The Romantic Theory of Language Origin.

I should say up front that I consider Mark Vernon’s Aeon essay “The say of the land” (“Is language produced by the mind? Romantic theory has it otherwise: words emerge from the cosmos, expressing its soul”) an example of what some call “woo,” right up there with reiki and homeopathy (apologies to devotees of those disciplines, but I calls ’em as I sees ’em). But like so much of the vasty and multifarious thought-world of the early nineteenth century, it’s interesting woo, and it’s worth dipping into this stuff even if one has no intention of swallowing it. I note that the author “is a psychotherapist and writer, with a PhD in ancient Greek philosophy and other degrees in theology and in physics,” and he quotes various poets and philosophers, all of whom are sure they have special insight into the Soul of Language by virtue of their complete lack of qualifications other than the ability to speak. With that cynical preface, and without further ado:

In conversation at the Hay Festival in Wales this May, the English poet Simon Armitage made an arresting observation. Discussing the nature of language and why it is so good at capturing the experience of being alive, he said: ‘My feeling is that a lot of the language that we use, and the best language for poetry, comes directly out of the land.’ Armitage was placing himself within the Romantic tradition’s understanding of the origins of language, which argues that words and grammar are not the arbitrary inventions of human brains and minds, but are rather suggested to human beings by nature and the cosmos itself. Language is an excellent way to understand the Universe, because language springs from the things it describes.

The English philosopher Owen Barfield, a member of the Oxford Inklings in the 1930s and ’40s, whose work as a philologist convinced him that the Romantic tradition was broadly right, put it succinctly. Words have soul, he said. They possess a vitality that mirrors the inner life of the world, and this connection is the source of their power. All forms of language implicitly deploy it. Poets are arguably more alert to it because they consciously seek it out.

It’s an insight with radical implications for theories about the origins of language, primarily because the dominant hypotheses in modern science regard words very differently, as soulless signs that act as labels for objects and symbols that facilitate cognitive agility. […]

In his work as a philologist, Barfield discovered that words, so far as they can be traced back, never pointed to physical things alone or acted as arbitrary symbols. There was no ‘metaphor phase’ either because words never were just signs, the offspring of grunts. They always seem to have had both physical and inner meanings, and to have had an aboriginal poetic charge. ‘Early man did not observe nature in our detached way,’ wrote Barfield in The Rediscovery of Meaning (1977). ‘He participated mentally and physically in her [sic] inner and outer processes.’ He’s not alone in this observation. Thinkers as different as the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson and the British utilitarian Jeremy Bentham took similar note. Bentham summed it up in this way, in his posthumous Essay on Language (1843): ‘Throughout the whole field of language, parallel to the line of what may be termed the material language … runs a line of what may be termed the immaterial language … [T]o every word that has an immaterial import, there belongs, or at least did belong, a material one.’ […]

Or consider again the conflation of ‘wind’ and ‘spirit’, and the assumption that our distant ancestors must have first felt the wind and then, by inventive extension, used the same word to refer to spirits. That begs the question of why they didn’t already have a word for ‘spirit’, if they were so superstitious. More specifically, it raises the question of how the word for ‘wind’, which the grunt theory insists originally had a strictly literal meaning of ‘physical breeze’, could become a globally used metaphor for ‘immaterial spirits’. It is impossible to believe that there wasn’t a spontaneous affinity between the notion of ‘wind’ and the notion of ‘spirit’, and that this is why there’s a link. The two must have been born together.

If this is so, then it implies that the origins of language are not rooted in grunt and sign references to objects. Instead, early words always were loaded with the inner and outer meanings that our ancestors detected in nature and consciously articulated when they first started to speak. They are the tokens of a prehistoric communion. […]

An alternative theory of the evolution of language is required. As the English palaeobiologist Simon Conway Morris writes in The Runes of Evolution (2015), the dominant explanations for the origins of language are inadequate for the very reason that they are essentially utilitarian and materialistic. It would be better to assume what language itself tells us. It is innately meaningful because its poetry enables us to perceive deeper structures of reality. Words channel the vitality of the natural world. They have soul because nature does – for all that, these days, we struggle to feel it and are quite inclined to disbelieve it.

Well, you get the idea. It proceeds to Schellingian proclamations like “words that have come to describe the inner life of human beings can have evolved only if the cosmos is full of spirit,” and I confess to a fondness for the scent of such doctrines. But only the scent — I feed off heartier fare. Thanks for the link, Jack!

Comments

  1. David Eddyshaw says:

    My feeling is that this sort of thing (leaving aside the woo and the essential untruth) betrays a deep lack of imagination: an inability to imagine that human beings can imbue arbitrary signs with soul; instead, they assert in their leaden way that people are just recipients and not creators. Symptomatic that the ghastly Bentham should be prayed in aid of this dire thesis.

  2. Well said!

  3. Why the hostility to Bentham?

  4. marie-lucie says:

    The natural world presents human beings with a wide variety of aspects and situations which often vary depending on where in this world these humans are situated, but surely the wind, which is air in motion, is one universal phenomenon occurring under all climactic conditions. If the Romantic theory is right, one would expect to find this universality reflected in the existence of only one word (or a number of ultimately related words sharing a common root) for wind. This is obviously not the case: all languages have a word for wind, and many have several for different aspects of the phenomenon, but not many share a word similar to the English one.

    Like many such theories, thought up without reference to actual data, this one falls apart as soon as practical consequences are considered.

  5. David Eddyshaw says:

    Felicific calculus. It’s antihuman. And antihuman in very much the same way as these woo-merchants: it denies the most important things about humanity: creativity of all kinds, intellectual, moral and spiritual.

  6. As soon as I started reading this excerpt, I immediately thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Now, it has been a very long time since I read any of Emerson’s writings on language, but my recollection is that he managed to describe similar sentiments without ever devolving into risible woo. The tone, as I remember it, was much like that of his transcendentalist manifesto “Nature.”

  7. marie-lucie says:

    wind
    Even if we were tempted by the Romantic theory, nature presents human beings with all sorts of features, both permanent and temporary, to which they could react by different words depending on their location and circumstances, something which might justify the variety of human languages. But wind, that is air in motion, is a phenomenon that occurs under all known climatic conditions encountered by humans. Why then aren’t the words for this phenomenon more uniform in the thousands of languages spoken in the world? The theory falls apart as soon as practical consequences are considered.

  8. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Brett:

    I’m not myself well disposed towards Transcendentalism, and in more polemic moments would probably call it Higher Woo, but I agree Emerson is a coherent thinker and by no means risible. As far I understand it (not very far) the point there is that humanity is part of nature, and can therefore legitimately be expected to speak the same language as nature – in some way. I can see senses in which that is clearly true, although not to the degree the Transcendentalists imagined. In my enlightened opinion.

    Come to think of it, this interacts with the hardy perennial question of Where Chomsky Got It Wrong: the forces of Good in that debate would attribute much or all of what NC ascribes to his Organ to real-world (i.e. Nature’s) constraints on how any actual human language could conceivably function.

  9. The excerpt quoted in OP is just a blather, but Marie-Lucie,it doesn’t state that the word for wind should be the same in all languages. It states (sort of) that the words for wind and spirit should be the same, because all people have pneuma. Overall, to my surprise I found the essay interesting. The main point seems to be that probably there never was a phase in the development of language were it was used strictly for utilitarian purposes. There is no real proof of the idea, but it doesn’t strike me as obviously wrong or disproved by facts. It is hard to say what was utilitarian tens of thousands of years ago. Let’s say some hunter tribe used their language to agree on the details of tomorrow’s hunt an also to perform a necessary ritual involving spirits for the hunt’s success. For us it may seem that the first part was utilitarian and the second was not, but why should we impart our division of the world on material and immaterial to other people?

  10. David Eddyshaw says:

    The words for “wind” and “spirit” are completely unconnected in Kusaal, which I cite simply as the first language that occurs to me which isn’t part of our own cultural hegemonic world. The idea that they are naturally connected is surely pure ethnocentrism. We ourselves owe the connection to the linguistic creativity of a particular people in the Middle East some millennia back.

  11. ‘Wind’ might mean ‘spirit’ in Greek but it doesn’t necessarily have that meaning in other languages. In Chinese it is associated with manner, style, or fashion. The tendency to creatively extend meanings beyond the original ‘object’ appears to be universal among human languages. Less certain is that there is an unchanging ‘universal semantics’ whereby the same associations are made in every language.

    There are no doubt universal tendencies, like the use of verbs like ‘fall’ to mean ‘fail’ or ‘degenerate’, which, as far as I know, is common to most languages. ‘Openness’ probably also shows universal semantic tendencies. But this doesn’t have much to do with nonsense like the spirit of the universe.

  12. I thought from the title that Romantic theory of language origin is about how language was invented to express your love to fellow apes.

  13. The main point seems to be that probably there never was a phase in the development of language were it was used strictly for utilitarian purposes.

    I understood that and I think it is a useful observation. But only as a counter to the so-called ‘grunt theory’ of how language originated. Of course, both the naming and presentation of the ‘grunt theory’ seem fairly biased.

    The problem, though, is the leap to “words and grammar are not the arbitrary inventions of human brains and minds, but are rather suggested to human beings by nature and the cosmos itself. Language is an excellent way to understand the Universe, because language springs from the things it describes.”

    This is a leap of faith and doesn’t necessarily follow from anything in the excerpt. It is what makes the whole thing so flaky. And, as m-l points out, if language springs from the things it describes, why aren’t words the same everywhere?

  14. @SFReader, I was in fact coming down here to say, I expect human language began with social references, such as “Ma”. Are those utilitarian? I suppose one could say so, they have utility, but I’ll decline an introduction to anyone who really feels that human contact is utilitarian.

    Call me a pantheist, but what /isn’t/ spiritual really?

    The argument is setting up a straw contrast between grunty functional meanings and important elevated meanings, which I don’t buy, and that isn’t a coin that can resolve the old nominalist / realist argument for them anyway.

  15. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    “The gate creaked shut and Rowley came through it, the most venerable of the labourers on the farm—a tall, solid man, still unbent, with grey side-whiskers and a steep, dignified profile. … ‘Rightly is they called pigs.’”

    For an opposite view: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”

  16. I’m reminded of Saul Lieberman introducing Gershom Scholem before a lecture on Kabbalah: “Nonsense is nonsense—but the history of nonsense is scholarship.” (Some recall “study” instead of “history.”)

  17. Stu Clayton says:

    A few remarks:

    1. words and grammar are the arbitrary inventions of used by human brains and minds
    “Arbitrary” is a contentious notion from philosophy and points south, as is “invention”.

    2. [words and grammar] are suggested to human beings by nature and the cosmos itself.
    Yeah, sure, sometimes, why not ? See onomatopoeia.

    3. Words have soul
    No. Not even wordy people have soul.

    4. [Words] possess a vitality that mirrors the inner life of the world, and this connection is the source of their power.
    Sure, why not ? On the other hand, the formulation displays more triteness than vitality.
    Who is to thank for that ?

    5. Historically, the consensus has been that language evolved to allow humans to exchange factual information about the physical world
    Sure, language can be used to exchange factual etc. But wings did not evolve to allow birds to fly.

    6. Harari: “the truly unique feature of our language is … the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all”
    Information about things that do not exist ? This is a misuse of “information” and “exists”,
    and properly belongs to points south (vide supra).

    7. Suddenly, the brain rewired. It allowed for a shift from the deployment of a few signs
    to the heady artfulness of speech and grammar.

    “The” brain ?? The article itself is an example of heady artlessness. I think some wires got crossed.

  18. Lars (the original one) says:

    Also involved in this is the fallacy that the earliest languages we can detect even the faintest trace of are meaningfully closer to the origin of human language. Even assuming that modern humans (re)invented language (in a single or many separate events), any concrete-reference-only stage would be 30 thousands years ago or more.

  19. Stu Clayton says:

    These discussions about grunt vs. soul routinely ignore 99% of what language is good for. The grunts want to talk about bananas and lions, the souls to talk about heady artfulness. These are ceremonies of simple-mindedness.

    Consider this: a bad guy distracts Mrs Caveman with a discussion about how best to roast velociraptor, while the bad guy’s accomplice is out back stealing the velociraptors. With language one can inform, and misinform, distract, sooth, anger, discuss flakey syllogisms …

    Fritz Breithaupt expatiates in Kultur der Ausrede on language as a means to make excuses.

  20. Cavemen loved keeping velociraptors, few realize this…

  21. That would explain K-T megafaunal extinction

  22. Stu Clayton says:

    In the original scene I had envisaged “pigs”, which would have exposed me to equal scorn. In my swing back to pre-history, I overshot by a few eras. At least no one has complained about my stereotyping of cavewives.

  23. David Marjanović says:

    No, because Velociraptor wasn’t megafauna. It was a turkey in size, if not in… spirit.

    The words for “wind” and “spirit” are completely unconnected in Kusaal, which I cite simply as the first language that occurs to me which isn’t part of our own cultural hegemonic world.

    The words wind and ghost are also completely unconnected in English.

    “Wind” > “breath” > “life” is a common development, but it’s rather specifically Latin that has added a metaphysical interpretation of “life” to this chain. “Our distant ancestors” is less correct here than nos ancêtres les Gaulois!

    5. Historically, the consensus has been that language evolved to allow humans to exchange factual information about the physical world

    Huh. I thought it was consensus nowadays that social uses of language are very old: you can groom one fellow ape at a time, but talk to two or three.

  24. David Eddyshaw says:

    At least no one has complained about my stereotyping of cavewives

    Stereotypes hadn’t been invented yet. I expect they came in with the agricultural revolution. At that stage, people were too busy raising velociraptors and shelling trilobytes* to trouble with such things.

    *Collective term for four trilobits. This was before eight-bit microprocessors came in.

  25. Stu Clayton says:

    you can groom one fellow ape at a time, but talk to two or three.

    Just as in a barbershop.

  26. Stu Clayton says:

    shelling trilobytes

    Bourne or bash, I wonder ?

  27. David Eddyshaw says:

    C shell, naturally.

  28. I thought from the title that this was going to be a post arguing that many of the languages of southern and western Europe as well as parts of the Americas in fact share a common origin in an ancient proto-language, referred to by scholars as Latin.

  29. “The Higher Woo” put me in mind of this poem by Swinburne (which I found by googling “fiddle we know is diddle”).

  30. Yes, I’ve always been fond of that poem.

  31. David Eddyshaw says:

    There is a sketch by (I think) Alan Bennett in the persona of an Anglican priest, where he talks about those of us who worship God in his aspect of Existence, and how we should understand those who worship God in his aspect of Nonexistence.

  32. squiffy-marie von bladet says:

    I admit I’m unwilling to wallow
    In woo I’m unable to swallow
    Most of this stuff
    Just strikes me as guff
    And there’s a lot that I can’t even follow.

    — GFW Hegel (no relation)

  33. Richard Hershberger says:

    This piece is classic Aeon: An interesting topic, treated via blather. It is why I mostly ignore the site. I miss some interesting items this way, but the signal to noise ratio is far too low to justify closer attention.

  34. Richard Hershberger says:

    @ Stephen Goranson: i am a huge fan of studying nonsense. My research area is early sports, and early baseball in particular. There is virtually limitless nonsense contained in the historiography of sports. I find it valuable to track down the histories of various bits of nonsense, partly to understand what people were thinking at the time, and partly to assist in debunking the nonsense.

  35. Stu Clayton says:

    Up into the 20C, most of what was known about brain functions and anatomical correlation was derived from people with brain damage. Information can be derived from nonsense. The history of baseball cannot be denied a special epistemological status. Dead phrenologists should be cut some slack.

  36. speedwell says:

    I don’t see why there couldn’t have been separate words for “wind” and “spirit” in the first place. Sure, we could have lost the original word for “spirit” because there was a taboo on pronouncing it, and the word for “wind” could have been substituted because it struck someone as an appropriate (even poetic) substitute. I may be an ignorant amateur but nobody here has said anything definite to the contrary.

    After all, this same thing seems to have nearly happened to “fart” at one point, didn’t it? 😉

  37. John Cowan says:

    You could translate John 3:8 as “The wind winds where it wants to, and you hear the sound of it but you can’t tell where it comes from or where it goes; that’s what people are like who are born from the wind.” The word winds here is a nonce verb meaning ‘does what the wind does’, and nothing to do with the unrelated verb wind ‘twist, twine’.

  38. Stu Clayton says:

    The wind twisteth where him listeth.

  39. marie-lucie says:

    The English word “spirit” is an adaptation of Latin spiritus, the root of which (spir) is shared by “respiration, inspiration, expiration (from ex-spiratio)”. It refers originally to “expelling the breath”, the characteristic of a living being. In a quiet state, the breath is invisible and inaudible, like the air that it is, or a very light wind. At death, it is expelled for the last time. It is quite logical then to assume that it is itself a living being, but invisible and inaudible, a “spirit” that continues to live outside of the body.

  40. David Eddyshaw says:

    Kusaal uses the same root for “life” and “breathe” (and also “take a rest”) and an unrelated one for “wind” and “blow (like a trumpet)”. None of the words relating to soul or spirit has anything to do with either root, which is not too surprising as the traditional concepts of such things really don’t map at all well into European categories. The Bible translators basically forced wholly new meanings onto existing words (calquing, in fact), which was probably the only realistic option at the time, short of outright invention of new words or borrowing from English. I suspect this has led to a good bit of failed communication, though, of the unknown-unknowns type where neither party actually realises that misunderstanding has occurred.

  41. marie-lucie says:

    David E: The Bible translators basically forced wholly new meanings onto existing words (calquing, in fact), which was probably the only realistic option at the time, short of outright invention of new words or borrowing from English.

    The Bible translators (who produced the KJV) were translating from a Greek version of a Hebrew original, which probably included texts themselves translated or adapted from another language. So there must have been quite a lot of “forcing new meanings” at every stage. But I wonder what examples of new meanings you are thinking of?

  42. Stu Clayton says:

    How is flatulence accounted for in this model ? It would hardly be overlooked by a Roman studying the career of air. Actually, the idea of a living being going back and forth, entering and exiting me every few seconds is not very appealing. I can’t stand dithering.

    Or perhaps the spirit is obsessive-compulsive. I worked for a while in a room with someone who, at the end of the day, locked his computer and left – but came back 30 seconds later to check that he had locked his computer. He repeated this up to 10 times.

    The spirit metaphor is traditionally offered as a source of uplift, but when you get down to details it falls flat.

    On the other hand, obsessive-compulsive can be made to work for you. After forgetting my keys in the apartment several times, a few years ago I set myself the habit of not touching the doorknob when leaving, but closing the door by inserting the key in the lock and pulling. Since then I have never forgotten my keys, because it is impossible to. I got the idea from tv programs on people who wouldn’t touch doorknobs because they were afraid of catching a disease.

    Once you get into the spirit of something, all kinds of new ideas can turn up.

  43. The semantic range of ‘breathe’, ‘spirit’, etc. across a variety of languages is covered, using the semantic map approach in this paper by Alex François. It’s a fine illustration of why semantic maps are so neat.

  44. David Eddyshaw says:

    @m-l:

    You’re obviously right that calqueing is par for the course in Bible translation …
    Specifically, I was thinking of how the Kusaal Bible translators rendered “soul/spirit”, as of a person.

    The nearest equivalent in the traditional Kusaasi worldview is probably win. Your win is what makes you, you, as an individual, but it’s not identical with “you”; if you see a person sitting quietly alone, you greet him/her with “Blessing on your conversation”, because a person sitting alone is supposed to conversing with their win. It survives your death, and can also be inherited in the role of a spiritual protector by your descendants. The exceedingly common personal name “Awini” signifies that the individual has inherited a win from his father’s family as a spiritual guardian.

    It’s not hard to see why the translators didn’t think this was a good choice for “spirit/soul”, though. Win is also the traditional name of the Creator of the universe, and of the many non-anthropomorphic spiritual entities which are what you actually interact with in ordinary religious life. It’s not only people that have a unique spiritual individuality. The Latin genius has quite a bit in common with this. In the Bible translation win is used only to mean “(heathen) god.”

    Instead, they used siig. However, this word did not mean “spirit/soul” in the traditional worldview; a better rendering would be “life force.” It is what witches steal from people. Loss of it weakens you physically (leading to death if severe enough); it does not affect you as a personality. In men, it takes the form of three, and in women, four kikiris, called “fairies” in local English. (Women need an additional kikirig because of the dangers of childbearing.) There are also wild kikiris in the bush, which are hostile to humanity and lead travellers astray; the word is used by itself to render “demon” in the most recent Bible translation, without the specification “evil” kikirig which was used before.

    The system is so far from commensurate with traditional Christian ideas of what constitutes a person that it’s easy to understand why the translators essentially gave up and declared that in Christian discourse the words just meant something quite different.

  45. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Y:

    Fascinating paper, thanks! And almost spookily apropos …

    I’ve always had a sort of allergic reaction to the idea of semantic primitives, as a dyed-in-the-wool Saussurean philistine “show-me” type (eat that, Myers-Briggs!) To me they have the eldritch beauty and fundamental implausibility of Russellite Atomic Facts. But I like this cross-linguistic approach, especially the slant toward empirical investigation and (hurrah!) falsifiability. To some extent, too, it addresses some of the concerns raised about linguistic typology in general in that talk by Jeffrey Heath that I linked too; if it doesn’t allay them, at least it engages with them.

    Interesting stuff.

  46. marie-lucie says:

    Y: The semantic range of ‘breathe’, ‘spirit’, etc. across a variety of languages is covered, using the semantic map approach in this paper by Alex François.

    Thank you Y! A very interesting paper.

    I was amazed that Alex’s observations about BREATHE were so similar to mine, although they were done quite independently (mine on the spur of the moment, while his were embedded within a theoretical model with its own representation).

  47. I personally feel the Zen approach is a lot more interesting – that we experience oneness with the cosmos (or whatever) more powerfully when we play around with the ineffable. The limits of language, where we reach those boundaries where language starts to break down. Koans, mantras, jokes, paradoxes, wordless epiphanies – that’s where it’s at (and is not at).

  48. David Marjanović says:

    does what the wind does

    wehen in German; and if you send that back to PIE, form the present participle, nominalize it and then send it forward in time again, wind is what you get, provided that Pre-Germanic (like Greek) allowed only the last three syllables of a word to bear stress and that syllabic /n/ was allowed to stand next to a vowel for a much longer time than people used to think. (Which could, in turn, make sense of the “overlong vowels” sometimes posited for Proto-Germanic, but that’s not in this paper.)

  49. David Marjanović says:

    Funnily enough, my dialect has dissimilated wehen to gehen “walk”.

  50. Savalonôs says:

    “What is the wind doing?
    Nothing again nothing.”

  51. I talk to the wind
    My words are all carried away
    I talk to the wind
    The wind does not hear, the wind cannot hear

    King Crimson, “I Talk to the Wind“, In the Court of the Crimson King, 1969

  52. Since you’re here, I’ve been wanting to ask you this for ages: how do you pronounce your moniker? Is it NAR-mi-tidge? Nar-mi-TIE? J is such a difficult letter…

  53. NAR-mi-tidge, I suppose, but I don’t really say it out loud. It’s basically a form of my middle name, Armitage, with my first initial attached, and the “ge” disguised with a “j” for a modicum of anonymity.

    Our family middle names are the maiden names of women who married into the male surname line; so my older brother has my mother’s maiden name, I have my paternal grandmother’s, and my younger brother has our great-grandmother’s (and that of our great-grandfather’s brother’s wife: the brothers married a pair of sisters, back in the 1870s). If my parents had had a fourth son his middle name would have been Hutchinson, the maiden name of the woman who married my great-great grandfather in 1843. It was the middle name of my uncle David, who was reasonably well-known in UK theatre circles as an RSC actor.

  54. Thanks very much! Now I can mentally pronounce it with confidence.

  55. @Stu Clayton –

    Horne Tooke is to be counted on for all matters regarding the etymological metaphysics of elimination:

    “FART: a very innocent word, (the Egyptians thought it /divine/) … To Fare or To Go. The meaning of this word appears to have been understood by those who introduced the vulgar country custom of saying upon such an occasion, — “and joy GO with you.”

    The note has, among other authorities, Clemens Romanus, relating how ancient societies thought of the fart as the leading out of the possessing spirits, or gods: Crepitus ventris pro numinibus habendos esse docuere.

  56. John Cowan says:

    in Christian discourse the words just meant something quite different

    The same could be said of the Christian reappropriation of the word god and its analogues in other IE languages. Such terminological buccaneering, as Northrop Frye called it, is more or less inevitable if you don’t want your sacred texts to sound like a lot of mumbo-jumbo in the new language (they will anyway, but that’s life). In the case of religion, however, it’s mixed up with questions of truth: “Until now, you have not understood the meaning of [your word] correctly. We will now teach you what it really means.” “Shakespeare in the Bush”, a classic tale.

  57. David Eddyshaw says:

    @JC:

    True; though I would say that the radically different ideas of Godhood were pretty much exactly what Christians were trying to put over, with explicit arguments along the lines of “you have always thought that this was the nature of divinity: but the reality is quite otherwise.”

    The potential for radical misunderstanding is much greater when it involves major disparities in preconceptions which neither party is aware of, especially unexamined assumptions about human nature.

    Spencer Trimingham’s Islam in West Africa, though rather long in the tooth (1959) is a remarkably sensitive and insightful account of how the originally very alien conceptual world of Islam domesticated itself in different West African cultures, causing abandonment of some traditions as just outright incompatible with Islam, but often (much more interestingly) reanalysis of others, so that old practices acquired new meanings. In other cases an Islamic practice was adapted to replace older ways of marking the stages of life, sometimes acquiring part of the wider significance of the old custom in ways that have little to do with Islam itself. The process has been going on a lot longer than Christian evangelism in West Africa and its effects are correspondingly more subtle and complex.

    There’s been a lot of cultural diffusion from Islam over the centuries into groups that are not themselves Muslim, too. In particular, the Creator has often picked up quite a number of the attributes of Allah; in some cases, even his name.

  58. David Eddyshaw says:

    (The Tiv elders’ interpretation makes a lot of sense, if you ask me. But I think the anthropologist would have been better off with Macbeth. I’m not sure that Hamlet has much to do with human nature in any culture.)

  59. David Marjanović says:

    There’s been a lot of cultural diffusion from Islam over the centuries into groups that are not themselves Muslim, too.

    Likewise, the latest interpretation of what the Cain & Abel story is doing in Beowulf is that it diffused well before Christianity as a story about not murdering specifically one’s brother.

  60. marie-lucie says:

    David E: that talk by Jeffrey Heath that I linked too

    I can’t find this link here, could you possibly resend it?

  61. “Until now, you have not understood the meaning of [your word] correctly. We will now teach you what it really means.”

    “He’s talking about Atahocan!” OMG, so to speak.

  62. Likewise, the latest interpretation of what the Cain & Abel story is doing in Beowulf is that it diffused well before Christianity as a story about not murdering specifically one’s brother.

    Surely the more parsimonious explanation is Tolkien’s: The author was a Christian making a comment on the story. All the explicitly Christian allusions are (I believe) in the narration, not the dialogue.

  63. John Cowan says:

    “you have always thought that this was the nature of divinity: but the reality is quite otherwise.”

    Oh yes, absolutely. But the difference between what that and what I said is not likely to make it through the barriers of culture and only semi-competent translation.

  64. David Eddyshaw says:

    @m-l:

    Here’s the Jeffrey Heath thing:
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=t_5u9awlFAo&t=164s

  65. David Eddyshaw says:

    For the honour of the Kusaal Bible translators, I should say that in general they’re pretty competent, as far as I can tell, and in the view of native speakers, too, more to the point. I can’t blame the translators for not finding a neat rendering for concepts that just didn’t have any close parallel in traditional culture. Interestingly, where they did find an equivalent, it’s often ultimately from Arabic, like maliak “angel”, arezana “heaven”, yadda “faith.” Islam got there first, culturally, though it hasn’t been taken up by many Kusaasi qua religion.

    A translation that I’ve always thought particularly well-found is Wina’am nɔdi’es for “prophet.” Wina’am is “God” in the Christian sense; nɔdi’es is what in Ghana is called a “linguist”, a chief’s herald or spokesman – a chief does not address his people directly when he appears before them on formal occasions, but via the “linguist.”

  66. a chief does not address his people directly when he appears before them on formal occasions, but via the “linguist.”

    As I seem to recall saying, not necessarily on this blog, the usual English word for that is “logothete.”

  67. marie-lucie says:

    DE: Thank you for the Jeffrey Heath ‘thing’ – an interview rather than a paper. A real linguist, interested in languages rather than formalism. Worth rehearing later!

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=t_5u9awlFAo&t=164s
    (linguistic and typology)

    linguist/logothete

    This custom seems to be prevalent in highly stratified societies. A chief, king etc cannot be seen as imperfect, he cannot make mistakes without losing face, so speaking officially is always delegated to someone able to do so more competently though keeping his lower status. This was (and probably still is in some form) common in Polynesia and on the North American West Coast.

  68. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Roger C:

    It was here, I think: fairly sure I have shared this aperçu before. What the hell, I think it’s interesting.

    This sort of thing is probably pretty common cross-culturally; it may have seemed striking to me mostly because the modern West doesn’t do the Chief thing in proper style these days.

    In the culture that the Kusaasi are part of, the chiefs are supposed to be the descendants of foreign conquerors who might actually have needed interpreters once upon a time*; but in Ghana “linguist” principally conjures up the okyeame, who fulfils this rôle for an Akan chief. As far as I know, they don’t have any tradition of being originally of different ethnicity to the plebs. Just superior.

    *Much like the UK, really.

  69. As I seem to recall saying, not necessarily on this blog, the usual English word for that is “logothete.”

    It was here last year.

  70. David Eddyshaw says:

    The Wikipedia article on “Logothete” suggests that despite the apparent etymology of the word the official in question wasn’t really a “spokesman.”

    Mind you, a Ghanaian “linguist” is not just a spokesman; he’s an important hereditary royal councillor. He has other stuff to be doing when not passing on the king’s commands to the peons.

  71. John Cowan says:

    David E: I didn’t mean the translators, I meant the missionaries viva voce with the locals.

  72. David Eddyshaw says:

    @JC:

    OK. Mind you, they are often the same people, particularly with smaller languages. Same people at different stages of linguistic development, perhaps.

    Modern missionaries and Bible translators have taken on board the lessons of quite a few of the more egregious mistakes of the past, happily. Still, there’s plenty of scope for bungling yet.

    Not exactly to the point, but somewhere near it, is an improving apparently true story which I think goes back to Eugene Nida:

    Two dedicated female missionaries had spent a long time in a remote Central American village, learning the local language and attempting to evangelise. Despite months of endeavour, during which they remained on good terms, if not particularly close, with the locals, they made no progress at all. Eventually the cause of the problem was discovered, as it happens, through linguistic enquiry. Every morning, the missionaries would take breakfast outside, with fruit juice.

    In the local language, the word for “fruit juice” is literally “baby-killer”; it is believed to be abortifacient. It was already suspicious behaviour that the ladies had no declared menfolk that they were attached to in a regular relationship; their behaviour in drinking juice in plain view of the village every morning was … a bit blatant, really. It tended to undermine the message …

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