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Thursday, November 22, 2012

Schlegel, Languages and Classification Systems...




In my previous blogpost, the StatsCan results were discussed in terms of exploring language diversity in Canada. Although, the classification system of languages in general, it was mentioned (although often taken for granted) is in itself a recent "innovation" - if we can even truly call it that. The majority of us, meaning somewhat literate and functional human beings that have learned over the course of our short lives to function in a social democratic system with beaucoup of administrative and bureaucratic red tape - always forms to fill out at every level of our existence, whether it be governmental at the municipal, provincial, or federal levels, or just plain forms at the doctor's office for a check-up. In short, we are used to checking off any great number of options to get what we want on any officialized piece of paper in order to get what we want - be it a driver's permit, hunter's permit, wedding license, or whatever else. It is simply the way things "run", and quite frankly, at times - even with all of the well-structured administrative tools at our disposal to supposedly make life easier - I am aghast at the chaos underlying it all. Evidently, this cog in the machine is the human element... but this one cannot be fixed, for our nature is in itself flawed - and we have a popular adage to describe it when someone presents us with a personalised version of chaos - meaning when someone screws up - which we usually just shrug and write off by saying, "Nobody's perfect." 

That organizational principle that we see in our daily lives, meaning the one that is so apparent in the simplest of actions (i.e. watching our favourite TV show, paying by debit for our store purchase, logging into our email to check our messages) consists of various "strings" of reality that make such things possible. For the most part, we take most of these things for granted - and thank goodness we do. Otherwise, if we were to try and comprehend all of the technological science poured into the apparatus currently in front of us - my laptop or your iphone - we would not be able to function. The same goes for TV. Even in trying to understand how it is that as primates, us humans - the cousins of the great apes - managed to create such technological marvels as satellites rotating around our planet and that somehow the television in my living room is intricately linked to it, dependant on it really... In short, all of it is quite overwhelming to think about as we flick through channels to find something to watch.          

At this point, maybe you are wondering where it is that I am going with all this? Well, all this to say that there is yet another technology that is just as marvelous and as intricately complex. Simply put, it is "language", and it can be explained by either of the following definitions as given by the American Heritage Science Dictionary (2002, Houghton Mifflin):
  1. A system of objects or symbols, such as sounds or character sequences, that can be combined in various ways following a set of rules, especially to communicate thoughts, feelings, or instructions.
  2. The set of patterns or structures produced by such a system. 
If you are not yet convinced on the complexity of language, then simply think of the alphabet: It is used to encode language in sounds in written form, and it is astounding to consider that the same set of 26 Roman letters used in the English language today, when combined in so many alternate arrangements - in words, forming phrases, compounded into paragraphs and subdivided into chapters of a book - essentially, these same 26 letters can be used to express or write all of the books in the world today without repeating a single one. The ideas and intricacies of language are not entirely dissimilar to its written counterpart. Simply put, the spoken and written word are used in tandem to express language, the only main difference is that one relies mostly on speech and hearing, and the other the eyes and speech to convey ideas encoded on a piece of paper - or screen. Humans are even preoccupied with this system of codification that is "language", for we have replicated machine language and programming language to make our contraptions "communicate" with both ourselves and each other, and this mostly in attempting to gain some kind of control over them, hence computer systems rely on internal or external "commands". 

All this evidently relates to our understanding of "natural" languages - meaning the languages that exist in nature (as opposed to our artificially created programming languages). Language, to give it a more comprehensive definition, can be described as "any set or system of such symbols as used in a more or less uniform fashion by a number of people, who are thus enabled to communicate intelligibly with one another" or better yet, it is also defined as "any system of formalized symbols, signs, sounds, gestures, or the like used or conceived as a means of communicating thought, emotion, etc.: the language of mathematics; sign language" (see def. 4 & 5 in "Language" art., Dictionary.com). Thus, the structure of society - or its meta-structure which we could call "civilization" - connects me personally as some sort of organ through my computer to some guy on the other side of the world (most likely somewhere in China) that is working on implanting chips or souldering some techno-bits to a motherboard (or whatever it is that makes my antiquated laptop run) in order to earn a living. And, I, similarly depend on my computer to make my living, for through the Internet - which apparently runs through outerspace - from satellite to satellite not unlike magic sends my words to your own techno-gadget - be it an iphone, Blackberry, or Mac device. In essence, all these gizmos speak the same language, for the technology has evolved to be compatible for all of these things to be able to commonly interact - through a technological web of "artificial" languages. The spoken languages of the world, on the contrary, are "natural" languages, but through the long course of their evolution many of them have co-existed together and bonded humanity in so many bumbling masses scattered throughout the globe - albeit some more isolated than others. Comparable to human DNA, the family tree of language families reflect the spread of human cultures over all of the continents - and just like changes in our DNA that reflect some of these changes, either through adaptive processes or others, in a process not too dissimilar to this - languages, too, change and evolve over time.     

 This is where I get to talk about Schlegel and the Indo-Europeanists... (By the way, my wife thinks I should have lost most of my audience in direct consequence of this, but for those of you who remain - please do read on.) 

In my last blog surrounding StatsCan findings, I mentioned the fact that the census-takers' questionnaires present us with boxes to check off in order to indicate languages spoken, whereas in earlier versions of the Census, it would be sufficient to ask for a country of origin in order to determine a person's language. It was noted that this indeed reflects the fact that language does not always correspond to the dominant cultural or linguistic entity associated with that particular country. The fact that we can actually "split up" languages in various categories into an organized typological classification - broken us in various language families (i.e. Semitic, Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan, Algic...) and further subdivided into branches which are comprised of individual languages and /or dialects, are in essence a testament to the science of the times - our own contemporary times. The birth of historical linguistics, which was first born out of assessing languages types, first occurred in the course of the late 18th and early 19th century. During this time, people like Friedrich Schlegel, the German Romantic, in his Uber die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier (1808), was the first to produce a work about India's languages - of which he argues that Sanskrit, the holy language of the Hindus and literary language of the Buddhists and Jains, was the mother-tongue of all the Indo-European language family. Schlegel basically worked out the various relationships, and interrelationships, of all of the related groups of languages that belong to the Indo-European (IE) language family - and placed Sanskrit at the very top of the family tree as the mother-tongue of them all. William Jones, the 18th century British scholar, had also come to many of the same conclusions as Schlegel, however, he was in disagreement that Sanskrit qualified as a progenitor (also called Proto-Indo-European, or simply PIE by linguists) to the IE language family. Below for you benefit is one of the more popular textbook charts illustrating the genetic affiliation of the IE language family.






In the study of Indo-European languages and their cultures, and how each of them interrelate to each other; it is basically through this process that historical linguistics first emerged, the direct precursor to our science of linguistics. Moreover though, it is this same process of typological classification of languages that would further be applied to other language families through an investigation and study of their structure and vocabulary. Not too long thereafter, cultures, religions and thought processes such as reason and philosophy would also be classified according to these types of language schemes. Basically, language and culture had become indicative of not only culture, but religion - since the latter derives from it. And, as Stefan Arvidsson (Aryan Idols, 2006) puts it, "... historical linguistic research could be viewed as a method of examining the mental capacities of poeples, as the example of Schlegel shows" (ibid. 30) In addition, "[s]ince language is the most basic expression of the soul of the people and is the foundation for philosophical discussions, societal laws, and artistic reflection, language affiliation also becomes an indication of religious character: language sets the framework for religious thought." (ibid. 30). Hence, one can plainly see the link that exists between language families and ethnic or cultural groups. Perhaps this is where my leariness or suspicion of Census check-lists for "mother tongues" comes from...

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