“PARADIGM SHIFTS” IN LINGUISTICS.

I’ve rarely been so happy to read a scientific paper as I was to read “A ‘Paradigm Shift’ in Finnish Linguistic Prehistory,” by Merlijn de Smit. It’s a takedown of one of the absurd nationalistic revampings of the “conventional paradigm” of linguistics (these people love Kuhn) that seem to be springing up everywhere these days, in this case “a hypothesis on the origins of the Finns and Finno-Ugric populations immensely popular, and raising great controversy, in Finland and Estonia.” Like all such hypotheses, this involves throwing out the traditional (“old paradigm”) family tree that is at the base of scientific historical linguistics and substituting various vague and untestable notions of relatedness and influence. I’ll let you read the details in de Smit’s lively paper, and will quote here only the following stirring paragraph, with every word of which I am in emphatic agreement:

Historical linguistics proper is not an empirical science in the sense that physics is – in which repeatable spatiotemporal occurrences are studied – but a discipline which strives to provide a picture of the past as plausible as possible, one in which the interpretations of the researcher play a vital role. This makes a strict methodology and in particular the conviction that it is historical reality we are after, not someone’s reality but reality itself, all the more necessary, since it is all too easy to slide in Von Däniken-like fantasism. Linguistic pseudoscience, invariably striving to paint a picture as glorious as possible of the past of whatever nation you belong to, has always existed, and always will – but during the last ten years in Finland and Estonia, it seems to have made a sustained push to the mainstream. One of the roots of the “new” paradigm in Finland and Estonia is epistemological relativism, the view of language families, and particularly the distinction between genetic transmission of languages and language contact, as epistemic constructs rather than existing in historical reality. And indeed, if “Finno-Ugric” is just a “theoretical construct” – why not talk about “Euro-languages” instead? Why indeed should one distinguish between recent loanwords from Swedish and shared etymological material with Hungarian if the game is no longer about testing hypotheses about linguistic prehistory, but about building up an appropriate national, historical identity in the age of the European Union? Thus, the methodology of historical linguistics has been abused to support an ahistorical, if not positively antihistorical, model of a Great and Glorious Past.

(Via wood s lot.)

Comments

  1. I like Kuhn, too.
    You can find plenty of loonies talking bollocks about quantum mechanics, and they don’t make that (unlike them) wrong either.

  2. Sure, Kuhn’s fine on his own, but he’s one of those people who are irresistible to loonies of all persuasions. Quantum mechanics is an excellent parallel (Dancing Wu-Li Masters, anyone?).

  3. Yes, isn’t that a brilliant paper? (Well I can say that, I didn’t write it!)
    It’s not Kuhn’s fault, but people certainly do grab him and run amok.

  4. Kuhn is susceptible to the “they said Galileo was a loony too” co-option. It’s epistemologically vacuous, but if your grasp on philology, physics, whatever, is out on the fringe, you’re probably not going to be a regular contributor to the _Journal of Symbolic Logic_ anyway, so the irony will continue to elude you.

  5. The most hated of my recent bosses went to a seminar on the Paradigm Shift to Excellence once. Kuhn cannot be forgiven.

  6. I didn’t read the whole thing, but I trust that the Finno-Ugric link to Dravidian has not been questioned.

  7. Hungarian linguistics has been dogged by this kind of politically influenced pseudo-science as well. The belief that Hungarian is the mother of all languages and that Western civilization derives from ancient Magyar-Sumerians will get you a free beer in most pubs. It is incredibly widespread, even among relatively educated folks.
    Her’s a taste: http://www.hunmagyar.org/hungary/history/controve.htm#III.%20THE%20SUMERIAN%20QUESTION

  8. On a positive note, there seem to be an unusually large number of Finns and Hungarians in Turko-Mongol studies and possibly other areas of study involving strange languages (including linguistics.) Good things from doubtful origins. My guess is that once a Finn has learned any other language except Estonian, the third language will be relatively easy. Someone bilingual in Swedish and Finnish has really travelled an enormous distance compared to someone bilingual in English and French.

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