Mannerisms of Mis-Understanding: a Case Study

“In fact, the passive is not distinguished from the middle in most of the inflected forms of the Greek verb; …[distinct passive inflections in the future tense] did not develop before the classical period, and the [aorist], with certain verbs at least, could also have a ‘middle’ sense…finally, the verbal forms that could be used either as ‘middle’ or passive sentences are far more frequently to be interpreted as middle than as passive.  In short, the opposition of voice in Greek is primarily one of active v. ‘middle’.  The passive was a later development (as it was in all the Indo-European languages); and it was at first relatively infrequent.

~John Lyons, Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics, CUP, 1968: p. 373 (8.3.2 — ‘Active’ and ‘middle’ in Greek)

As I was reading this, or rather as I was being read (is that ‘middle’ or passive?), I initially thought of showing this to one of my Greek professors.  But then, I only paid attention to a few questions on the very edge of what was covered in the course; the practicality of the translation-skills themselves were of little interest to me when I was being tested for accuracy instead of for innovation, creativity, or charm.

This thought quickly faded as I realized that I do n’t honestly know the full implications of this paragraph.  I infer that I should need an advanced degree in linguistics to know what this means, so I begin toying with the idea of reaching out for a Ph.D. in the field (this is n’t the first time I ‘ve considered it).  Then contrast this with the severity that after page 373 I ‘m still not very clear what page 372 was about.  If I should attain to this degree, I could perhaps then explain page 373, but it is unlikely that any of my friends not named Mr Lyons could call my explanation meaningful, as it’d be spoken in the most foreign of languages.


That is to say, should I obtain an advanced degree in linguistics, I should most easily be misunderstood.  The pursuit of coherence again proves to be the path of mis-understanding.


Language as Game: Chess et de Sausseure

There are certain sociological expectations accompanying the classification of one as a nerd.  I ‘ve never quite lived up to many of these expectations.  Never have I solved a Rubik’s Cube, or owned a pocket protector, or learned to speak in Klingon (Quenya is far more of a worthy pursuit…and perhaps it will be tackled whenever I get around to learning Old Welsh), or religiously followed Star Trek, or radically altered my computer.

In terms of games, my sudoku and crossword puzzle times are acceptable but not exceptional.  Boggle is more my style than Scrabble.  But, perhaps most uncharacteristically, I never became a master chess player (I can still be unpredictable enough at Stratego to be dangerous).

This is about where I level out in most games – I ‘ll surprise you if you are n’t careful, but if you play any single game enough that you know the rhythms of the games (memorize all the two letter words for Scrabble or the algorithms to the Rubik’s cube or memorize the cards played during a hand of Rummy).  In almost any game, I quickly learn to be serviceable – interpreting the flow generally comes naturally to me.  But I can’t say that any game in particular is my game.  Intuition fills in some of the gaps instinctively that a knowledge of the game’s algorithms, or strategies for winning within the framework of the rules, but it can only do so to a certain extent.


The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Sausseure (1857-1913) is known to have compared languages to chess.  While this was useful to illustrate several points about language, I mean only to consider the roles of ‘convention’ and ‘form’ as they relate to how the game is played.

Concerning the role of convention in language, we can easily see that whatever the manner in which one communicates could be achieved in another, perhaps equally effectual way.  We could amend the rules of chess, or institute ‘house rules’, so that the knight may not cross over another piece or the bishop may move from the dark square to the light following a successful en passante.  But we will only be playing the same game effectually when the conventions are agreed upon.  So too in the exercise of language, particular shades of meaning come to color certain phrases for classmates, teammates, co-workers, or fraternity members.  One best understands and is understood, i.e. plays the game well, when one operates according to the rules established by that community – its conventional way of doing things.  (This illustrates to some extent the manner in which language and culture mirror games – we are quick to notice both when one ‘plays’ exceptionally well and when another violates the established conventions.

In terms of chess, I take ‘form’ to be that which distinguishes one item from another.  Chess pieces may look very different, but their function will provide enough context to tell us what form they are taking.  I.e., if we see a piece moving only horizontally and vertically we may assume it to be a castle or rook.  If we know its initial position to have been on the corner of the board, we can confirm that, if general convention is being followed, it is in fact a rook.  I will repeat, the form tells us the function and the function expresses the form.  This role is determined, arbitrarily, according to convention (for it certainly could have been otherwise) but the piece will follow the expected rules if we are to be playing the same game.


What is most fascinating to me in this analogy though, is realizing that not all languages are playing the same game, for the forms and functions of language are established by conventions (and quite often, our way of thinking is ‘unconventional’ in another linguistic context).  Whereas the pawns set the landscape of the battlefield, the knights are then able to counter and flank while the bishops, queen, and rooks unleash deadly arrows from safe vantage points.  A good chess player knows how to attack and pressure effectively so that her opponent will defeat himself.

I suppose this brings up a potential weakness in the analogy.  While it serves many uses, I have made no mention of de Sausseure’s distinction between synchronic and diachronic ways of viewing linguistics, the purpose of chess is clearly to win.  Whatever sacrifices and calculated moves one must make to attain this goal, one is justified in doing so to achieve the win.  But the goal of language is, in most cases, not to win a battle on an even playing field.  Like a game, if one does not play according to convention, i.e. misuses the available forms, he will not achieve his aims.  But in language, the goal is mutual.  One cannot ‘communicate’without the other playing at an adequate level.

Further, language is always shifting so long as the language is ‘alive’ (i.e. so long as there are communicators).  While certain conventions are more strongly enforced than others (as some are more central to the cultural viewpoint expressed by the linguistic system), we can certainly see that the rules are in a state of flux.  ‘Google’ is now a verb, for instance.  When was that vote?  If one insists on playing the language game as it existed at one particular point in time, she will be able to communicate with fewer and fewer people as time progresses.

With this awareness of the natural flux in language, we can understand why John Lyons insists that the only way to determine whether one ‘knows’ the language is to find if she “is capable of constructing new utterances which are recognized as normal and can be understood by other speakers of the language. (John Lyons, Introductionto Theoretical Linguistics, 1971, Cambridge: p. 36)”  The measure of fluency, then, is when one can communicate new thoughts in line with conventions independently.  That is, the person who has mastered the language has internalized enough of the forms and functions of the linguistic community that her voice would be recognizable.  Likewise, we measure the mastery of a chess player by the wisdom with which he functions as dictated by the available forms.  But the nature of the chess board is essentially static – if we change the rules it is n’t chess, and mastery is displayed not by independently thinking conventionally but by who you bested and how often.

Peripheral Vision – Science and the Prejudice Against Prejudice

It is usually said that the nineteenth century saw the birth of the scientific study of language in the western world. And this statement is true, if we give to the term ‘scientific’ the sense it generally bears today; it was in the course of the nineteenth century that facts of language came to be carefully and objectively investigated and then explained in terms of inductive hypotheses. It should not be forgotten, however, that this conception of science is of quite recent development. The speculative grammar of the scholastics and of their philosophical successors at Port Royal ..was scientific according to their understanding of what constituted sure knowledge.

-John Lyons, Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics (Cambridge University Press, 1971: p. 22; underlines mine)

This brings to mind my favorite class at Fuller – Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics (hermeneutic generally means ‘interpretive’ and derives from the Hermes, the Greek god of heraldry) with Merold Westphal.  We spoke of the ‘prejudice against prejudice’ to quite some extent.  I like that Lyons here provides a means to contextualize science as we understand it.  It ‘s too easy to assume that our way of scientific inquiry is surely the right method.  Like us, the medieval scholastics thought their manner of inquiry was scientific and the most rational means of approaching the study of language.

Lyons concludes:

The difference between this way of looking at linguistic questions and that which resulted in the immensely fruitful period of comparative philology was not so much that the latter was more respectful of the ‘facts’ and more careful in its observation and collection of them (this is effect, rather than cause), but by the end of the eighteenth century there had developed a general dissatisfaction with a priori and so-called ‘logical’ explanations and a preference for historical reasoning.  (Lyons, Theoretical Linguistics: pp. 22-23)

I do n’t mean to argue here that the methods of our day are more ‘scientific’ than previously, but rather; I mean to note that the concept denoted ‘scientific’ has shifted as the presuppositions of scientific inquiry have been replaced.  Having read a goodly sampling of medieval philosophy in general, I am consistently impressed by how thorough their thoughts are (this was more true once I learned of some of the nuances particular terms held).  By the measures of their methods, they were exhaustive and many of the preserved texts are brilliant within their discourse.  I mean to say that that which causes something to be characterized as ‘scientific’ has and continues to change, even as we are unaware of the flux.

So, my question is – when will our current methods of ‘scientific’ inquiry be deemed unscientific?  More interestingly, what will be the means by which our science is seen as inferior – what criteria do we foolishly violate?  Every discourse or method of philosophical inquiry has limits – each is a ‘seeing as’ and therefore something is inevitably lost on the periphery.  My question is therefore one of predictive peripheral vision in the context of the study of language.  Or, are there some prejudices in our science which ought to be preserved?