Thursday, April 13, 2006

Ibn Hazm on language endangerment and the origin of language

I've been reading more of chapter 4 of the 11th-century work Ihkam Ibn Hazm - "On how languages come into being, whether by (divine) construction or establishment of convention" - and it's great. I found his description of how a language becomes endangered particularly compelling:

So when a community's state is destroyed, and their enemy gains power over them, and they are kept busy with fear and need and ignominy and serving their foes, then the death of their spirits is guaranteed - and that may cause their language to disappear, and their lineages and history to be forgotten, and their sciences to perish. This is both observed in reality and deduced through a priori reasoning. (Arabic begins: وأما من تلفت دولتهم...)‍

The main topic of the chapter is, of course, the origin of language. He argues that language must have been taught to man by God, because he argues that the three other possibilities that he considers - mutual agreement on a convention, instinct, or the influence of geography - are logically impossible. His argument on instinct is the most interesting: if language were an instinct, then we would all speak the same language. Chomsky, of course, inverts this: since language is an instinct, we all do speak the same language (modulo trivial details of vocabulary and parameters.) On mutual agreement, he notes that it is impossible that a languageless community could agree on a language; how would they have explained to each other what each word was supposed to mean? The idea that each place causes its inhabitants to speak a particular language - advanced as an explanation for linguistic diversity - he rejects as absurd, since any one place can, and generally does, have a variety of languages spoken in it.

I plan to describe more of the chapter later - his comments on conlanging are particularly amusing...

1 comment:

Justin said...

This sounds really interesting!