Sunday, June 23, 2013

Don't mess with Randolph Quirk

Between the three hashers with linguistic degrees present yesterday it didn't take Brainiac* to refute the assertion by [NAME REDACTED] that the Aboriginal languages are "simple" or "primitive". But for the record, here is the definitive word on the subject from the renowned British linguist Randolph Quirk in his book The Use of English:

'Primitive' is a word that is often used ill-advisedly in discussions of language. Many people think that 'primitive' is indeed a term to be applied to languages, though only to some languages, and not usually to the language they themselves speak. They might agree in calling 'primitive' those uses of language that concern greetings, grumbles and commands, but they would probably insist that these were especially common in the so-called 'primitive languages'. These are misconceptions that we must quickly clear from our minds. 

So far as we can tell, all human languages are equally complete and perfect as instruments of communication: that is, every language appears to be as well equipped as any other to say the things its speakers want to say. It may or may not be appropriate to talk about primitive peoples or cultures, but that is another matter. Certainly, not all groups of people are equally competent in nuclear physics or psychology or the cultivation of rice or the engraving of Benares brass. But this is not the fault of their language. The Eskimos can speak about snow with a great deal more precision and subtlety than we can in English, but this is not because the Eskimo language (one of those sometimes miscalled 'primitive') is inherently more precise and subtle than English. This example does not bring to light a defect in English, a show of unexpected 'primitiveness'. The position is simply and obviously that the Eskimos and the English live in different environments. The English language would be just as rich in terms for different kinds of snow, presumably, if the environments in which English was habitually used made such distinction important.

Similarly, we have no reason to doubt that the Eskimo language could be as precise and subtle on the subject of motor manufacture or cricket if these topics formed part of the Eskimos' life. For obvious historical reasons, Englishmen in the nineteenth century could not talk about motorcars with the minute discrimination which is possible today: cars were not a part of their culture. But they had a host of terms for horse-drawn vehicles which send us, puzzled, to a historical dictionary when we are reading Scott or Dickens. How many of us could distinguish between a chaise, a landau, a victoria, a brougham, a coupe, a gig, a diligence, a whisky, a calash, a tilbury, a carriole, a phaeton, and a clarence ?

The discussion of 'primitiveness', incidentally, provides us with a good reason for sharply and absolutely distinguishing human language from animal communication, because there is no sign of any intermediate stage between the two. Whether we examine the earliest records of any language, or the present-day language of some small tribe in a far-away place, we come no nearer to finding a stage of human language more resembling animal communication and more 'primitive' than our own.

*Who anyway seems to be on strike, still miffed by that guy who accused him of using Wikipedia. According to Brainiac, Wikipedia uses him.


  1. OK Brainiac, I take it back. Am I forgiven? So how many languages are there in Papua New Guinea and how many aboriginal 'languages' as opposed to dialects are there? If Brainiac is still in a funk, I might just have to give up my lost weekend on Soi 3.1 to research this vital piece of information.

    1. I doubt if Brainiac even reads our humble blog but I'll pass along your abject apology. I can use the word 'abject' can't I?

  2. Indeed, though when it comes down to it English is the dog's doodahs since one can explain [i]most[/i] things in the world with it through beautiful syntax, including the subtleties of snowflake design. And with that, any, and all, other languages must therefore be primitive by comparison... particularly french. :p

    Anyway, perhaps not the best topic of conversation after a monster run and several Thai lagers. I suggest we stick to talking about beer and biatches.