Yesterday we talked about Alphabets, and an interesting discussion ensued. See, carbon-based humanoid units started tinkering around and inventing alphabets LONG before Scientific Linguistics was even a thing. I guess you could call the invention of alphabets “applied pragmatic Linguistics”. People just needed a way to jot things down, even before they had a full grasp of the way language actually works. It is said that Chinese writing was the very earliest — we’re talking thousands of years ago, it is said that some Chinese guy watched a chicken scratching something into the sand, and thought to himself, “Hey, if chickens can do that, then I can do it too!” So, he took a stick and scratched a picture of a tree, and it meant the word “tree”. A distant traveller, seeing his scratch in the dirt, thought to himself: “Hey, this guy was trying to tell me something about a tree…”
Egyptian hieroglyphic writing began in a similar way: With pictures of trees, birds, beetles, gods, and serpents. When Europeans “discovered” these mysterious images on tombs and reliefs, they initially assumed that the pictures laid out some kind of tableau, or story. Like a tapestry carved in rock. Hey, I think this stele is trying to say, “The owl is eyeing the snake…”
Eventually, some very smart professors figured out that the pictures actually represented (mostly) spoken sounds rather than entire words, or trying to tell a cryptic story. For example, a picture of an owl is the letter /m/, a snake is a /j/ sound, a picture of a little chicken means the sound /w/, etc. From this, European scholars well versed in the Coptic language, figured out that ancient Egyptian was a Semitic language closely related to the later Coptic. This clue provided the key to deciphering hieroglyphic writing. Those steles weren’t really talking about owls and snakes. They were saying something like: “Here lies Radames, we were forced to bury him alive because he betrayed our land to his Ethiopian girlfriend.”
The Emergence of Scientific Linguistics
It is generally agreed that the discipline of Scientific Linguistics was born in ancient India, as early as 600 B.C., with the scholar Pāṇini (not to be confused with the sandwich) credited as the founding father. As his wiki notes: “Panini’s theory of morphological analysis was more advanced than any equivalent Western theory before the 20th century.” Morphology, by the way, is also known as “grammar”, but we’ll get to that eventually.
As with many a science, this one began as a religion. The ancient Indian linguists set out to preserve and analyze the Vedic Sanskrit texts which formed their holy canon. Sort of like the Bible to Christians. Over the centuries this priestly Aryan caste was endowed with a single task: Memorizing the holy Vedic poems. Which entailed memorizing literally thousands and thousands of verses. Imagine if you had to memorize the Old Testament!
See, it wasn’t like these Brahmins didn’t know about alphabets and writing — oh, they knew, all right. People like Phoenicians and Cretans had already developed almost perfect alphabets, even without the benefit of Pāṇini’s genius. But the Brahmin caste had decided, centuries earlier, that they would not write down their sacred texts. Instead relying on their own voluminous memories. It was their job to pass on this oral tradition. A job for which they were paid handsomely and never had to lift a finger to perform manual labor. In their opinion, the very act of writing down the verses would entail a blow to their job security an act of sacrilege.
So what happened? Why did they eventually cave? It was inevitable. This new-fangled alphabet thing was on the rise all over the world. Plus, the Brahmin memories were simply giving out. Maybe they had been eating too much ghee. And what with new verses constantly being added to the canon, ever new stories and tales of Krishna and his pals, eventually it was too much, even for their giant brains. The Brahmins were forced to admit defeat: They needed to invent their own alphabet and get this stuff written down!
But even here, the crafty Brahmins threw a wrench into the works: Okay, so they would invent an alphabet for themselves, and write down the sacred texts. But here’s the kicker: They wouldn’t invent a simple and logical alphabet like, say, the Greeks did. Noooo…. They would invent an alphabet that was difficult to learn, so difficult to read and write, that there would be no danger of the unwashed masses suddenly picking up books and gettin’ theyselves some education! No! A writing system so difficult and convoluted, that only full-time scholars (like themselves) would have the time to master! The goal here being, not to encourage, but to discourage, mass literacy.
Nonetheless, in spite of their class bias, these Indian scholars deserve credit for inventing Scientific Linguistics and its various subspecialties. And thanks to them, and their preservation of the ancient Sanskrit language, later European scholars were able to make massive strides in the field of comparative Linguistics. Eventually putting together a family tree of the various Indo-Aryan language branches and proving that languages evolve, just like plants and animals!
In addition to the great European scholars, who made massive strides and practically ruled this science in the 1800’s and 1900’s, American Linguistics also made mighty contributions and was even dominant for a time in the 20th century. One of the American founding fathers was Edward Sapir. In the American flavor, Scientific Linguistics was closely allied with Anthropology. Reason being that the American scholars had a wealth of untapped languages to discover and analyze. Namely, Native American languages. A typical day in the life of an American Anthropologist/Linguist, went something like this: Travel out to the reservation, along with Native Guide. Find oldest speaker of some obscure Native American tongue. Start compiling a catalog of utterances, along with the translation into English. Based on this, start compiling a catalog of the phonemic inventory….
[to be continued]