Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Substitution of notions

appears to be an acceptable way of making discoveries in linguistics. 

Like Engels’s “explanation” of how the language originated. There are numerous theories thereof, like language started with imitation of bird cries, with shamans faking an address to gods, etc. etc. etc. Most of them really don't make sense, but Engels came up with something that makes me gasp with disbelief ever since I first read it while preparing for the Introduction to Language Studies exam. Language, says Engels, originated because... can I have the brass band and the drum roll now please ? ...humans at some time in time felt the “need” to say something to each other! 

What a perfect bluff! Of course language originated from the need to convey information, but how did it get from a simple signal system common to all social animals to the complicated structure we're using now? No answer. Engels simply substitutes “how” with “why”. 

All right, strictly speaking, Engels wasn't a linguist, and it's only a matter of politics why his "discovery" was repeated again and again by Soviet linguists. But the method stuck. For example, Olga Akhmanova, one of the most internationally renowned and quoted Russian linguists, tried, among other things, to explain the nature of the supra-phrasal unity, a.k.a. the paragraph. The question is, what are the language properties that provide the unity and force the speaker/writer to mark it with a pause of specific length (or the indented line / missing space sign in written speech)? The answer? The supra-phrasal unity is there because we signify it with one of the above-mentioned signs. 

Excellent! Why do you drive a car to work? Too far to walk? Mass transit undeveloped? Enjoying the process? No, that’s all wrong, I drive to work because I get to the car, start the engine and shift into gear!   

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