV 42)
Tishiewahooweena on 19. Februar, 2004 14:38 (UTC)
I only understood about half of that (probably less)
Interesting! What exactly is your background in linguistics? I find it to be really fascinating whenever I stumble upon something from this discipline, but I have no knowledge of the topic.

Off-topic question: My Spanish instructor told me that the Basque have a language that is independent of other languages. I don't know what the proper term is for that, but do you know what I'm talking about? Do you know if his assertion is correct?
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 19. Februar, 2004 15:06 (UTC)
Re: I only understood about half of that (probably less)
Well, I'm getting close to having three degrees in linguistics from the University of Toronto, and this year I'm teaching at Queen's University. My dissertation is in phonology, but I also do some semantics and morphosyntax.</p>

And yes, your Spanish instructor is right: Basque is a language isolate. Modern Basque has lots of individual words that were borrowed from Spanish, but the grammar and the rest of the vocabulary do not suggest that it is related to any known language.

Tishiewahooweena on 19. Februar, 2004 15:43 (UTC)
Re: I only understood about half of that (probably less)
I always wondered what dch stood for. :)

Is that what you will be doing with your (I assume) doctorate? Instruction and research at the university level?
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 19. Februar, 2004 15:48 (UTC)
Re: I only understood about half of that (probably less)
If I'm lucky.
Not the Droid You're Looking Forsacredwombat on 24. Februar, 2004 10:25 (UTC)
Re: I only understood about half of that (probably less)
Aha! Mystery solved as to who this mysterious Q person is. I shall befriend you immediately.