books


I just read Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man Under Socialism, mostly because The Whelk has been talking about it for ages. It’s a fascinating document, because it’s so far out of its time. For 1891 it was more or less an absurdity. For 2018 it’s a practical program.

Wilde shows no interest in the actual socialism of his day; he has no enthusiasm for collective farms or factories, or indeed for any work at all. His view is that property has caused the majority of humans to lead miserable lives, and without it they will not be forced to do so.

[T]here are a great many people who, having no private property of their own, and being always on the brink of sheer starvation, are compelled to do the work of beasts of burden, to do work that is quite uncongenial to them, and to which they are forced by the peremptory, unreasonable, degrading Tyranny of want. These are the poor, and amongst them there is no grace of manner, or charm of speech, or civilisation, or culture, or refinement in pleasures, or joy of life.

As George Orwell points out in an insightful review, Wilde was making the assumption that “the world is immensely rich and is suffering chiefly from maldistribution.” This view was often unreflectively held by socialists, but when they took over they found it wasn’t so: instead, they had a huge mass of peasants and urban poor to feed, and the gewgaws found in the tsar’s palace were of no help. Wilde foresaw and deplored their solution:

It is clear, then, that no Authoritarian Socialism will do. For while under the present system a very large number of people can lead lives of a certain amount of freedom and expression and happiness, under an industrial-barrack system, or a system of economic tyranny, nobody would be able to have any such freedom at all. It is to be regretted that a portion of our community should be practically in slavery, but to propose to solve the problem by enslaving the entire community is childish. Every man must be left quite free to choose his own work. No form of compulsion must be exercised over him.

With the soul of a contrarian, Wilde looked at the cooperative ethos of socialism and found it the seedbed of Individualism. Freed of economic want, people will do as they want— creating things, mostly. He grows lyrical:

It will be a marvellous thing – the true personality of man – when we see it. It will grow naturally and simply, flowerlike, or as a tree grows. It will not be at discord. It will never argue or dispute. …Its value will not be measured by material things. It will have nothing. And yet it will have everything, and whatever one takes from it, it will still have, so rich will it be. It will not be always meddling with others, or asking them to be like itself. It will love them because they will be different. And yet while it will not meddle with others, it will help all, as a beautiful thing helps us, by being what it is.

But what about all those factories and fields, who will maintain them? No problem, says Wilde: machines will do it. In the conditions of his time, a machine might do the work of 500 men, and 499 would be thrown out of work, while one man, the owner of the machine, profited. If machines were public property, the work is still saved, but the prosperity goes to everyone.

All unintellectual labour, all monotonous, dull labour, all labour that deals with dreadful things, and involves unpleasant conditions, must be done by machinery. Machinery must work for us in coal mines, and do all sanitary services, and be the stoker of steamers, and clean the streets, and run messages on wet days, and do anything that is tedious or distressing. At present machinery competes against man. Under proper conditions machinery will serve man. 

Orwell notes drily that this was not possible in Wilde’s time nor in his own time, sixty years later. “Wilde’s version of Socialism could only be realised in a world not only far richer but also technically more advanced than the present one.”

Wilde knew that he was being Utopian; but “a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.” Well, you don’t get anywhere if you have no goals.

Wilde couldn’t offer much besides hope in 1891. But let’s play with some numbers, 127 years later. The GNP of the US is $20.7 trillion; the number of households is 126 million. That’s an average per household income of $164,000. The actual median household income is $59,000.  So complete redistribution would be a vast improvement for literally 90% of the population. (To be in the top 10%, you have to have a household income of about $133,000.)

(Household income seems like a more realistic gauge of prosperity than individual income. If (say) you were designing a UBI, I hope you’d think twice about an individual allocation— that would just make large families the new wealthy, and single people the new poor.)

At a world level, things are not so bouncy. Distribute the world’s wealth and we don’t all get to live like rich Americans. But again, things are far better than they were in Wilde’s or Orwell’s time. The average level is no longer “starving peasant”, but something like “reasonably comfortable urban dweller”.

This doesn’t mean that we’re getting there tomorrow. (This will be a relief to some of you and a disappointment to others.) But it does mean that the socialist alternative can no longer be dismissed, as Churchill once said, as “the equal sharing of miseries.” Today, the socialist alternative is not bad, and it gets better as the machines do.

To put it bluntly, that $100,000 difference between median and average household income is the tax we pay to have plutocracy.  Whatever you think are the benefits to having plutocracy rather than socialism— are they worth that much?

There are positions in the middle, of course! We actually had a system, in the real world, that raised the income of all classes and that limited inequality— liberalism. It’s not quite fair to directly compare Wilde’s ideal with any existing system; ideals are unbounded and putting idealists in charge doesn’t mean you get the ideal state. And a fair question to ask any socialist who’s read Wilde is, did you read the parts about how authoritarian socialism doesn’t get you to that ideal at all?

Anyway, it’s a bit moot right now because it turns out the reactionaries aren’t as dead as people hoped. I could go on and on about this, but I’ll just note that though reactionaries can notch up victories, as they win they also lose. Their whole program has been to reverse the gains of liberalism; what they’ve forgotten is that perhaps the fastest path to revolution or national ruin is when reactionaries are put in charge.

If you read Wilde’s essay, you’ll probably be struck by how much isn’t about socialism, or about politics, at all. He spends long paragraphs talking about Jesus, about Louis XIV, about the novel, about the newspapers’ war on modern art. His view of art is probably the most old-fashioned part of the article: the artist is a sort of high-minded explorer who cannot be answerable to press or public. And that’s about the only role he can find for any human in his utopia. I think his imagination flags here; absent economic necessity, any number of other pursuits might thrive, to say nothing of popular art that a Wilde wouldn’t bother with.

(A final word for the people who have already tuned out and are writing their own rants about how you can’t just divide up GNP like that… as I said, it’s not happening tomorrow, and deep analyses on why are not needed. But as an ideal and a critique of plutocracy, it’s more relevant now than it was in 1891. If the alternative is “continue as things are going in 2018”, we can’t do that either; if it doesn’t end in war or revolution, then it ends in catastrophic climate change. Better start thinking about what the world should look like in 2100.)

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I think I’ve written a book. Now we must see whether this is so. As was foretold in the prophecies, this is where I ask for readers.

elvisleft

Contact me if you’re interested and have the time over the next few weeks— markrose at zompist dot com. I usually get more offers than I can handle, so get your offer in fast. 🙂

If you’ve only read the LCK, that’s fine; if you’re a Herr Professor Doktor of linguistics, that’s also fine.

I just finished Language acquisition and conceptual development, edited by Melissa Bowerman and Stephen Levinson (2001), and I want to write down what I learned while it’s still fresh in my mind.

You may recall the book report on Everett & Jackendoff and their feud over innatism. The issue there is Chomsky’s longstanding contention that language learning is far too hard for children, therefore they must have a head start: grammar and vocabulary are already hard-wired into their brains. All they have to do is figure out which of a small series of switches to flip to get the grammar (“oh! verbs go last here!”) and work out that dog means Inbuilt concept #293291.

This book is a report from the trenches of language acquisition; if anyone knows how it goes, these people do. I note, by the way, that this is one of the few fields dominated by women: 20 of the 30 authors of these papers are female. Yay for linguistics!

There is no knockout punch— unsurprisingly, there’s a lot we don’t know about how children learn languages. And this book, at least, doesn’t have too much to say about how children learn syntax, much less whether they do so using Minimalism, Arc Pair Grammar, Role & Reference Grammar, etc. It’s mostly about the first three years, the first words learned, and what that tells us about children’s conceptual system.

The biggest news seems to be:

  • Children understand things far earlier than was once supposed. E.g. Piaget thought that children didn’t acquire the notion of object permanence till 3 years or so; we now know they have it at 5 months. He also thought that children didn’t understand the concept of time till about 8; but in fact they are clearly able to remember and refer to past events, and anticipate and refer to future events, at not much more than 1 year of age.
  • At the same time: universal, basic concepts are more elusive than ever. Languages really do divide up conceptual space differently, and this is evident in children’s speech from the beginning.

The object permanence result is due to better, cleverer technique: rather than relying on the baby’s actions, we only check what they’re looking at. Basically: babies can be surprised, and look longer at unexpected outcomes. So you show them a doll being placed behind a screen, then remove the screen. They’re surprised if they see no doll there, or two dolls.

Many of the authors refer to Quine’s problem. Quine envisioned a linguist eliciting words from a native. A rabbit goes by, and the native says gavagai. Does this mean “rabbit”, or “hop”, or “fluffy tail”, or “unspecified set of rabbit parts”?

Now, the linguists can’t bring themselves to say that Quine is just being a jerk. But there’s a pretty clear answer to this problem: we aren’t tabulae rasae; we’re animals with a hundred-million-year evolutionary history of perceiving objects, especially moving objects, and double especially animals. Some things are very salient for humans— we’re built to see rabbits as objects with a characteristic shape, size, and activity pattern. We’re not built to focus on rabbit tails or miscellaneous rabbit parts.

Early proposals were that children use some all-purpose generalizations: words are likely to refer to the most salient entities; words are normally not synonymous.

Going beyond this, there were assumptions that children would learn nouns before verbs, closed-class form words before content words, shape before materials, and that they would probably learn universal concepts first. This little list of assumptions turns out to be wrong: it depends on the language.

  • Many languages are far more verb-oriented than English. Kids still learn a lot of nouns, but sometimes the proportion of verbs is far higher.
  • Often very specific verbs are learned before abstract spatial words.
  • English children learn to pay the most attention to shape; Maya kids pay the most attention to material.

As for universal concepts, it’s worth looking in detail at an example provided by Levinson. The language is Tzeltal.

Pach-an-a bojch ta y-anil te karton-e.
bowl-put-cause.imp gourd at its-down cardboard-that

The intended translation is “Put the bowl behind the box.” But just about every detail in Tzeltal is different.

  • The shape and spatial information is largely encoded in the verb, not in nouns. Pach– means “place a bowl-shaped vessel upright on a surface.”
  • Corollary: the two NPs refer mostly to material. Bojch is really a word for a gourd; karton can refer to anything made of cardboard.
  • “Behind” is a relative term, which doesn’t exist in Tzeltal. Instead, an absolute frame of reference is used. “Downward” can refer to absolute height, but here it refers to horizontal location, because of a geographical particularity: Tzeltal territory is on a slope, so “downhill” also means “northward”.

Do children really master this system? Of course; they have a pretty good grasp of the slope system by age three. They also master a wide range of very specific verb forms rather than relying heavily, as English-speaking toddlers do, on “up/down”.

Another neat example: English toddlers quickly learn to distinguish “put ON” from “put IN”. Korean children divide up this semantic space quite differently, using at least seven verbs.

  • kkita means “fasten tightly”– this includes putting the top on a pen, placing Lego bricks together, putting a piece in a puzzle, placing a cassette in its box, or buttoning a button.
  • nehta means “place loosely”– e.g. put a book in a bag, or a toy in a box.
  • pwuchita is used for juxtaposing surfaces– e.g. placing a magnet on the fridge.
  • nohta is used for placing things on a horizontal surface.
  • for clothes, you have ssuta for hats, ipta for the body, sinta for the feet.

All this is fascinating because philosophers and linguists are apt to take English categories and assume they are universal concepts: UP, DOWN, IN, ON. Nope, they’re just projecting English words onto Mentalese. There is no stage where children use “universal” concepts before using language-specific ones. (Indeed, there’s evidence that children understand the language-specific concepts well before they can say the words.)

Does all this “affect how you think”? Of course. Levinson tells an amusing anecdote: he almost got his truck stuck in quicksand when his Australian Aborigine companion told him to “swerve north quick”. Levinson just couldn’t calculate where north was fast enough.

There’s also interesting tidbits like, did you know that there is a gradient between comitative and instrumental? It goes like this:

1 – give a show with a clown
2 – build a machine with an assistant
3 – captured the hill with his squad
4 – performed an act with an elephant
5 – the blind man crossed the street with his dog
6 – the officer caught the smuggler with a police dog
7 – won the appeal with a highly paid lawyer
8 – found the solution with a computer
9 – hunted deer with a rifle
10 – broke the window with a stone

In English, as you can see, we use “with” for all of these. In a multitude of languages, these meanings are divided up linearly. E.g.

  • Iraqi Arabic: 1-8 vs 9-10
  • Swahili: 1-6 vs 7-10
  • Slovak: 1-9 vs 10
  • Tamil: 1-2 vs 3-10

That’s pretty neat!

Anyway: there’s still a lot of argument on how exactly children learn, whether they start with particular cognitive abilities, whether they have particular linguistic abilities. Many authors point out that innatism doesn’t really help reduce the problem. E.g. to see if dog matches Inbuilt concept #293291, you pretty much have to have a sense of what a dog is. If you have that, what good is the inbuilt concept?

You could try to save innatism by multiplying the number of inbuilt concepts. E.g. you include the 10 steps of the comitative/instrumental gradient, and both Korean and English positioning concepts, and both English and Tzeltal directional systems. But this is only complicating the child’s problem. Rather than finding quick matches between the words they hear and a small number of universal concepts, they have to consider hundreds or thousands of alternative conceptual systems.

It’s also worth pointing out that parents are far more helpful than Quine’s native informant. People don’t just say words at random. As Michael Tomasello emphasizes, language is often presented as a commentary on a situation the child already understands, such as moving toys around with her mother. There’s a lot of repetition; the parents’ language is emphatic and simplified; the parents are not trying to confuse the child with talk of bags of rabbit parts.

BTW, this is in theory the last book I’m consulting for my syntax book.  So, I’ll soon have a first draft, at least.

 

I just finished The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, by Laura Miller. It’s absolutely delightful, and I recommend it to those in the Venn intersection of People who used to love C.S. Lewis and People who no longer love C.S. Lewis.

bad-susan

Previously: WTF happened to Susan

There’s a weird phenomenon where people discover  C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as children, absolutely love them, discover that both were Christians— and discard  just Lewis.

Miller is writing for these people, and does a great job explaining what she loved about Lewis, why she felt betrayed by his ‘evangelism’, what else is wrong with Lewis, and why after all she finds a lot to value in his books.

Before getting to that, though, I want to emphasize: whatever you don’t like in Lewis, whatever is problematic, is just as much there in Tolkien. I don’t really get why Tolkien gets a free pass. I mean, God is right there (see the Silmarillion); Gandalf is a frigging angel; Frodo suffers because saints suffer. The men of the east and south are irredeemably bad (no one even preaches Eru to them), the ideal state is agricultural feudalism, and the Scouring of the Shire is a top-down aristocratic coup to restore things as they were for the last thousand years.

Miller covers Tolkien as well, and by her account, Tolkien was really far more bigoted. Lewis was Anglican but accepted all Christian churches; Tolkien only really approved of his own Catholicism. Lewis liked Celtic mythology; Tolkien found it “rambling and incoherent.” Both were casually sexist, but Lewis provided interesting female protagonists; both Bilbo and Frodo’s adventuring groups were all-male clubs.

True, Tolkien kept his theism on a very low boil in LOTR and The Hobbit, while Narnia is full of Christian elements. Far more than Miller, I’d suggest that not being able to read and enjoy it, despite that, is bigotry. If you said you couldn’t read The Arabian Nights or Salman Rushdie or Orhan Pamuk because the writers were Muslims, that would be bigotry; likewise if you couldn’t read Journey to the West because it’s at root a Buddhist story.

This doesn’t mean you have to accept or like those elements, or that those feeling of betrayal aren’t real. Before getting to why Lewis is fun anyway, though, it’s worth looking more at what he was trying to do, and whether it succeeded.

For one thing, if he was attempting to evangelize kids, the evidence seems to be that he failed. The Christian imagery, obvious as it is to adults, just doesn’t register with most kids. Lewis was actually instrumental to my Christian period, but not because of Narnia; the culprit was his explicit apologetic works.

Miller makes a good point: there really are children’s books that preach to kids, and they’re pretty much unreadable. If Lewis was really preachy, no one would feel betrayed by him because no one would read him.

More than he was an evangelist, Lewis was that rare thing, a very readable and sensible moralist. More than half the time Aslan is there to model being a good person rather than to expound Christian doctrine. The situations where he guides or intervenes are usually universal moral situations: being the only one in your group to know some truth (Lucy in LWW); getting someone else in trouble for your own gain (Aravis), the dangers of gossip and group membership (Lucy and the magician’s book), cheating vs. following rules (Digory and the apples).

To an extent, Lewis succeeds so well in making Aslan interesting that he fails in the larger goal of making Jesus interesting. He’s very good at appealing to the imagination; but then the fall to actual pews and hymns feels all the more excruciating. The problem of Christianity isn’t the doctrines; it’s Christians. There are some very lovely Christians, but good lord, how the bad and boring ones have the loudest voices.

Also, as a conworlder, I wish I’d ever had an idea as good as Aslan. But then, he was far less successful in the Space Trilogy.

The one place where Lewis’s method falls apart, for me, is The Last Battle. Creation myths are kind of fun, so I don’t mind The Magician’s Nephew. But as Miller says, Lewis’s assertion that the “new Narnia”, the one in paradise, would have better stories than the old, falls flat. To be blunt, how do you have stories without conflict, without sin? And if the stories are so great, why isn’t there a Book 8?  (I have the same problem with the Singularity, by the way.)

There’s other stuff to worry about— Lewis was by no means progressive even for his time. He was anti-Nazi, as Tolkien was, but disliked most anything modern, including the progressives of his time. (Admittedly many of them were hard to like; when he got to know them, they were busy excusing Stalin.) He was pretty xenophobic and even more sexist. (It’s curious that though he does have male villains, by far the liveliest and most memorable of his villains— Jadis, the Lady of the Green Kirtle, Miss Hardcastle— are women.)

Now, if you can’t read a book with such things, I won’t argue. Miller explains pretty well, I think, why she can enjoy the books anyway, for the good parts, while acknowledging the problems.

And there really are a lot of good parts in Narnia: the exuberant appeals to the senses; the little factoids (why you want to use a knife rather than a sword to peel apples); children having really interesting adventures far away from parents; the sly asides (e.g. the titles on Tumnus’s bookshelf); the eclectic interest in everything fantastical, from pagan mythology to George MacDonald; characters like Reepicheep and Puddleglum.

By the way, if you like Lewis and/or Anthony Bourdain, you must read this fantastic mashup: No Reservations, Narnia, by Rachel Manija Brown.

Anyway, Miller’s book is really good, and she seems Lewisian in the best sense: like someone you could spend a delightful time with in a pub or on a long walk. One of the things Lewis emphasized (more in his other writings than in Narnia) was the joys of friendship: finding someone who is thrilled by the same things you are— whether or not they take the same lessons from them. Her book is like having that kind of chat, centering on Lewis but moving on to England, Ireland, Tolkien, World War I, the Middle Ages, various mythologies, and other fantasy/sf writers, as needed.

(Plus, as a skeptic, she’s free of the fustiness that believers too often adopt when writing about Lewis. From Lewis and other Inklings, I once suffered from a bit of Britophilia… but I was cured by reading one of Lewis’s super-admirers. Admire an author, but don’t try to be him.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

The library has slim pickings on linguistics, but it happened to have a couple of books on opposite sides of the innatism debate: Ray Jackendoff’s Patterns in the Mind, and Daniel Everett’s Language: The Cultural Tool.

conan-jungle

File photo of Everett in the Amazon researching Pirahã

Overall judgment: both books are full of interesting things; both are extremely convinced of their position; both reduce their opponents (i.e. each other) to straw men.

It’s a lesson, I suppose, in letting one’s speculations get ahead of the evidence. Many a Chomskyan book has a long annoying section on how children could not possibly learn language; the arguments are always the same and they’re always weak. The Chomskyans’ problem is that they don’t spend five minutes trying to think of, or combat, any alternative position. They present the “poverty of the stimulus” as if it’s an obvious fact, but don’t do any actual research into child language acquisition to show that it’s really a problem.

Yet Everett doesn’t do much better on the other side. He’s all about language as a cultural invention, and he mocks the Chomskyans’ syntax-centrism and their inability to explain how or why Minimalism is embedded in the brain and the genome, but he doesn’t really know how children learn languages either.

My sympathies are far more with Everett, but an honest account has to admit: we just don’t know. Well, the third book I picked up is a massive tome called Language acquisition and conceptual development, so I’ll report back if it turns out we do know.

Sometimes the two authors cover the same facts– e.g. what’s going on with Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas in the brain. Their account is different enough that it seems that both are cherrypicking the data. Jackendoff doesn’t mention the non-linguistic functions of these areas, while Everett pooh-poohs that they’re language-related at all.

What ends up being most valuable about both books is when they’re talking about other things. Everett is full of stories about Amazonian peoples and languages; Jackendoff has a very good section on ASL.  (They both also have quite a bit of introductory linguistics, which I could have used less of. Sometimes it’s a pity that academics only have two modes, “write for the educated high schooler” and “write for each other”. I suspect their editors overestimated just how many people entirely ignorant of linguistics would read each book. I guess I’m lucky that readers of my more advanced books can be assumed to have read the LCK.)

I don’t mean to sound entirely dismissive. In fact Jackendoff makes the Chomskyan case about as well as it can be made (far better than Chomsky ever does); but if you find him convincing, make sure you read Everett to get a fuller perspective.

(I may also be unfair to Jackendoff calling him a Chomskyan; apparently he’s broken with Minimalism. He also makes a point, when pointing the reader to books on syntax, to include a wide range of theories, something Chomsky himself and his acolytes don’t bother to do.)

If you wait long enough to read one of the classics, maybe it’ll be conveniently forgotten. Or maybe you’ll just pick it up anyway. I just finished Vol. 1 of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the hot bestseller of 1781. This volume covers the period from AD 180 to 395, in 956 closely printed pages.

emperor-julian

Julian. Not accidental that he’s depicted in philosopher’s robes

Should you read a history written 237 years ago? Well, sure, if you want to. Gibbon is old-school history, which means it’s all about the Great Men and the far more numerous Not Great Men. But he’s quite readable, he relies closely on primary sources, and it’s pretty hard to make this swath of history dull. Not only were the emperors a motley crew of heroes, tyrants, and perverts (sometimes all of the above), but the topic of disaster never loses its allure.

I can’t say how much Gibbon has held up as history– he’s probably pretty good at what he does, which is retelling the major wars and events of each reign. Look at a more modern history, like this one from Adrian Goldsworthy, for more of a social and administrative overview.

What does Gibbon think went wrong? Well, he’s big on the influence at the top: there were too many timid, tyrannical, or cruel buffoons in charge. And he’s big on the morale of a society– he thinks Republican Rome was a lovely combination of martial vigor, civic virtue, law, and manliness. (One of his worst epithets is “effeminate”.) Yet these are probably only old-fashioned ways of saying what Goldsworthy pointed out: the empire was fatally weakened by internal strife and an out-of-control army long before the barbarians took over.

Gibbon is, by the way, horribly and casually racist. He can’t resist calling the Persians effeminate (and prone to luxury and tyranny), the Jews anti-social and narrow, the Africans ineffectual and stupid, the steppe nomads as ugly and lazy. (They’re lazy because they don’t grow crops, you see. Adam Smith made the same mistake, not realizing that some regions just can’t support agricultural states.) Yet by his own account the Romans were despotic, often faithless and cruel, and not “manly” at all. The racism is completely gratuitous– he’s perfectly capable of soberly describing the respectable Persian religion and recognizing the virtues of their armies.

He’s also completely in favor of empire, Roman or British; manly nations should just spread out over the globe as far as they can, though again, by his own showing, no one has ever made these huge empires last too long without falling apart.

He also has a rather parochial kind of aristophilia, in that he naturally prefers and argues for whatever most resembles the British kingdom of his own day. He doesn’t like democracy or too much power in the hands of the people; he doesn’t much like absolute monarchy; it’s evident that he expects and wishes the Roman Senate would act like the British aristocrats of his day: rule the country in a more or less benign way, consult with each other, support a congenial ruler though holding the ultimate upper hand, and serving as the officers of both military and civil administration. I doubt the Republic was really what he imagined it was, and the imperial-era Senate certainly wasn’t. He clearly understands both why the Emperors needed to be generals, and why the Roman state was ultimately weakened because of military rule.

For much of the last 200 years, the book has had a slight tincture of scandal, because of his treatment of Christianity. I’d had the vague impression, in fact, that he was an atheist. Not at all; in fact he goes out of his way to talk about the Deity and Providence and how all the heretics were wrong; there’s really nothing here that a Christian could really object to. What earlier generations hated, of course, was that Gibbon wrote as a historian and not as a partisan. He downplays the persecution of Christianity (really, most emperors ignored it; only Diocletian really cracked down on it, and for a relatively brief period); he is not impressed with the Christians’ doctrinal squabbles or fearsome counter-prosecution of pagans; and he’s quite sympathetic to Roman religion. (Though he really hates Nordic religion.) He criticizes the luxury and venality of the 4C bishops, and is just a bit sarcastic about the miracles of the ecclesiastical sources. (He points out that if the sun really darkened during the Crucifixion, it’s rather surprising that Roman naturalists never mentioned it.)

An unexpected hero of the book, in fact, is the emperor Julian, who reigned just from 361-3, and received the title “the Apostate” because he reversed his uncle Constantine’s imperial embrace of Christianity and attempted to restore paganism. His apostasy is more excusable when you learn that the people who taught him were the same people who murdered most of his family. He had a natural leaning toward philosophy and loved hanging around with Neo-Platonist teachers; but he turned out to have an aptitude for war and statecraft as well. He turned back some Germanic invasions, reluctantly was acclaimed emperor by his troops, was personally abstemious and workaholic, and won the East by accident, when the emperor Constantius died. He advanced into Persia with some remarkable victories, inspiring his soldiers and dashing about the battlefield like a second Alexander… and then took a Persian javelin in his liver. Oops! The Romans kind of fell apart, extricating themselves from Persia only at the price of a significant loss of territory.

An alternative history where Julian lived longer would be interesting. It was probably too late for paganism– but the fact that most of his army flip-flopped from Christian to pagan and then back again, as his career waxed and suddenly ended, shows that the religious struggle was far more chancy than later events made it look.

Gibbon goes on, perhaps too much, about the politics of the intra-Christian squabbles, but doesn’t really bother to explain the theological problems. He simply assumes that the later-orthodox position is obviously right. This does a disservice to his own story, since in this period Arianism was actually dominant, and he can’t really explain why. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that if it weren’t for a few historical accidents, one of the “heretic” sects would be orthodoxy and the other would be obviously wrong.

Another curious topic: the extension of Roman citizenship. The Greek attitude toward citizenship was like Trump’s: make it as hard to get as possible. The Romans extended citizenship first to their Italian allies, then to more and more subjects, and finally (in 212) to all non-slaves within the Empire. Gibbon more or less disapproves of this: he’s all about the manliness, and obviously the city of Rome had lost its martial abilities and then its pre-eminence, well before the barbarians started causing trouble. But (say) Colin McEvedy thinks that this was one of Rome’s great strengths. The city itself could afford to decline because more and more people were willing to fight and die for the Roman name and civilization. (To the end, the Greek “Byzantine Empire” called itself and its people Romans.) If it had kept citizenship as a prize for itself, its empire would be as short-lived as those of Athens or Macedonia.

I’m not sure if I’ll go on to Volume 2… in many ways Vol. 1 tells you all you need to know. It ends just as the Germans are invading and the Huns aren’t far behind; the actual fall of the Western Empire in the next 80 years is just anticlimax.

A little linguistic note: you have to watch out for a few words that have changed meaning in 237 years. E.g. of one Gothic leader Gibbon says “the love of rapine and the hatred of Rome seconded, or even prevented, the eloquence of his ambassadors.” This could easily be taken as the opposite of what he means. We’d say that these things endorsed or preceded his diplomacy.

(Perhaps you’re wondering if a Rome Construction Kit is in the future? That would be fun, not least because I’d love to improve my Latin. And ooh, the world needs a history that puts all the macrons back on the Latin names. But no, this is just side reading for now.  Maybe later…)

 

 

Today’s reading: Grammaire générale et raisonnée de Port-Royal, by Antoine Arnauld and Claude Lancelot, published in 1660.  Let’s call it PRG. You can get it here, in the 1803 edition. My understanding was that it was a precursor to Chomsky, and in fact he claimed as much in a book, Cartesian Linguistics (1965).  Spoiler: it isn’t.

grammaire

Undoubtedly your first question will be: as a grammar from Renaissance times, how does it compare to the word of Šm Fatandor Revouse, Pere aluatas i Caďinor? In overall coverage and linguistic knowledge, it’s fairly similar— for instance, PRG, like Šm Revouse, stumbles in the phonology section through not having any vocabulary or notation for phonetics; both are reduced to talking about letters.

On the other hand, PRG is fairly free of the sort of metaphysical and nationalistic nonsense that Šm Revouse indulges.  In particular, they never claim that the ancient languages are better than the modern, nor do they try to find spiritual categories or whatever within language. They acknowledge at several points that many aspects of language are arbitrary, and vary between languages. (They do sometimes appeal to the notion of ‘elegance.’)

By the way, see here for an argument from W.K. Percival that there is really no such thing as “Cartesian linguistics” at all, that PRG was not particularly innovative or Cartesian, and that Descartes’ idea of language, to the extent he had any, had very little resemblance to Chomsky’s.

Anyway, what is PRG? It’s not really a grammar at all, either of French or the ancient languages. It could be called a sketch of a comparative grammar, or an overview of the concepts needed to study grammar. So it starts with sounds, then discusses nouns, pronouns, adjectives, cases, verbs, etc.  It never gives enough information to fully cover any topic or tell you in detail how a language handles it, but it does define all grammatical terms, gives examples, and opines on what the functions of each thing are.

Chomsky felt that his notion of “universal grammar” was prefigured here, but I’d say PRG starts from the pretty obvious fact that a similar grammatical analysis can be used for the major languages of Europe. PRG never really runs into a fact about modern French that can’t be described using the terms of classical grammar.  So, for instance, they are perfectly aware that French nouns don’t have case, but they find it useful to relate subjects to the Latin nominative, PPs with de to the genitive, and PPs with à to the dative.

The languages covered are very few: of ancient languages, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew; of modern, French, Italian, and Spanish. There are a couple of references to German; none at all to English, and nothing on languages the authors surely were aware of: Basque, Bréton, Dutch, Portuguese, Arabic.

Chomsky went so far as to assert that PRG prefigured his “surface and deep structures”. This is completely absurd; PRG talks about things like subjects and predicates and propositions, but this was bog-standard thinking about language since ancient times. They come a little closer in this passage on adjectives:

When I say Invisible God has created the visible world, three judgements occur in my mind, contained in this proposition. Because I judge first that God is invisible. 2. That he has created the world. 3. That the world is visible. And of these three propositions, the second is the principal one, and the core of the proposition; the first and the third are incidental to it.

The idea that the adjective invisible applied to God represents a proposition God is invisible reoccurs in generative grammar. On the other hand, it is not part of a transformational view of language, nor it is part of a systematic treatment of semantics. It’s really a pretty basic observation about adjectives… if you want to say what an adjective is, you’re almost bound to observe that it says what something is like. It doesn’t mean that you’ve invented deep structure, or phrase structure rules.

There are some interesting bits where the authors try to relate meanings to other meanings. E.g. they say at one point that Petrus vivit ‘Peter lives’ is equivalent to Petrus vivens est ‘Peter is living’, or that Pudet me ‘I am ashamed’ is equivalent to Pudor est tenens mihi ‘Shame is had by me’. You could generously relate this to generative semantics, except backwards: GS tends to make verbs primitive, while PRG tries to restate verbs in terms of adjectives or nouns.

But we really have to avoid overinterpreting texts in terms of current theories. PRG is, by modern standards, hobbled by a lack of semantic terms and frames of reference. The authors didn’t have predicate calculus to think about, or Minsky’s idea of frames, or Fillmore’s idea of semantic roles, or Rosch’s prototypes or fuzzy categories, or Lakoff’s ideas on categories and metaphors.

They’re doing the best they can with the concepts they have. On verbs, for instance, they reject the old idea that verbs represent actions or passions, pointing out (quite rightly) that there are stative verbs which are neither. They propose that the essence of a verb is that it affirms something— that is, it asserts a proposition about something. The prototypical affirmation is the word est “is”, which is why they restate Petrus vivit as Petrus vivens est. Essentially they’re reducing sentences with verbs to things they have already discussed: objects and attributes.

They have a very short chapter on syntax, whose content is rather disappointing. It amounts to these observations:

  • Some words have to agree with each other, to avoid confusion.
  • Some words require each other (e.g. nouns and subjects), and some words depend on another (e.g. adjectives on nouns).
  • When everything is stated well, without rhetoric, the order of words is “natural” and follows the “natural expression of our thoughts”.
  • However, sometimes people want to be fancy, and they omit words, insert superfluous words, or reverse words.

I’m guessing they were in a hurry to wrap up, because they certainly knew Latin well enough to know that the basic sentence order was different in Latin and French, but also could be more freely varied.

A minor point of interest: PRG frequently, like generative grammar, gives negative examples— things we don’t say. This was by no means common in grammars— Whitney’s Sanskrit grammar, for instance, doesn’t do this.

Should you run out and read it? Eh, probably not, especially as it turns out it’s not a precursor at all to modern syntax. It is interesting if you want to know how early rationalists approached grammar, e.g. if you wanted to write something like Šm Revouse’s grammar for your own conlang.

 

 

 

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