Concepts of language and race (was Re: BELL CURVE CRITIC EXPOSED?)

Nathaniel Michael Pearson (raindrop@leland.Stanford.EDU)
4 Feb 1995 23:34:22 -0800

In article <>,
Stephen Carlson <> wrote:
>In article <3ge9p5$> (David A. Johns) writes:
>>In article <> (William Tyler) writes:
>>There are obviously genetic traits that have limited geographic
>>distribution. We know that there are some common in Sweden that don't
>>extend to Nigeria and some common in Nigeria that don't extend to
>>But this fact does not validate the concept of races, unless you're
>>willing to accept 5 billion of them.
>It seems that there is a similar problem in linguistics, but the
>linguists don't get all bent out of shape about it.
>If the concept of race is fundamentally flawed because there are
>5 billion of them, then the concept of language must be similarly
>flawed because there are 5 billion idiolects. Why are the linguists
>still in business? Are they deluded?

The concept of language _is_ fundamentally flawed, as are distinctions of
race, species, nature vs. nurture, self vs. non-self, table vs. non-table,
etc. Even idiolects vary temporally, and the distinction between linguistic
and non-linguistic behavior ultimately breaks down.

Analysis by distinction is a useful tool; the insight it provides, however,
ultimately bring us to holistic understanding which transcends distinction.
It's not unnatural that we use categories like "race," etc., nor are such
distinctions arbitrary in a stochastic sense. However, it's just as natural
to see things crucially as continua, and at this stage in the game this may
offer us more insight.

That things are continual doesn't mean that they are all the same -- quite
the opposite; such a state is the telos of variation, such a view the
foundation of gradualism.

By the way, linguists (some of whom are not as blissfully enlightened on
quantum vs. continuum as you imply) in some circles use "variety" to replace
outmoded terms like "dialect" and "language."

Nathaniel Pearson
Stanford University
>Stephen Carlson
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Nathaniel Pearson
Stanford University