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02 December 2005 @ 00:02
The Wrathful Dispersion controversy: A Canadian perspective  

Linguists here in Canada have been following closely, with a mixture of amusement, bemusement, and, it must be admitted, a little trepidation, the deliberations of our neighbours to the south, who are currently considering, in a courtroom in Pennsylvania, whether "Wrathful Dispersion Theory," as it is called, should be taught in the public schools alongside evolutionary theories of historical linguistics. It is an emotionally charged question, for linguistics is widely and justifiably seen as the centrepiece of the high-school science curriculum—a hard science, but not a difficult one to do in the classroom; an area of study that teaches students the essentials of scientific reasoning, but that at the same time touches on the spiritual essence of what it means to be human, for it is of course language that separates us from our cousins the apes.

The opponents of Wrathful Dispersion maintain that it is really just Babelism, rechristened so that it might fly under the radar of those who insist that religion has no place in the state-funded classroom. Babelism was clearly rooted in the Judeo-Christian story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11: 1–9); it held that the whole array of modern languages was created by God at a single stroke, for the immediate purpose of disrupting humanity's hubristic attempt to build a tower that would reach to heaven: "Let us go down," God says to Himself, "and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech." Wrathful Dispersion is couched in more cautiously neutral language; rather than tying linguistic diversity to a specific biblical event, it merely argues that the differences among modern languages are too perverse to have arisen spontaneously, and must therefore be the work of some wrathful (and powerful) disperser who deliberately set out to accomplish a confusion of tongues. When asked in court to speculate about the possible identity of the disperser, Michael Moringa, a prominent proponent of WD, demurred, saying that the theory makes no claims about the answer to that question, and that it certainly does not insist that the Disperser is the God of Genesis. Moringa has, however, elsewhere avowed a deep personal belief in the Christian God as the power responsible, as have other WD theorists. Indeed, there appear to be no atheists in the foxholes on the WD side of this war, and for that matter, no Jews or Muslims, either; the WD movement is composed almost exclusively of evangelical Protestants.

Wrathful Dispersion appears to owe a great deal of its tenacity to its steadfast refusal to offer specific answers to just about any question. Unlike "young-tongue" Babelism, WD makes no claim as to precisely when the great dispersion took place; faced with evidence of distinct languages reaching back for several thousands of years, the proponents of WD simply say that, well, the dispersion must have occurred prior to that. In the early days of evolutionary linguistics, Babelists used to taunt French-speaking evolutionists with cries of "Your father was a Roman!" WD, by contrast, acknowledges that languages can indeed change over time, and some Wrathful Dispersionists even concede that modern French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, and so on may actually have developed from Latin after all. The existence of Latin itself, however, and its mutual unintelligibility with, say, Old Church Slavonic or Proto-Bantu, could only have arisen through the wrath of the disperser. When asked to provide evidence for the existence of a single global language in pre-dispersion times, they reply that of course no such evidence can be found, because the disperser in his wrath was quite careful to obliterate all traces of it.

In lieu of offering any evidence for their own proposal, most Wrathful Dispersionists prefer to devote their energy to attacking the evolutionary approach to historical linguistics, which they generally refer to as Grimmism. Much of their animus is directed against the lone figure of Jakob Grimm, whom they depict as having made up the idea of linguistic evolution off the top of his head, and they delight in pointing out novel "exceptions" to Grimm's Law, such as the fact that English has the word paternal where Grimm's Law obviously predicts fathernal. The evolutionists respond that paternal was a later borrowing into English from Latin, to which the Wrathful Dispersionists reply triumphantly, "So your trees and waves can't explain everything!"

Perhaps paradoxically, proponents of WD have also been known, at times, to play up the religious aspect of their theory when it suits them. The suppression of their ideas about the origin of languages, they have been heard to complain, is tantamount to religious persecution, but at the same time they insist that the use of the public school systems to propagate those ideas would not in any way violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. One cynical observer has likened WD to Scientology, which "is a religion for purposes of tax assessment, a science for purposes of propaganda, and a work of fiction for purposes of copyright."

Wrathful Dispersionists are also fond of pointing out gaps in the written record, noting that there is no physical evidence of different languages dating back any earlier than five thousand years ago, a date which is suggestively close to the one commonly attributed to the Tower of Babel by biblical literalists. The bulk of their case against evolutionism, though, is based on the notion of irreducible perversity. For example, they argue that the sheer alienness of Basque—its apparent lack of any resemblance to any other living language—could only have come about by deliberate, wrathful (and, the Babelists would add, divine) intervention. Similarly, they claim that the notorious "ruki rule" in Sanskrit (/s/ becomes retroflex in the environment of /r/, /u/, /k/, or /i/—a "calculatedly chaotic conglomeration comprising two vowels, a rhotic, and a surd") is so arbitrary and so confusing that it must have been the conscious invention of someone who was absolutely determined that Sanskrit should be thoroughly incomprehensible to native speakers of any other language, such as Finnish.

Most evolutionists have been reluctant to dignify WD by arguing against it, although a few have pointed out that while evolutionary models make a few wrong predictions, WD makes no predictions whatsoever, and others have taken on the ruki rule question, pointing to the feature [+high] as a potential means of herding the offending segments into a natural class. Much of the public opposition to WD, however, has come in the form of parody. In particular, a satirical Web-based grassroots pseudo-cult has grown up around the theory that all modern languages were in fact "shat out of the arse of the Flying Stratificational Grammar Monster," with adherents claiming to have achieved enlightenment upon being "touched by His Boolean Appendage" or "washed in the blood of Sydney Lamb."

From where I sit in the Great White North, the whole debate looks more than a little silly, but there is still a considerable measure of unease among Canadian linguists. The new year will bring to Canada an election and a new government, and there is a non-negligible chance that that government will be formed by the Conservative Party of Stephen Harper, who has already shown himself not to be averse to reopening questions that many of us believed to have been closed for good. Will Canada, too, soon find itself debating the merits of Wrathful Dispersion, and asking its judges to map the boundary between religion and linguistic science? Only time will tell.

no_sword23 on 2. December, 2005 23:44 (UTC)
This is sadly typical of Grimmist "science" -- really a faith in and of itself! Nothing but ridicule for those who genuinely seek more rational explanations, and a recitation of tired old half-truths and evasions.

The fact remains that Grimmism's "language evolution" has never been demonstrated under scientific conditions. You can put a Chinese speaker, an English speaker, and a speaker of any Altaic* language you like together in the same room, but will they end up speaking Japanese? Hardly!

Grimmism also refuses to address the really tough question of where its imaginary "proto-" languages came from in the first place. Animal calls? Give me a break! My grandfather wasn't a monkey, and nor did he imitate one!**

And where did the monkeys learn THEIR calls, eh? Slime? And where did the slime get it from? Rocks? That's right: Grimmism teaches that rocks and slime can talk. And they call US ridiculous!

All we ask is that high school linguistics educators teach the controversy (and also all that business about restrictive clauses and "that" and "which", because a few of our older members can get pretty worked up about that stuff.)

* I should note that I use this label for CLASSIFICATION PURPOSES ONLY!
** Except that one time at Easter, but that was because he'd hidden that extra bottle under his mattress the night before.
Grand High Supreme and Mighty Empress Connieconuly on 3. December, 2005 10:56 (UTC)
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 3. December, 2005 11:00 (UTC)
You can put a Chinese speaker, an English speaker, and a speaker of any Altaic language you like together in the same room, but will they end up speaking Japanese? Hardly!

This is, of course, a favourite Gedankenexperiment of the Wrathful Dispersionists. They have also argued that if you leave a group of speakers of the same language together in a room for a while, they will not emerge speaking mutually unintelligible languages; thus, they claim, it is obvious that new languages do not spontaneously arise from old ones, nor can a single language become two or more separate languages. Of course, nobody actually seems to have performed any of these experiments, certainly not over the time frames that evolutionary linguists suggest would be necessary.