10 February 2010
No sooner is the death of the Bo language reported that we get a chorus of corporate news columnists sounding the "bye bye Bo, don't let the door hit you on the way out" theme, with the Manchester Guardian linking to like minded arguments. What's the point of the economic dominance of the King's English if you can't buy supportive linguists, but even so the Guardian has to misrepresent the arguments between linguists on the value of endangered languages. Linguistics in English is well suited to analysing specific phenomena and, when the occasion calls for it, inventing methodology to support a pre-existing conclusion. What must be called a partisan backlash against the foundations of linguistics supported by a plurality focuses on two areas of refutation: that language has an insignificant effect on cognition, and that actual differences in languages are minimal. On the second point, the star child is Chomsky, whose belief in universal grammar is matched by his attempt to reform it politically while he maintains there's no relation between the two and scoffs at post-structuralism for conflating linguistics with sociology and economics rather than adopt his compartmentalized system. Saussure disputes the first point and Derrida the second, as does Foucault, a disagreement which would have made a better argument with Chomsky if it never in fact came up. Lévi-Strauss adds to his agreement with Saussure the effect of language on the organization and traditions of tribes. It would seem to take a lot of tricky logic to separate linguistic changes from changes in lifestyle, as well as being completely blind to what's happening, and also to not note that people are in the course of this linguistic change, rapidly moving from an ecologically sustainable existence to the unsustainable existence brought about by technology. The change happens more quickly in the flat plains than in the resilient, arid mountains or the thick jungle, hence the lifestyle of surviving Amerindians in the US became Westernized in the 19th Century. Art is full of emulation of the 'primitive,' and when Picasso calls African sculpture 'a weapon,' he increases the function and expressive potential of the object. Joyce understood this as well as anyone, this which no one completely understands, creating in Ulysses what can be seen as among other things a drama based on the effect of existing uses of language on cognition and creating characters to illustrate (also among other things) his own relation to the English language which is the substance being sculpted by the writer. The second drama accompanies the emergence of the unified Europe, in which language is learned for assimilation when isolation is exploited, which brings with it a Nationalistic inclination associated with the native language, and on a literary level, his modernist cosmopolitanism is contrasted with the methods of Yeats. Gaelic and Latin exist as romanticism belonging to another age, being processed by the analysis and propaganda of the Germanic English. English is an analytical drum surrounded by romance languages. Guardian says that attributing thought patterns to language is "an almost mystical idealisation of Native Americans." No, you don't want to romanticize anyone. I see the conflicts between the languages built into the languages, with English attempting to co opt and overcome romanticism, Keats or no Keats, just as German has held firm to the Latin tradition, and art maintaining a representational relationship to the conflict. Galeano quips: "It seems Paul Gauguin, a rather absentminded fellow, put his name on a couple of sculptures from the Congo. The error was contagious. From then on Picasso, Modigliani, Klee, Giacometti, Ernst, Moore, and many other European artists made the same mistake, and did so with alarming frequency. Pillaged by its colonial masters, Africa would never know how responsible it was for the most astonishing achievements in twentieth century European painting and sculpture." What this (perhaps humorously and deliberately) misses is the well-acknowledged debt these artists paid to their precursors. When Breton and Barnes stack the works side by side, the law courts break up the display, while the African works first seen by Picasso and the rest in Paris have been relocated to the Quay Branly, arranged randomly rather than be separated by culture, except that they're separated from the European works and the signatures on them.