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Re: [mythsoc] Questions concerning language and Postmodernism

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  • WendellWag@aol.com
    In a message dated 8/4/2003 1:02:19 PM Eastern Daylight Time, ... To pretty much anybody trained in linguistics today, those sorts of statements about language
    Message 1 of 10 , Aug 5, 2003
      In a message dated 8/4/2003 1:02:19 PM Eastern Daylight Time,
      hershber@... writes:

      > When asked about JRRT's view of language, he responded by stating that for
      > Tolkien, modern language had decayed from earlier languages, where words
      > were "ontologically rooted in the nature of things," and that the modern
      > view [perhaps PoMo view?] that language was simply human invention--words
      > mean whatever we want them to mean--without reference to any reality from
      > which it might be derived. (sorry for the clunky syntax...ugh!)

      To pretty much anybody trained in linguistics today, those sorts of
      statements about language are either unanswerable or simply meaningless. (And most
      linguistics departments, incidentally, consider post-modernism irrelevant to
      their field and probably largely meaningless.) Linguists today consider their job
      to be the description of language at all its levels - phonological,
      morphological, grammatical, semantical - and the associated questions of the historical
      development of language, the psychological description of its working, the
      anthropology and sociology of language, etc. Philosophical questions about
      language are outside the bounds of the field. Questions about whether earlier
      forms of language are better or worse are considered unanswerable.

      The same is true when anyone in linguistics is asked whether they are a
      descriptive or a prescriptive linguist. The only prescriptive linguists are high
      school English teachers and copy editors. The reaction of a linguist to be
      asked to choose whether certain forms of language are better or worse would
      mostly be frustration. They would say, "Look, I've got my hands full just trying
      to describe language. The questions of description are extremely deep and hard
      enough by themselves. I don't have time to bother with prescribing some
      language as being better than others."

      Wendell Wagner


      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
    • bowring
      ... earlier ... More s the pity. Alas, that we should ask the philosophical question: what does it all mean? Kevin
      Message 2 of 10 , Aug 5, 2003
        >Philosophical questions about
        >language are outside the bounds of the field. Questions about whether
        earlier
        >forms of language are better or worse are considered unanswerable.

        More's the pity. Alas, that we should ask the philosophical question: what
        does it all mean?

        Kevin
      • Larry Swain
        ----- Original Message ----- From: WendellWag@aol.com Date: Tue, 5 Aug 2003 11:18:27 EDT To: mythsoc@yahoogroups.com Subject: Re: [mythsoc]
        Message 3 of 10 , Aug 5, 2003
          <BR><BR>----- Original Message -----<BR>From: WendellWag@...<BR>Date: Tue, 5 Aug 2003 11:18:27 EDT<BR>To: mythsoc@yahoogroups.com<BR>Subject: Re: [mythsoc] Questions concerning language and Postmodernism<BR><BR><html><body>


          Everything that Wendell said is true. Looking at it from a slightly different perspective, Postmodernism does in fact have an influence on the Linguistics, protests to the contrary aside. At the same time that the significant shift in ideas was occurring that gave us Postmodernism (The third woe without question!) also brought about significant changes in the way the field of "linguistics" was done. Once upon a time in the not too distant the "linguist" was the philologist who practiced his craft in English departments and learned Old and MIddle English, Greek, Latin, Gothic, Old NOrse, Old Saxon, Old French, etc etc delving further back into the past to reconstruct the original "splits" in Indo-European languages and eventually to Indo-European itself as a language, and of course, the same activity was being carried out in relation to Semitic languages (not so much Eastern or African languages) in an effort to perhaps discover something about an "ur-language." This DIACH
          RONIC approach was largely (though not completely) abandoned in the 60s for a "synchronic" approach, or descriptive approach, that seeks to take a moment in time and simply describe usage AT THAT MOMENT rather than emphasizing (and it is an emphasis, not a jettison of philology) relationships to previous forms of language or following forms of language. This change affected not only English departments where Linguists of this sort often spun off into their own departments, though certainly not universally so, but also the way in which dictionaries were done (when I was a wee lad, "ain't" was not in the dictionary, it is now, for example, not because it is deemed "proper" or "right" English, but because the dictionary wishes to describe current usage. As a side note, my dictionary lists "ain't" as being most common among racial groups, but I think this is incorrect. It seems rather ubiquitous to me, even among the educated.) Anyway, that shift from diachronic to synchroni
          c shares at its heart the same set of new ideas and concerns that Postmodernism had when Foucault first questioned What is An Author? or theologians posited that "God is Dead."

          Larry Swain
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        • David S. Bratman
          These questions about the origin and purpose of language, which Tolkien was interested in, and which Owen Barfield dealt with specifically throughout his
          Message 4 of 10 , Aug 5, 2003
            These questions about the origin and purpose of language, which Tolkien was
            interested in, and which Owen Barfield dealt with specifically throughout
            his career, are, as Wendell says, outside the boundaries of the field of
            linguistics.

            But Tolkien was not a linguist, he was a philologist. The terms are rough
            but not exact synonyms. Linguistics tends to be interested in the detailed
            study of how language is being used and how it works. Philology, at least
            in Britain, is the term for the historical study of language and languages.
            (See http://www.ling-phil.ox.ac.uk/introduction.html for a discussion of
            the differences.) The history and development of early forms of English,
            and related tongues, was Tolkien's professional field. Tolkien was a
            speculator, not an expert, in the origin and purpose of language, but
            they're questions that coule easily interest a philologist much more than a
            linguist.

            Nor was Barfield a linguist: he was a philosopher of language. His
            interest was in considering those philosophical questions about language
            which are outside the boundaries of the field of linguistics. His primary
            tool, as with all philosophers, was not scientific fact, but logic.

            Barfield was hardly the only philosopher to consider these questions in
            recent times. I don't know if he ever read "The Origin of Consciousness in
            the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind" by Julian Jaynes, for instance, but it
            seems to me to be very much in his line of interest.

            - David Bratman
          • Jay Hershberger
            DB: Nor was Barfield a linguist: he was a philosopher of language. His interest was in considering those philosophical questions about language which are
            Message 5 of 10 , Aug 5, 2003
              DB: Nor was Barfield a linguist: he was a philosopher of language. His
              interest was in considering those philosophical questions about language
              which are outside the boundaries of the field of linguistics. His primary
              tool, as with all philosophers, was not scientific fact, but logic.

              JH: Thank you kindly to everyone for the thoughtful and informative
              responses. Please permit me to ask some of my questions again, for I would
              very much like to get a handle upon what folks are saying about language.

              Are words "ontologically" rooted in the nature of things? Are words human
              symbols that can mean whatever we want them to mean? Did Barfield have an
              opinion about these questions? Is modern literary criticism--especially
              deconstruction--a way to avoid or discount these philosophical questions
              about language?

              It seems to me that since Tolkien was a philologist, might he not have asked
              philosophical questions about the nature of language?

              Looking forward to your responses.

              Cheers,

              Jay Hershberger
              Associate Professor of Music
              Concordia College
              Moorhead, MN
            • David S. Bratman
              Jay, I may have missed earlier messages that made the same recommendations, but if you re interested in Tolkien s approach to the philosophy of the nature of
              Message 6 of 10 , Aug 5, 2003
                Jay,

                I may have missed earlier messages that made the same recommendations, but
                if you're interested in Tolkien's approach to the philosophy of the nature
                of language, run do not walk in the direction of the nearest copy of
                _Splintered Light_ by Verlyn Flieger, whose second edition was recently
                published. It is the authoritative book on this subject.

                For primary sources, Flieger will point you in the right direction. But
                briefly, Tolkien's clearest statements on these matters are nuggets buried
                in his essay "On Fairy-Stories". For Barfield's views of language, the
                starting point is his book _Poetic Diction_.

                - David Bratman
              • Jay Hershberger
                For primary sources, Flieger will point you in the right direction. But briefly, Tolkien s clearest statements on these matters are nuggets buried in his
                Message 7 of 10 , Aug 5, 2003
                  For primary sources, Flieger will point you in the right direction. But
                  briefly, Tolkien's clearest statements on these matters are nuggets buried
                  in his essay "On Fairy-Stories". For Barfield's views of language, the
                  starting point is his book _Poetic Diction_.

                  - David Bratman

                  David--

                  Many thanks for the suggestions! I will check these volumes out. I confess
                  to being like a little kid in a candy shoppe!

                  Perhaps the volumes you suggest will seem more like a full course dinner!

                  Cheers,

                  Jay Hershberger
                • bowring
                  ... These are very complex questions to answer. Barfield certainly thinks that language is ontologically rooted in the nature of things, but the real
                  Message 8 of 10 , Aug 5, 2003
                    >Are words "ontologically" rooted in the nature of things? Are words human
                    >symbols that can mean whatever we want them to mean? Did Barfield have an
                    >opinion about these questions? Is modern literary criticism--especially
                    >deconstruction--a way to avoid or discount these philosophical questions
                    >about language?

                    These are very complex questions to answer. Barfield certainly thinks that
                    language is "ontologically rooted" in the nature of things, but the real
                    question is, "What does Barfield understand by 'the nature of things'"? I
                    agree with David Bratman that the place to start is with Poetic Diction.
                    Barfield's Saving the Appearances is also very important.

                    I would especially point out the "Afterword" of Poetic Diction in which
                    Barfield orients the reader to recent thinkers that he found congenial in one
                    way or another. There is enough there to keep you busy for a good long while!
                    Finally, Barfield's What Coleridge Thought is of fundamental importance.
                    Barfield, Coleridge, as well as Lewis and Tolkien, recognize that language
                    opens up reality to us, that there are levels of reality and meaning, but that
                    language can decay--even to the point of becoming decadent. (Contrast
                    Tolkien's portrayal of the moral/spiritual qualities of elvish languages vs.
                    the language of the Orcs and you have a good image of the potentialities.)

                    You might find helpful, as I do, the first two chapter of John Coulson's
                    Newman and the Common Tradition (Oxford University Press,1970). Coulson,
                    starting from Coleridge and in contrast to Bentham, articulates the notion of
                    "fiduciary language". (Bentham is a useful stand-in for line of thought that
                    ultimately yields modern philosophy of language.) Coulson extends this line
                    of thought to the role of metaphor and symbol and imagination in thought at
                    its deepest levels in his later book, Religon and Imagination (Oxford
                    University Press, 1981). While I have certain minor quibbles with Coulson
                    here and there, these two books are very rich and will reward their reading
                    many times over. They are sadly and unjustly neglected.

                    As for modern philosophy of language and literary theory (including its latest
                    permutation "cultural studies"), this is a labyrinth that is hard to find you
                    way into and even harder to find your way out. Personally, I do not know of a
                    reliable guide. Richard Kearney, in his book Modern Movement in European
                    Philosophy, gives you a lucid (if you can believe it) introduction to the
                    major thinkers, including Derrida. Kearney has a real gift for making things
                    clear, but he is overwhelmingly sympathetic to these thinkers and provides
                    only description and not evaluation. If you are brave, you might wade into
                    Iris Murdoch's Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals or any of several of Stanley
                    Rosen's books for astute philosophical criticism of postmodernism--but this is
                    all heavy going.

                    The bottom line, if you want a place to hang your philosophical hat, is that
                    postmodernism (Derrida, Foucault, etc.) is an extremely sophisticated form of
                    sophistry (i.e., it has its spiritual ancestry in the Greek Sophists),
                    intensified through the lense of Nietzsche.

                    And personally, having spent more than a decade mired in this stuff, I'd
                    rather read The Hobbit.

                    Sorry this was so long (and I tried to keep it short!).
                    Best of luck,
                    Kevin
                  • David S Bratman
                    ... _Saving the Appearances_ is a book that will certainly plunge you head-first into the question of what Barfield understands by the nature of things. But
                    Message 9 of 10 , Aug 5, 2003
                      At 09:20 PM 8/5/2003 -0400, bowring wrote:

                      >These are very complex questions to answer. Barfield certainly thinks that
                      >language is "ontologically rooted" in the nature of things, but the real
                      >question is, "What does Barfield understand by 'the nature of things'"? I
                      >agree with David Bratman that the place to start is with Poetic Diction.
                      >Barfield's Saving the Appearances is also very important.

                      _Saving the Appearances_ is a book that will certainly plunge you
                      head-first into the question of what Barfield understands by "the nature of
                      things." But it's not so much directly concerned with language per se.

                      - David Bratman
                    • bowring
                      I found the following passage in the Journals of Alexander Schmemann. Reflecting on the passion in some quarters for courses in Great Ideas of the Western
                      Message 10 of 10 , Aug 6, 2003
                        I found the following passage in the Journals of Alexander Schmemann.
                        Reflecting on the passion in some quarters for courses in "Great Ideas of the
                        Western World" he writes:

                        “It would be useful to teach a course entitled ‘Great Western Errors,’
                        following approximately this plan: Rousseau and ‘Nature,’ with a capital N;
                        The Enlightenment and ‘Reason,’ capital R; Hegel and ‘History,’ capital H;
                        Marx and ‘Revolution,’ capital R; and finally, Freud and ‘Sex,’ capital
                        S—realizing that the main error of each is precisely the capital letter, which
                        transforms these words into an idol, into a tragic pars pro toto.”

                        The list can be extended: Postmodernism and "Language" with a capital L. In
                        other words, the separation of language from its rootedness in both human
                        minds and being--that is, from "participation", in Barfield's terms.

                        Kevin
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