Today I have this piece from a Ukrainian online magazine called Obozrevatel. The author is Tatiana Gayzhevskaya. This piece caught my eye, since I am a Linguist myself. Well, not a practicing one — the job market for Comparative Morphologists is not a big one, which is why I ended up working in I.T. not long after receiving my degree in Linguistics. But I regret nothing: At the very least I learned the basic concepts of this important science — by the way, I just added a new “Category” to my blogposts, namely Linguistics, in order to accommodate this post and other future ones of this ilk.
And also, by the way, it never ceases to amaze me how much ignorance there is among the “common masses” about this thing that every single one of them does. Namely, talk! I have harped before on the fact that even highly educated people emit pure howlers when dispensing what they believe to be pearls of wisdom on this topic. I already wrote about that guy I used to work with, who theorized that American southerners drawl their vowels because they need to suck in more cooling air in those hot climes. (Never mind that they continue to drawl even after they move to Ontario!) Or about poor “Otto”, a denizen of a different blog, with whom I engaged in several vigorous polemics. Recall that “Otto” was convinced that no “European” language possesses palatal consonants such as /ts/, German Zeit to the contrary, based on the fact that the Germans choose to spell the /ts/ phoneme as the letter Z. The howling confusion about phonetics, phonemics and alphabetic spelling, is particularly rife among the hoi polloi.
Language is a fundamental human attribute. No animals possess language, gorilla Koko notwithstanding. Humans build cities and fly rockets to the moon. Apes cannot build cities nor rockets. Apes can neither read, nor understand, Philosophy, Otto notwithstanding.
Language is both a biological behavior and a coding system at the same time. Every human being, even a stupid one, speaks at least one language; and yet so few humans actually understand how language is constructed, what are the basic components, etc. Many people confuse “Linguistics” with some arcane grammar rules that they learned in school, like “who” vs “whom”, or “will” vs “shall” — and that is not at all what real Linguistics is all about!
The problem, obviously, is that children are not educated in the science of Linguistics. It really should be a required subject in school, just like Mathematics or Biology. I mean General Linguistics, Theoretical Linguistics — I am not talking about the study of one particular language, or learning to read and write properly in one’s native tongue — that’s also important, but it’s not what I am talking about.
I used to believe that this ignorance of Linguistics was mostly an American thing, because Americans are — frankly — an ignorant and uneducated people. However, on reading Gayzhevskaya’s piece, which reports on the polemic of a Russian Professor named Andrei Zubov (Doctor of Historical Sciences) against fellow Russian academic Vitaly Tretiakov (the Dean of Television Arts at Moscow State University), it seems that the ignorance of Linguistics also exists in other cultures, even in Russia; even with Russians being among the most educated people on this planet. Unfortunately the March of the World Idiocracy is unrelenting.
Having said that, I do not agree with everything that Zubov says. I will attempt with knife-like precision to split the flies from the cutlets in my analysis, below. Both Zubov and Tretiakov have political axes to grind. Politically speaking, Zubov is a kreakl and a Useful Idiot, whereas Tretiakov is a Russian patriot. In this particular polemic, Zubov is mostly right, but with a lot of caveats, as I will also explain.
One must tread especially cautiously here, since this issue of the Ukrainian language and the Russian language — which should be in the realm of abstract and theoretical Linguistics — is a highly charged one. One must note that the fascist Ukrainian government came to power on a program of Ukrainization and stamping out the Russian language — a language which is spoken by a majority of Ukrainian citizens, even ethnic Ukrainians. One must be careful not to provide any fuel to these Banderite brutes. Who are also busy, by the way, oppressing ethnic Hungarians and other non-Ukrainians. It is important to defend ethnic communities and their right to communicate and study in their own native tongue. It is also important to note that Zubov is a fan of the fascist Ukrainian government and uses epithets like “Nazi” and “racist” in his polemic against Tretiakov. Which is hilarious, since the Ukrainian government consists of actual Banderites (Nazi collaborators) and real Nazis. In every literal sense of the word. Dean Tretiakov is no more a Nazi or racist than I am; he is just mistaken about a couple of factual things of which he should know better. Tretiakov simply needs more education. Zubov needs a deeper reality check.
But even putting aside the political undertones of any such discussion — Russian language as compared to Ukrainian — Zubov is also incorrect, in my opinion, in his postulate that “grammatical complexity” is a metric indicative of superiority or inferiority of a particular language. It is a metric — that is factual. But using such a metric to make value judgements — well, by that metric, the highly uninflected English language is a mere series of grunts, and Shakespeare was a babbling caveman. Clearly not true!
Having stipulated all of that and set up all those caveats, I now proceed to the meat of the polemic.
[to be continued]