Re: Language & Writing

John McCreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Thu, 10 Oct 1996 11:14:43 +0900

Ron Kephardt writes

>In message (on LINGANHTH)
>Aaron Fox writes:
>> I think it is entirely likely that "usage" eventually will be conceived
>> not as a socially or culturally constructed "adjunct," but as itself (like
>> "culture" and "society" "themselves") the varied expression of an innate
>> "program" to use language socially and as a modality of social and
>> individual experience, *coupled with* an innate "program" to have
>> "Language" to use in the first place (and a few other "programs" as well,
>> all equally liberating and constraining, including the "program" to
>> reproduce).
>Actually, I couldn't agree more, and this is a great way of putting it.

I will cheerfully second that.
<long snip>

> I suggested that, assuming
>for the sake of argument the principles-parameters approach to language (I
>know how you all feel about it, but it does seems to be a nice way of
>some things), that culture might also be explainable in a similar way.
>given principles for cultural domains such as kinship might define a range of
>possible variation. As with language, some "logical" possibilities are
>excluded. The actual values for the principles are set differently within
>different cultures, thru the process of enculturation.
>Does this make any sense?

Indeed it does. My inspiration for a similar thought was the moment when
reading _Tristes Tropiques_ I came across Levi-Strauss writing about his
ambition to discover a "Mendelevian Table of the Mind," a set of elements
whose permutations and combinations would define the limits of all cultural
possibilities. Adding the parameters to the program would develop the
linkage between the implicit mental grammar on which L-S focused and the
particular social/historical/ecological settings in which particular
possibilities were actualized.

Having said this, I still don't think that either you or Aaron has met
Patrick's and my observations head-on. I still hear you, albeit in the
context of a very sophisticated theoretical discussion of the nature of
language acting precisely as Patrick describes:

>This topic is striking for the way it seems to turn lx anthropologists into
>model theoretical linguists happily producing the party line commonly taught
>in freshman Intro to Lang courses. Everyone seems to define language instantly
>in terms of vocabulary, grammar, rules-- language structure-- but to have
>little to say about language use. If writing a language forever changed its
>patterns of use, would that not be important to its identity as a language--
>its "languageness"?

I wonder if it mightn't be useful to sort out the practical, political side
of the argument where, it seems to me, several emotionally charged issues
get muddled together. Here is my first tentative stab.

(1) Language and intelligence: Here the universality of the bioprogram and
the staggering ability of every undamaged human child to rapidly acquire
not just one, but several, languages is a useful lesson to teach to those
in whose minds racial categories, ethnic identities and notions about
substandard language reflecting substandard intelligence are fused in
racist nonsense. Here you will get no quibbles from me.

(2) Language and identity: Here we must deal with those who work to
preserve languages because they are seen as integral parts of
group/ethnic/national ways of life. One can, as I said in my message to
Martha Macri, admire these efforts, especially in those from groups that
have wound up on the short end of historical sticks. One can not help
noticing that when similar efforts are made by members of more powerful
groups, the Academie Francaise, for example, or purveyors of Nihonjinron
(theory of Japaneseness), they have a way of becoming entangled with racist
politics. Here I remain ambivalent. I wonder if something might be done to
resolve this ambivalence by distinguishing between "preservationist"
efforts, like those that Martha Macri is involved in, and "purificationist"
programs, like those of the Academie Francaise.I can't help noticing,
however, that this distinction has no justification whatsoever in the
nature of language per se (see 1). It is grounded, if grounded at all, in
sociological observation and historical sympathies.

(3) Language and writing: Let us agree, for the moment, to assume that the
presence or absence of writing has no affect on the basic intellectual
capacities of human minds, which we take to be given in the bioprogram. Is
it not still the case that writing radically alters the parameters within
which these abilities are developed. As a form of social capital, mastery
of writing has has been the great dividing line between the literate elite
and illiterate peasants or proles throughout "written" history.

When I think of these issues what I think of first is China. Intelligent
peasants did sometimes become Mandarins. But the task of acquiring the
level of literacy and mastery of particular forms required--I'm thinking
here of the infamous eight-legged essay-- was a long and uphill struggle;
nothing that anyone ever came by "naturally."

Turning, then, to identity: It is argued persuasively in standard history
books that written Chinese was the key to unification of the roughly
one-quarter of humanity whose rulers learned to write the same language,
even though they and those they ruled spoke a variety of languages
(calling, say, Hokkien or Cantonese "dialects" is a purely political

Those same history books suggest that because of their personal investment
in acquiring the particular form of literacy that opened the door to
political power, the Mandarins acquired habits of mind that made them
unable to adapt successfully to the onslaught of Western trade, technology,
and gunboats.

It was, then, the difficulty of learning written Chinese in its classical
form that led reformers and revolutionaries both in and outside China to
propose solutions that ranged from using the traditional characters to
write in vernacular styles (Taiwan), to use of simplified characters
(mainland China), to the substitution of syllabaries (Korea) or
romanization (Vietnam). Japan is truly remarkable because the language as
currently written includes all of the above.

In these contexts the discussion of better and worse in language has
nothing to to do with the bioprogram or with the nature of writing in the
abstract. Our subject is not a phantom called "literacy" or "consciousness"
but a highly specific set of historical circumstances that govern
particular ways of using language. The parameters, not the program. Or am I
missing something here?

John McCreery
3-206 Mitsusawa HT, 25-2 Miyagaya, Nishi-ku
Yokohama 220, JAPAN

"And the Lord said unto Cyrus, 'Shall the clay say to him who moldest it,
what makest thou? Let the potsherd of the earth speak to the potsherd of
the earth." --An anthropologist's credo