Written by Ken Ho and Dyami Millarson
The book Talk on the Wild Side: The Untameable Nature of Language has provided an excellent and persuasive discourse in favour of language variation. It also makes a strong case why the the grammar of big national languages is so artificial that native speakers feel at best unnatural to adopt it. Languages are in fact untameable wild beasts which are constantly struggling with language tamers. This is especially true of minority languages, which the authors of this review describe as “self-regulatory”, the competence to evolve in all directions naturally. As such, there is a fundamental difference between the artificial grammar imposed upon standardised national languages and the self-evolving and authentic grammar of minority languages. Inspired by the excellent account in the book of national languages as tamed beasts held on the leash of grammar, this review sheds light on why the exact opposite is true for minority languages. Instead, the beauty and allure of minority languages are only discernible by those who know their grammar well.These two different kinds of grammar form therefore an important subject of discussion in this review paper. This paper is the research product of Operation X, the language project which the independent language researchers Ken Ho and Dyami Millarson started in 2016 with the aim to preserve and promote minority languages. As a tribute to Lane Greene, whose book Talk on the Wild Side The Untameable Nature of Language has led to the production of this paper, specific expressions with their original connotations as used in the book (e.g. the One Right Way principle, language tamers, etc.) are used in this paper.
Key words: Grammar, Minority Languages, Religion, History, Culture, Frisian Languages, Netherlands, Friesland, Lane Greene, Talk on the Wild Side The Untameable Nature of Language, National Languages, English, Schiermonnikoogs, Aasters, Hindeloopers, Archaism, Language Project, Operation X, Corpus, Language Technology, Stories, Texts, Posterity, Language Acquisition
Introduction: Minority languages – A unique story
Grammar: Self-regulating grammar versus the One Right Way principle
The emergence of languages in human history is in and of itself a miracle. We humans cannot afford a single moment in our social life to be without a means to communicate our thoughts. From as simple as making purchases in a local convenience store on a given day, to giving formal speeches on important occasions, languages play an important role. For languages with a large base of speakers, it is no wonder that language tamers, as Lane Greene, the author of the book Talk on the Wild Side The Untameable Nature of Language puts it, try to impose all sorts of rules and restrictions called grammar on languages. Such standard is often artificial, though the irony is that the more unnatural the “grammatical rules” are, the more they are branded as “the One Right Way principle”. This is all the more true with English, an international language employed as lingua franca in the world. As aptly described in the book, native speakers of English (like speakers of Black English and Southern American English) cannot help but develop a deep feeling of distaste for grammar taught at school. And here comes the moral dilemma. Notwithstanding the prestige associated with the tradition of learning and teaching grammar (especially that of national languages), it begs the question whether it is at all justified or even sensible to treat languages as little more than a set of logical rules, many of which may contradict the common sense of native speakers?
To Lane Greene, himself being a language columnist and the editor of The Economist, the answer is a resounding “NO!”. And his view has very much struck a chord with us, who respect, treasure and value languages as they are. We also recognise that the grammar imposed upon big national languages is often artificial and unnatural. However, this view has to be nuanced. Grammar is only unnecessarily and cumbersomely restrictive when it is made up without community consensus. While this is true of big national languages where not each and every person’s own sense of “grammar” is taken into consideration, there is much more room for language instinct in the case of minority languages. In other words, the latter have their own internal self-regulatory system, which ensures that their grammar is equally strong as, if not stronger than, that of national languages.
The freedom to think about grammar as it is has enormous implication for how “grammar” is perceived. Namely, it is striking to see how the concept of grammar among minority language speakers is not received negatively at all. The difference lies in the fact that minority languages have a grammar that each and every community member has implicitly agreed upon. Given that the grammar of minority languages is constantly evolving and adjusted organically in pace with the speakers’ feeling, the concept of grammar does not evoke as strong a negative emotion from them as from speakers of big national languages. Better still, minority language speakers have a positive attitude towards grammar. After all, they are often so emotionally attached to their native tongues, that grammatical deviance leads inevitably to misunderstanding. And this hinders self-expression, which is in turn fundamental to a sense of self. As such, it is imaginable why minority language speakers have in fact strict rules about their own languages, a grammar which forms part and parcel of their identity.
The situation with big national languages like English is very much different, where the official grammar has more of a symbolic function (e.g. as a status symbol) than practical significance. An example is, as given in the book, the difference between the modal verbs “can” and “may”. While nowadays everyone uses “can” with the meaning of permission/approval (a usage closer to the feeling of English speakers), the official English grammar only allows “may” to hold said function. Instead of being allowed to speak as they find it natural and logical, native speakers of English are required speak a form of artificial standard grammar, especially on formal occasions. In short, while ungrammaticality evokes contempt and condescension among big language speakers (i.e. ungrammatical sentences which are understood but looked down upon), It evokes confusion and discomfort among minority language speakers instead (i.e. ungrammatical sentences which are not understood at all.).
In general, this paper attempts to offer a critical review of the book Talk on the Wild Side The Untameable Nature of Language. The book has given an accurate account with interesting anecdotes of why “grammar” should not be seen as the the One Right Way principle. This is especially true of big national languages, where many native speakers cannot identify with the official grammar. However, the story about “grammar” would be lopsided without considering how it is perceived differently by minority language speakers. By offering our insight gained through years of fieldwork with minority languages, we would like to fill this gap in the discussion.
Part I: The metaphor of minority languages – their value
Minority languages as independent eco-systems with their own metaphors
To begin with, minority languages are in many ways just as misunderstood as real dialects of English as those mentioned in the book, if not more so. A salient feature of said misunderstanding is that minority languages are not really seen as having a unique ecosystem distinguishable from that of national languages. People mistakenly apply grammatical rules of national languages, which are in most cases standardised with their own orthography, spelling and so on, on minority languages. Minority language speakers are often taught at school that national languages are more logical than their own mother tongue, given how “grammatically deviant” they are. However, as Lane Greene says, there is no such thing as a completely logical language. If it were the case, people speaking artificial languages like Loglan and its successor Lojban, would attest to having thought more logically. However, this has been denied by some of the most fluent speakers of Lojban. To sell national languages as being more logical to the public is thus simply misleading.
And a follow-up question is that if the grammatical difference between national languages and minority languages cannot be explained by a lack of logic in the latter, what causes then said discrepancy?
In fact, to use the same terminology as Lane Greene, it has to do with “metaphors”. Each language is a self-sustaining ecosystem which constantly adjusts itself to meet new challenges. The metaphor inherit in each language regulates the phonetic inventory, the meanings and associations of words, the syntax and other linguistic characteristics, all of which are in a symbiotic balance with one another. This means that changes in any grammatical aspect of a language will induce concomitant changes to fill in the gap thus created. Each language is thus a separate entity with its own modus operandi. Just as a book should be not judged by its cover, any minority language should not be judged without a deeper understanding of what kind of metaphor it embodies and represents. In other words, minority languages can only be appreciated when they are not framed within national languages, but valued in their own right. The secret and beauty of each and every minority language is only revealed to the initiated, i.e. the speakers.
Minority languages as wild beasts bearing witness to human history
The idea of minority language as wild beasts is in fact very accurate. Furthermore, they are those languages which have undergone the least amount of domestication by the “language tamers”, i.e. grammarians who try to mould the grammar of big national languages to their liking. As such, even when every language is from birth a wild animal, national languages are probably those which are more tamed than minority languages. To continue with the line of reasoning by Greene, this lessened degree of domestication imposed upon minority languages has several advantages.
Firstly, a less domesticated minority language preserves more archaic linguistic forms (or wild features). As mentioned in the book, when more and more people speak a certain language as a foreign language (i.e. acquired as adults), the grammatical complexity of the language decreases while the range of vocabulary increases. This has for sure its own benefits of allowing more flexibility to express oneself with. However, it also means that a part of indigenous history is lost, just as a semi-tamed animal no longer knows how to catch its own prey when released back into the wild.
As untamed beasts, minority languages provide us with insight into the past. While this information has largely been forgotten by the bigger tamed animals with larger group of language tamers and speakers, it can still be clearly obtained in minority languages. For instance, English speakers nowadays can no longer read Beowulf, an Old English epic poem written more than a thousand years ago, without studying the Old English as a separate language, while Icelandic people can still read Old Norse if they pay enough attention to the nuance. This shows that small or minority languages are basically living fossils with huge scientific value.
Furthermore, minority languages perform better at preserving folk wisdom than national languages do. Many idioms and sayings are diluted and forgotten when people speaking a language no longer share a common social context. Take English again as an example. Given that idioms are mostly short phrases which express very specific sets of ideas, non-native speakers tend not to use them but instead use circumlocution. While this linguistic development has nothing morally abominable at all, it certainly forms a barrier for us to study how forefathers of a certain language once have thought and lived, when the languages that speakers nowadays speak have grown so far apart from the elder form.
Part II: What does our unique experience with the Anglo-Frisian languages teach us about minority languages?
The curiosity of the Anglo-Frisian languages in the Netherlands: Our philosophy
The insights above about minority languages comes from our first-hand experience with the Frisian languages spoken on the southern fringes of the North Sea. As part of the language family Anglo-Frisian languages, the Frisian languages are the closest genetic cousins of English on Earth. Being more isolated than it is the case with English , the Frisian languages are more conservative in nature and therefore tell us more about the roots of English as well, which unfortunately has lost most of its unique linguistic features through language contact (e.g. in the aftermath of the invasion of Norman French). However, with dwindling amount of speakers and fewer young speakers, Frisian languages become increasingly endangered. It is in this spirit that Dyami Millarson and Ken Ho, two independent language researchers of minority languages, have decided to study, preserve and promote the Frisian languages.
Few people in the world know of the curious language situation in Friesland, a northern province in the Netherlands where the West Frisian languages (in Standard Frisian: Westerlauwersk-fryske talen) are spoken. Contrary to common belief, there is not one single Frisian language spoken there, but many. The traditional Chinese background of Ken Ho (Confucianism) has led to the insight that all of the Frisian languages are connected with one another in some mysterious and yet organic ways, from which the current linguistic landscape in Friesland is formed. The entirety cannot exist without its parts, while its parts can still survive without the whole. Besides, the parts bear witness to the past, and no current development is possible without a solid foundation deeply entrenched in the past. In short, the curiosity of Frisian languages in the Netherlands has to do with their spatio-temporal connection with one another. One can simply not understand the intricate web of relations without studying each and every Frisian language spoken in the province Friesland, a mecca for everyone interested in the roots of the world’s most widely spread language, English.
The cousins of English within the Anglo-Frisian language family are interesting each in his own right. In the province Friesland, three Frisian languages have attracted our attention. First, Aasters is the Frisian language with archaic features which is spoken in the Eastern part of the Frisian island of Terschelling. Secondly, Hindeloopers is spoken in the small harbour city of Hindeloopen and is the most archaic Frisian spoken in Frisia today. Thirdly, schiermonnikoogs which historically found its refuge on the island of Schiermonnikoog after the last traces of living East Frisian in the Netherlands had disappeared from the mainland, is the only living remnant of the East Frisian language once spoken in Groningen and so it is part of the linguistic heritage of Groningen. Owing to the historical connection, it would be a dream come true if Groningen can welcome Schiermonnikoogs back to the mainland and receive Schiermonnikoogs as their own unique heritage language and start speaking and teaching it in small, enthusiastic groups. All these different kinds of Frisian – Aasters, Hindeloopers and Schiermonnikoogs – matter because historical curiosities are conserved in them.
The ancient origin of Frisian and the interconnectedness of its daughter languages spoken nowadays in Friesland with one another have been a source of fascination to us. We see many opportunities in the modern age for the Frisian languages. Frisia should conserve the historically fascinating Frisian diversity. Besides, for commemorating their historical ties with the Frisian, people from Groningen should defend their own heritage found in Schiermonnikoogs and bring it back to the mainland whence that heritage once came. Schiermonnikoogs is a treasure which deserves historical appreciation. Aasters and Hindeloopers are treasures of Frisian history as well.
Anglo-Frisian languages in the Netherlands and ancient religion: polytheism and animism
Another curiosity about Frisian lies in the connection between language and religion. Religion is an interesting subject to investigate, for it has been part and parcel of human civiisation since time immemorial. We find ancient religion fascinating, for it tells us a lot about people living in the past. As such, investigating the spiritual heritage in Friesland is also one of the goals of our language project. After all, languages should be seen as a means to understand people better, and religion is one of the most important aspects about ancient civilisation.
Concerning the folk religion once practised in Friesland, it is important to understand that there are two main groups of Frisian people living on the mainland, those who speak Forest Frisian (in Standard Frisian: Wâldfrysk) and those who speak Clay Frisian (in Standard Frisian: Klaaifrysk). As such, it is fair to presume the forest-dwelling Frisians would have been more inclined to forest worship (Baduhenna, a Forest Goddess) while the coast-dwelling Frisians would have been more inclined to sea worship (Nerthus, a Sea Goddess). This is similar to the geography-based distinction between Clay Frisian (spoken on the Frisian mainland in the clay regions which once used to be sea) and Wood Frisian (spoken in the old forest regions of Frisia). One can easily imagine that the latter would have worshipped Nerthus while the former would have emphasised the worship of Baduhenna who dwelled in the Frisian forests. By stretching our imagination a bit more, it is not difficult to see why the forest-dwelling Frisian would not identify Baduhenna, a living divine spirit living in the Frisian forests, as the forest itself, and the coast-dwelling Frisian Nerthus as the Sea itself. This is the origin of animism found in Friesland, the identification of natural phenomena with the Gods and Goddess which the Frisian worshipped.
The system of Frisian polytheism quickly comes into view as we refer to the traditional Frisian belief of spirits.They believed in the spirits of nature or spirits found in nature. The natural world appeared to them in human-resembling form. Nature could change form and become a spirit, which would be called a God if this spirit had greater power than others. For instance, Baduhenna was the Goddess of all forests or trees, or just a specific tree which would be the domain of an ordinary ghost (a fairy or alf). These ordinary ghosts would be gods of a lower rank. Sacred but not as sacred as a great deity such as Baduhenna. This is the system of Frisian polytheism as it once was.
Our unique experience with the Anglo-Frisian languages in the Netherlands: Operation X, our language project
In 2016, our language project Operation X officially began. To get prepared for the eventual study of Frisian language diversity, the Frisian people’s culture, history and religion, Ken Ho had learned Dutch in three months in Hong Kong with the help of Dyami Millarson. Small but concrete steps had to be made for the higher goal.
When Ken Ho arrived during summer in the Netherlands for the first time, the Dutch people were surprised by his ability to speak their language fluently. In two months’ time, Ken Ho also successfully learned the Standard Frisian language (in Standard Frisian: Frysk). During his stay, we have spoken with the local Standard Frisian speakers (mostly Klaaifrysk) and also visited the elderly home Leppehiem. We announced our aim to the local newspaper Friesch Dagblad and Leeuwarder Courant: Learning to speak the Frisian island language Aasters (spoken in the east of the island Terschelling), Schiermonnikoogs (spoken on the island Schiermonnikoog) and the language Hindeloopers (spoken in the city Hindeloopen lying near the inland sea IJsselmeer). Other newspapers like Algemene Dagblad, Metro and so on have also reported on our ambition. Radio interviews from Omrop Fryslân among others and a television interview from Omroep Max ensued.
Learning the Frisian languages spoken in the Netherlands is a rewarding project that has continued beyond 2016. After meeting one of the last speakers of the Frisian island language Aasters in 2016, Ken Ho returned to Hong Kong and continued his study by utilising all the available resources that he had. He brought with himself a few authentic materials (like story books, textbooks, magazines, etc.) which were carefully procured during his stay in the Netherlands. For instance, Ken Ho and Dyami Millarson visited the bookshop “boekenboer (the book farmer)” on the Frisian island Terschelling and purchased the remaining copies about the Aasters language, culture and history. In 2017, Ken Ho completed the study of Aasters in Hong Kong without the guidance of Dyami Millarson. By continuously blogging in the Frisian languages on https://operationxblog.wordpress.com/, not only do we begin to develop a feeling for the languages ourselves, we also encourage readers to be actively engaged in reading and eventually acquiring the languages.
The more we come into contact with the small Frisian languages in the Netherlands, the more we come to see what we have hypothesised. Namely, minority languages are more complex than bigger standardised national languages. In 2018, Ken Ho visited the Netherlands for the second time to further the language research with Dyami Millarson.
The fun is that before we visited the Frisian island Schiermonnikoogs for the first time in August 2018, we had already acquired the language. Dyami Millarson has learned the language Schiermonnikoogs in seven weeks, an achievement widely reported by Friesch Dagblad. On 22th August 2018, when we visited the last 20 elderly speakers of Schiermonnikoogs on the Frisian island Schiermmonnikoog with no more than 1,000 residents, they were all deeply touched by the fact that there were some outsiders who spoke their language so perfectly. The fact that we spoke their language with correct pronunciation and grammar had emotionally moved them. They also explained to us, during the festive gathering at the building Koningshuis on the island that many people on the island could not even pronounce words in their language correctly, let alone utter an understandable sentence (i.e. a grammatical sentence). An old man was even seen in tears when he heard a text read out loud in his native tongue. This experience and still other experiences keep reminding us how complex the pronunciation and grammar of minority languages are and also how they bring us closer to the people speaking the languages. To learn more about minority languages, our project to study the Anglo-Frisian language family will continue. In the coming years, we will investigate East Frisians and North Frisians.
Concrete examples of archaism of the Anglo-Frisian languages
While there is for sure still a lot to tell about our Anglo-Frisian language adventure, it is a good idea to give a few linguistic examples of how our study of the Frisian languages in the Netherlands has provided us with insight about minority languages in general.
In the Netherlands, the Dutch language (in Dutch: Het Nederlands) and Standard Frisian (in Standard Frisian: it Frysk) are the two official languages. The other smaller Frisian variants (e.g. Aasters, Schiermonnikoogs and HIndeloopers) are not officially recognised. When we apply Greene’s metaphor of wild beasts versus domesticated livestock, the Dutch language can be seen as the most domesticated, the Standard Frisian language a semi-domesticated while the rest of the unrecognised Frisian variants the least domesticated animal. This metaphor aptly represents the different sentiments that we have come across of the three groups of speakers speaking their languages, namely (i) Dutch, (ii) Standard Frisian and (iii) other Frisian variants. While Dutch speakers and Standard Frisian speakers to a lesser extent feel more hopeless, more controlled and have no sense of destiny, speakers of other Frisian variants appear to enjoy more freedom when asked to speak their unrecognised native tongues.
Apart from a higher degree of freedom, the other unrecognised Frisian variants also offer more explanatory power to the the more domesticated, tamed and bigger languages. In fact, one would call minority languages “the source languages” for bigger standardised languages. For instance, on the level of word formation, the Dutch word for mathematics is “wiskunde”. The suffix -kunde is often attached to a certain scientific subject and is related to the verb “kunnen (to know)”. However, the prefix wis- would be difficult to explain when one is left without any knowledge of Standard Frisian. A very common Standard Frisian way of giving an affirmative response is “ja, wis!”. Here, one can see that “wis” means “sure”. With this information, everything falls into place. Mathematics in Dutch means thus “exact science” (“wiskunde” means literally “to know stuff with certainty”.)
In fact, the higher explanatory power of words has to do with archaism. Just as wild beasts exhibit more primal, original and authentic behaviour than domestic ones, the Frisian variants are truer and more loyal to their roots than the more developed Standard Frisian. For instance, the island variant Schiermonnikoogs has three grammatical genders for nouns, a feature which is already lost in Standard Frisian and in Dutch, each of which has own two genders. Another island variant Aasters has so many idioms that a speaker of Standard Frisian living on the mainland may not really understand an Aasters speaker. Problems mostly arise in the area of pragmatics. The style of communication is one of riddles, allusions and subtlety and as such, the complexity of idioms makes it difficult for outsiders to understand them. Last but not least, the variant Hindeloopers has such refined concepts for counting quantity and bargaining in trade with, that outsiders may easily underestimate their commercial ingenuity.
The foregoing examples show that, in general, minority languages have more complex systems than national languages. This complexity is what makes the study, preservation and promotion of minority languages such a fascinating aspect of our language project, Operation X.
Part III: The preservation and promotion of minority languages – A lesson from language technology
To see the value of minority languages is only the begin of our journey. The next question is, “how should we pass our knowledge about them to the next generation, lest it be forgotten?”
Sustainability requires collective effort and it cannot be achieved on one’s own. When we examine the main cause of language death, i.e. the disappearance of a language, we see that dwindling number of speakers is a major contributing factor. This can be caused by inter-generational language transfer problems, such that the younger generation no longer speaks the tongue of their parents nor ancestors. The solution to lessen the threat of language death is thus to facilitate language acquisition, a challenge seen as a uphill battle by many.
The psychological struggle to learn a foreign language to mastery is well-known, especially among adult learners. Enthusiasm does not seem to be the only factor determining whether one will eventually master a foreign language, given that some appear to learn quickly without making an effort. One cannot help but envy children who can master several languages at the same time when exposed to a natural multilingual environment. However, this is not all gloom and doom to those aspiring to master minority languages in an effort to save them. In fact, the development and eventual success of language technology mentioned in the book provide enormous insight into how languages can be the most effectively and efficiently learned.
Language technology: Why rule-based approach failed
In the book, an interesting story was told of a group of researchers from IBM and Georgetown University in 1954, when they for the first time in human history invented a translation machine. With 250 words and six rules fed into the machine, it successfully translated a Russian sentence into English, a news story which had caused much sensation at the time. However, the euphoria was short-lived. Contrary to the hope of the scientists, the technology – a rule-based translation system – did not lend itself to “scaling up” easily. It was subsequently discovered that the difficulty increased not linearly but exponentially. For several decades the development of language technology was in stagnation, and real progress only began to be booked towards the end of the 20th century, when the approach took a new turn. Instead of a rule-based approach, computers started to be fed with authentic sentences made by humans. By examining and comparing the words and expressions across well-translated texts, computers learn to develop a language instinct similar to that of a child exposed to a natural multilingual environment. Rules are thus implicitly understood under the statistical approach by comparing the frequency of word and expression occurrence across translations. By simulating human neural networks, scientists brought forth the age of “deep learning” in language technology, where computers develop multiple digital neural networks for translation tasks. The breakthrough of language technology, as can be seen in the ever-increasing translation quality of Google Translate nowadays, shows the importance of not learning by rote-memorisation of grammatical rules, but by sufficient exposure to authentic materials in foreign languages.
Just dive in and be attentive
The lesson learned from the advancement in language technology is that we should just dive in when it comes to learning minority languages. We should just make use of whatever materials (spoken or written) available to us. The fear that there have yet to be any officially written dictionaries or some good grammar books explaining the rules about those languages is unfounded. The reason is, just as rule-based learning does not help improve language technology beyond a certain point, memorising a huge amount of words with their translated meaning and cramming grammatical rules into one’s brain does not help one go any further than making a few unnatural sentences. It is also mentioned in the book that being able to name a certain grammatical part does not automatically imply competence in using it. What is important, is rather that the learners have been sufficiently exposed to the language to develop a sense for it. Analysing the language is always an addition to, but not the essence of learning a foreign language.
Corpus formation for Anglo-Frisian languages: Collecting texts, meeting elderly speakers and making recordings
With said method of learning languages in general in mind, we have set out to collect authentic linguistic materials on the Frisian languages since 2016. We firstly looked for any available texts to be found online and also visited antiquarian bookshop for old books. Only a few texts which we found had direct translation next to them, but it did not prevent us from diving in and trying to get a general picture of what was narrated. When we engage in fieldwork in order to experience and collect both written and spoken materials on the Frisian languages, we always speak with old speakers of the language. After all, they speak the most authentic type of the language, for they are the least exposed to other languages in an increasingly globalised world. Not only do they remember most of the old words and expressions, they are also the most fluent and thus natural in speaking. Besides, it is also important to stay attentive to linguistic details, like intonation, choice of words, syntax and so on. For sure, just as learning any natural language takes time and requires repetition, we also listen frequently to recordings which we have made during meetings with native speakers.
We aim to create a huge corpus of said authentic materials for the next generation. The corpus will have to contain spoken or written stories (life stories, fables, fairy tales, tongue-twisters, jokes, riddles, idioms, songs, poems, etc.) in the original languages. The basic idea is to imitate how a child learns his first native tongue as in the case of language technology. The corpus of texts and recordings therefore serves as stimulants for the development of a sense for the languages. This shows how important continuing documentation is in creating a viable base for posterity to rely on to re-discover the languages of their ancestors.
Part IV: Studying Minority Languages as an investigation into the human mind – Fact and Framing
Last but not least, for those who still have yet to be convinced of the importance of preserving and promoting minority languages, there is still another argument. Namely, languages, especially minority languages spoken in very specific social and geographical environments (like in extremely cold weathers, in deserts, in huge social groups and so on) provide us with a glimpse into the mystery of human mind.
To begin with, the relation between language and the mind is also mentioned in the book. Greene discusses how the strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is refutable in the area of politics and in grammar. While framing through disingenuous use of words can definitely persuade a certain amount of uninformed voters to vote for a certain candidate, the effect is marginal in comparison to facts. Just as people do not become less civilised or intelligent because their language has lost a certain grammatical case, people are not so easily convinced of a political message just because it is framed in a certain biased way. In fact, people normally have already had a certain view in mind, and they manipulate words in order express their biased opinion in an apparently objective manner. An example is “pro-life” for anti-abortion and “pro-choice” for abortion, both of which highlight the only positive side of each decision. This is a convincing argument against linguistic determinism.
However, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis also has a weak version, which states that human thoughts can be influenced (and not totally determined) by the languages that they speak. It is also called linguistic relativity, an area which is not touched upon in the book. The reality is often so, that language and mind influence one another. Just as languages change as they are continuously modified by the human mind to adapt to new social environments, the human mind is also constantly shaped and moulded by languages that it speaks. Such a dilemma can best be compared to the famous question of “which comes first: chicken or the egg?” In fact, it is highly probable that languages have been developed as one of the survival skills of the human species (among which bipedalism). Throughout the ages, humans have evolved from apes to bipedal beings who learn to free the upper arms for making tools. It is likely that languages are also an adaptive evolutionary tool to assist human survival with. In other words, mind and languages are inexplicably intertwined with one another and both are pushing one another towards evolutionary success.
With this in mind, the next logical step is to examine languages for the sake of understanding the mystery of the human mind. This is simply the dream of many a scientist! However, it is predicted by UNESCO that half of the world’s languages, for which there are around 7,000 nowadays, will die out at the end of the century (i.e. the year 2100). And those dying are minority languages, which are more complex and thus more valuable as study objects. Much of the information encoded in minority languages cannot be found in big national languages, owing to the extreme social and environmental conditions for which minority languages are created. The smaller the language community, the more precise the language it speaks and thus the bigger the loss to the puzzle about the human mind as a minority language is lost.
Conclusion: Grammar as a window to understanding language, culture and history
Grammar is only annoying when it no longer has relevance to how we feel about our language(s). In other words, the problem with grammar is not the idea of grammar itself, but the artificiality of the kind of grammar taught at school with the aim to restrain the freedom of some big national languages. It is a very specific kind of grammar discussed in Greene’s book, and we believe that a good case has been made to stress that languages can nor should be tamed.
However, just as Greene has also mentioned, any outright disapproval of grammar does not work. The following citation from the book shows the dire consequences of disposing of any explicit teaching of grammar in the United States and Britain in the second half of the last century:-
David Crystal, a linguist and critic of hoary prescriptivism, describes his shock at facing a lecture-hall full of undergraduates in the 1970s, discussing the “don’t end a sentence with a preposition” rule, when a student asked “Please, what’s a preposition?” He asked the class how many others didn’t know; most of the hands went up. One student hazarded that it had something to do with riding a horse: “I was always told that a pre-position was what one had to adopt when preparing to mount.”
Greene, Lane. Talk on the Wild Side: The Untameable Nature of Language (Kindle Locations 3043-3048). Profile. Kindle Edition.
The lesson is that grammar should not be abandoned. What is important to realise is that the negative connotations which grammar has for big national languages does not exist for minority languages. After all, the latter is continuously adjusted to the needs of minority language speakers. It is not the artificially created grammatical norms which nowadays no national language speakers themselves would feel natural enough to use, but the flexible and creative grammatical rules which express the most vivid life experience which minority languages hold dear to their hearts. When it comes to the authentic grammatical rules of minority languages, the advice is therefore to see beyond the formality imposed by grammar, to have trust in the human will, and to experience the sentiments and feelings expressed by languages.