Danny Yee >> People >> Mike Salovesh
Date:         Tue, 4 Apr 2000 04:20:43 -0500
From:         Mike Salovesh <t20mxs1@CORN.CSO.NIU.EDU>
Subject:      The Big Bang in cross-linguistic perspective

Ronald Kephart wrote:

> Isn't the belief that there has to have been an "absolute origin of matter" > itself a faith-based belief? Perhaps there's simply nothing that needs > explanation in this regard. > > (Those who know more about physics/cosmology may now correct me, as necessary.)

Maybe it isn't a "faith-based belief" at all. Maybe the search for an absolute origin of matter is nothing more than an artifact of the languages we speak. There is no way that I can give a SHORT explanation of that point. If you get a headache when you see linguistic analysis, please go ahead and delete this message. I'm going to summarize that analysis and argue in favor of the possibility that we look for ultimate origins because we get in that habit through the languages we speak.

The key part of language in generating origin questions could be found in the nature of verb tenses, particularly those common in the Indo-European language family.

We think of it as "natural" that verb conjugations differentiate person, number, and time. Consider the very short sentence "We go". The sentence takes obligatory note of the fact that more than one person is involved, and that the speaker is among those who do whatever it is. The construction also says that the action spoken of either is taking place in present time or it is a habitual and recurring fact that _could be_ going on right now.

A native speaker of English would know those facts about person, number, and time even if the verb "to go" happened to be a new one. Take "we go" as a sentence, and substitute the word "globbnudel". Now look at the sentence "We globbnudel". You don't have to know what globbnudel means to conclude that more than one person is involved in this instance of globbnudeling, that the speaker is one of those people, and that the action is taking place now (as opposed to yesterday or tomorrow). Sentence structure as such (as opposed to the specific words used in that structure) does leave open the possibility of ambiguity: the speaker might be saying "All of us folks around here are in the habit globbnudeling" or something like that. Even that possible ambiguity still implies that somebody, somewhere, still does globbnudel from time to time, and somebody might even be doing it at this very minute.

Speaking English requires that the speaker habitually slice time into packages that include past, present, and future.

Notice that I didn't say that you have to specify time when using English verbs. English, as Ron would be happy to demonstrate, only has one verb that has two tenses. All other verbs have only one tense _in the operational definition of tense most frequently used in descriptive linguistics_. Latin has more than one tense for all verbs; German has more than one tense for verbs; ditto for Russian or Greek or -- well, lots of others. English handles the tasks served by verb tenses in Latin by a different means. Even though English doesn't indicate differences in time by conjugating verbs as Latin or Russian or German do, speaking English requires consistently marking past, present, and future time.

The structure of most English utterances makes it reasonable to ask about origins, about how and when this or that got started, of what were things like before some thing or idea existed. It's not only meaningful, it's inevitable. The question is implicit in the grammar of speaking the language. Ordinary speech treats EVERYTHING as if it had a past, a present, and/or a future. We therefore jump to the conclusion that everything had a beginnning.

All of which would be so much blahblahblah to me if it weren't for the fact that I once spent some time trying to understand the way things are said in Nahuatl. My direct interest was to make sense out of some pieces of the very large body of 16th century texts written in the language of the so-called "Aztecs" of the central valley of Mexico. Shortly after the fall of Tenochtitlan (present-day Mexico City) to invading forces led by Hernan Cortez, a number of Spanish priests established schools for the conquered peoples given over to their charge. Their pupils were Nahuatl-speaking sons of persons who had been of high rank in pre-Conquest Aztec society.

Part of the education in the schools of the friars consisted of teaching the students a means of writing their own language with a slightly modified version of a European alphabet. The best of the teaching priests (for example, Fray Bernardino de Sahagun) produced analyses of Nahuatl of such great sophistication that their records note phonemic contrasts that make important differences in Nahuatl but no difference at all in Spanish. Surviving written records written in Nahuatl in the early years of the Colonial Epoch give dependable historical documentation for events reaching back well before Cortez's arrival in 1519.

Starting to learn Nahuatl required special efforts I hadn't encountered when learning other languages, or doing linguistics work with speakers of other languages. I read Spanish, French, Italian, and Portugese without breaking into a sweat; I can read German, but it takes work; I once spoke Japanese comfortably (though my knowledge has decayed to almost zero in the 47 years since I left Japan); and I'd done linguistics lab work in Hungarian, Finnish, Fanti, and a couple of more obscure languages before trying to pick up some Nahuatl. That gave me a false picture of how much effort it would involve to add another language. Nahuatl, however, seemed at first to be entirely impossible to grasp. I had to rebuild my internal expectations about how languages work before I could get anywhere worth going.

One of the first things I had to learn is that Nahuatl doesn't really slice the world of speech into nouns and verbs. Instead, it starts with roots that can be modified with markers indicating a verb-like use or a noun-like use.

Let me give an example. (Reading Nahuatl is a tool I've let grow rusty with disuse. Please bear with me as I fumble for ways of talking about it.) My example comes from the name of one of today's candidates for this year's presidential elections in Mexico: Cuauhtemoc Cardenas. Cuauhtemoc, a Nahuatl word, was the name of the last major leader of Tenochtitlan before the Conquest.

The name "Cuauhtemoctsin", to give a standard 16th century spelling, is the equivalent of a sentence in Nahuatl. The central root is "cuauh". If you added the noun-marking particle "-tli" to that, you'd get "cuauhtli", meaning "eagle". The marker at the end of the word, "-tsin", indicates that the word is the special kind of word reserved for the names of individuals of very high prestige. (Another example: "motekwmatzin", which the conquistadores rendered as "Montezuma". Yes, that's phonemic spelling for the Nahuatl -- or the best I can do without special symbols. "kw" is the kind of k marked by lip rounding, which is in phonemic contrast with a k without lip-rounding.)

The rest of the details in the word "Cuauhtemoctzin" indicate "motion", "downward direction", and something like our "third person singular". If my analysis is correct, the time marker is one used for continuous or habitual action -- which does not, itself, imply anything about past, present, or future. My translation: Cuauhtemoctzin means something on the order of a metaphor: "the great leader Swooping Eagle", or, in other words, "chief who is like a swooping eagle". (In imitation of the very bad written equivalents we in the U.S. used to hang on Plains Indians, I can almost see this being rendered as "Chief Swooping Eagle".) The translation you'll see in guide books is based on an analysis which breaks the word differently, reading it as if it contained a marker of past time. That makes it come out "the great leader Fallen Eagle", or just "fallen Eagle". (Spanish: "aguila que cay€".)

I deliberately chose to analyze a word which has been a problem for translators. That was the easiest way I can think of to indicate how verb markers in Nahuatl don't slice the universe of experience as we do in English, and how that can lead to problems when you try to translate Nahuatl into English.

And "Cuauhtemoctzin" is a comparatively straightforward utterance!

Now let me take a jump and summarize one analysis of what Nahuatl verb-like contructions indicate. There are ways to mark words that produce statements very much like our notions of past, present, and future. Our kind of ambiguity between something that's happening now and something that is habitual or happens regularly doesn't happen in Nahuatl, because a separate form is used to mark statements about habitual recurrences. Those four possibilities, however, are only part of the picture.

Nahuatl uses yet another kind of verb-marker to make some statements. Using this kind of marker implies that the utterance is about a fundamental truth of the universe. Its truth is not dependent on time. It would be true even if time didn't exist. It's the equivalent of the English "is" used in saying "two plus two IS four." That's a far different thing, for a Nahuatl speaker, than a statement that "this pile of bricks and mortar IS a building." The pile of materials can be knocked down, or moved, or rebuilt into something else, but two plus two is four by the nature of things, no matter how you pile it.

There's another kind of verb-like time in Nahuatl. It's what is said about something which had a historical beginnning, but which, once started, goes on forever without possibility of ending. There is a Nahuatl story of creation, recorded in Bernardino de Sahagun's Florentine Codex, that has the gods come together at Teotihuacan, the place of the gods, in darkness because there was no sun in those days. And the gods spoke to each other, and they asked "who shall be the one who will take up the burden of giving us light, of shining in the sky?" And one of them said "ca nehuatl niyez", "surely I shall be the one." That statement is expressed in an ordinary future construction. Then he goes on to say "I shall take up the burden of shining, of giving light, and I will be the sun." Those statements don't use the ordinary markers of the equivalent of a simple future tense. Instead, they are marked to indicate that this is the kind of action that, once begun, goes on with no further reference to time. It can't "end", in the ordinary sense, or wear out, or slow down, or change. Once started, it just is, timelessly.

I think the implications of the kinds of choices a speaker of Classical Nahuatl made every time anything was said about anything would not necessarily point to a preoccupation with beginnings. Speaking Classical Nahuatl would support the habit of talking about some things as existing apart from time. It would also support thinking about other things as features of the universe that didn't have to be the way they are, but once they come into being they would go on as they began forever. Given those possibilities, Nahuatl does not have to force its speakers into dialogues that try to find a beginning for everything that exists.

The implication I draw from all of this is that maybe the Book of Genesis says what it does because it was written in a language that slices the universe into three kinds of time: past, present, and future. Left to their own devices, people who speak a language that fits the universe into a highly different structure of time-like statements might not even see "beginnings" as something demanding explanation.

What I've written here sounds like a close cousin to what some call the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. In fact, Benjamin Lee Whorf did a good, standard linguistic description of the Milpa Alta dialect of 20th century Nahuatl. Nahuatl, furthermore, is a very close relative of the language of the Hopis. That makes me wonder about whether some parts of what Whorf said about linguistic relativity and the Hopis were simply a consequence of the differences between verblike structures in Uto-Aztekan languages in general and those of languages like English.

That's the kind of headache-inducing question that made it somewhat easier for me to break out of my love affair with linguistic anthropology. We departed on friendly terms, and I like to go back for enough visits to keep in touch. I just don't think of myself as a linguist any more.

-- mike salovesh <salovesh@niu.edu> PEACE !!!