Friday, January 18, 2008

Tongues in trees, books in running brooks

If [Chomsky] is wrong, it shows that the human ability to communicate is not reducible to the kind of "mathematical" system that [he] envisions. It means that language is something we gain by interacting with our fellow human beings, people who share our culture with us. I'm claiming that culture shapes grammar, that it can even affect the nature of what Chomsky called "core grammar" - the part of grammar that's supposed to be innate. If it's innate, it can't be affected by culture. I say it can.
-- Daniel Everett in Out on a limb over language, New Scientist, 19 Jan 2008.
Take, for example, the phrase in the Montagnais language, Hipiskapigoka iagusit. In a 1729 dictionary, this was translated as "the magician/sorceror sings a sick man". According to Alan Ford, an expert in the Algonquian languages...this deeply distorts the nature of the thinking processes of the Montagnais people, for the translator had tried to transform a verb-based concept into a European language dominated by nouns and object categories. Rather than there being a medicine person who is doing something to a sick patient, there is an activity of singing, a process. In this world view, songs are alive, singing is going on, and within the process is a medicine person and a sick man.
-- from Is there a language problem with quantum physics? by David Peat, New Scientist 5 Jan 2008.
There are no nouns in Tlön's conjectural Ursprache, from which the "present" languages and the dialects are derived: there are impersonal verbs, modified by monosyllabic suffixes (or prefixes) with an adverbial value. For example: there is no word corresponding to the word "moon,", but there is a verb which in English would be "to moon" or "to moonate." "The moon rose above the river" is hlor u fang axaxaxas mlo, or literally: "upward behind the onstreaming it mooned."
-- from Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius by Jorge Luis Borges (1940)

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