Written by Dyami Millarson
There are sayings in different languages which allude to the idea that the written word is everlasting and that what is written down will stay forever. The Latin saying scrīpta manent (written things stay) and the Dutch wie schrijft, die blijft (whoever writes, stays) are examples of this. As a result, people believe that the written word will outlast the spoken word. This idea is prevalent among modern scientists as well. However, it is a misconception. While it is true that the spoken word may be subject to various forms of decay, so may the written word be subject to various forms of decay.
It is not necessarily the case that the written word will outlast the spoken word. For example, there are old, virtually unaltered sayings and songs in the spoken language that have survived longer than many written works that were forgotten and neglected. Writing something down is no guarantee for its transmission, and it is also no guarantee for it not being lost. Therefore, the written word does not offer an absolute certainty of preservation either, by which I mean to say that if you wish to preserve some unique idea or some endangered language, the written word is by no means a guarantee it will make it into the distant future.
I know certainly of ways in which the spoken word could be far more effective for the preservation or documentation of languages. When it comes to preserving languages, I tend to rely heavily on the spoken word rather than the written word. This is the ancient way to preserve languages and ideas. Whole literatures were preserved in this way in the past. People remembered folk stories, folk songs, etc. I like keeping this oral tradition alive. So I rely heavily on memory and the spoken word.
I have always been impressed with the memory feats of the ancient Romans, Greeks, Norsemen, Hindus as well the similar memory feats of elderly speakers of endangered languages. I have therefore always sought to replicate these feats, and since I can, improve upon them.
Furthermore, the speakers of endangered languages do not want me just to copy their knowledge on paper or type it into an electronic device, but they actually want me to possess the same knowledge as they do, thereby taking part in the tradition, and be able to pass it on orally in the traditional manner, because that is how their ancestors taught them and the ancestral way must be respected for keeping this lore alive. I can therefore recount the ancient lore of the communities off the top of my head without relying on books. It is all stored in my memory; so I can keep the oral tradition alive.
Given my background of following the traditional ways of language communities, I do disagree fundamentally with many linguists about what it means to document a language. I believe the traditional way of preserving knowledge with the spoken word is at least just as valid as preservation through the written word, and if perceived entirely from the community’s perspective, preservation through the spoken word may the only old and true way.
Furthermore, not just the traditional ways of the communities of endangered spoken languages have influenced me profoundly, but also the traditional ways of ancient peoples influenced me already prior to that; for I did never consider the written word to be the only right or proper way for documenting or preserving languages. If one wishes to document or preserve languages successfully, it demands flexibility of the mind, and so a rigid belief about the written word being the only correct way is not really an asset.
I believe in preserving and documenting languages in such a manner that is in keeping with both the old ways as well as the contemporary wishes of the community. At the same time, I acknowledge that putting all our eggs in one basket is never a good idea. If we only focus on the spoken word, we may miss opportunities we could have had with the written word, and the reverse is also true; so why not do both instead of only one?
What annoys me about Westerners and scholars the West produces is their either-or thinking: for instance, thinking along the lines of either you only believe in the written word, or you are ignorant. For this reason, I much prefer to converse with Easterners and scholars the East produces; for their reasoning is based on moderation, balance, both-and thinking. In a society of either-or thinkers, the most radical thing to do is to practise moderation, balance, both-and thinking. I am often targeted as a heretic for this very reason.
The West once had the concept of the Golden Mean, and this concept permeated the thought of both monotheist and polytheist Europeans. For instance, the Havamal which is part of the Poetic Edda (Norse polytheism) encourages people to practise moderation. Balance is therefore not only an Eastern thing, but a very traditional Western thing too. So I am not really radical in the sense of proposing outrageous novel ideas, but it might seem so in a society that has lost connection with its traditions and roots. I am really not that different from the ancestors.
One downside of the written word I should also bring up is the fact that writing is slow. By the time I have shared 1 fact in writing and have explained it properly, I have already learned a thousand new facts. It is simply hard to keep up; my memory of the spoken word simply works much faster than I can write. Subsequently, it is fair to say I am sharing less than 1% of my knowledge on paper, and I do not consider that a problem; it merely shows that the spoken word and oral memory are simply more efficient in the sense that they work much faster, while writing is a much slower process, and there is by no means an absolute guarantee it won’t be lost.
Paper can be burned, text files can become corrupted. I have often experienced how text documents of mine that were stored on the computer got irretrievably lost, and so I have no illusions about my writings being safe just because I wrote them down. For the same reason, I make backups of this blog just in case. I am also all too familiar with certain Frisian knowledge being lost due to certain written works being lost. One dramatic example of this is the fact that when I inquired about old handwritten documents in Hindeloopen Frisian, I heard that there was a Hindeloopen Frisian speaker who wrote many letters, presumably also in his mother tongue, yet it was burned by someone. Such is the tragedy that could befall the written word, and it is especially a huge blow to Hindeloopen Frisian, which, despite a long history of writing, does already not have that many written works thanks to being a small language. The original work containing some of the eldest Hindeloopen Frisian texts has also been lost, but was luckily copied by Halbertsma before being lost – though one might hope the original work will still show up somewhere and be rediscovered someday.
At 23:18 of the YouTube video which I shared in this article, the Roman emperor Claudius is mentiomed and later at 23:50, his Etruscan dictionary is mentioned. The narrator says Claudius studied Etruscan to the point he could probably read and speak Etruscan fluently, and subsequently he made a dictionary. The purpose of the dictionary was described in the video as “to keep his scholarly exploits alive.” This sounds very much like my story of my Frisian studies, and my subsequent plan to make English dictionaries for them to share and save my knowledge of the Frisian languages. I am well aware, however, that these dictionaries are vulnerable. The video said at 23:54 about the Etruscan dictionary of Claudius that it did not survive the Roman Empire and the hard work of Claudiusnwas seemingly all for nothing. My work my end up like that too, and so I will try my best to transmit my knowledge in various ways, the written word is certainly not enough.
Nevertheless, I will also make use of the written word. I have published a dictionary of Hindeloopen Frisian this year, and more will follow. I will in the future also think about diversifying the ways in which the dictionary is stored. It should certainly not only be stored online. That might ultimately be a vulnerability. All scenarios should be thought about carefully, so that my dictionaries will not end up like the Etruscan dictionary of Claudius; it would be a shame if, after having studied all the Frisian languages and cultures, my work would all be for nothing. I hope to keep my knowledge alive for centuries to come, because I believe this knowledge to be relevant for future generations. Being accutely aware of the vulnerability of the spoken and written word, I will do my utter best to try and make my work stand the test of time.
Fascinating post. I agree with what you say about the enduring power of the spoken word (as you note the main method of disseminating history and stories, per, e.g., the Bible, Greek myths, and more recently the Native American culture; but I stick by the written word, especially in this modern age of the Internet. Paper documentation, as you say, can be and has been destroyed, but words transmitted via the Internet (correct me if I’m wrong) are pretty much indestructible.
LikeLiked by 2 people
You raise an interesting topic: the internet. Information on the internet is absolutely not indestructible. The written word on the internet is perhaps even more likely to be destroyed over time than the written word on physical paper, but time will tell.
It is nevertheless surprisingly easy to lose digital information, even in the age of the internet: websites get taken down, data gets corrupted, people stop sharing certain content, etc. Over time, this will lead to the same result as with most written works from the Roman era: lost due to being neglected or being censored.
I have noticed that valuable information about minority languages is sometimes also lost on the internet. So, make no mistake about it, the internet is really no guarantee written things remain forever. Content on the internet is vulnerable in countless ways.
It is doubtful most of the online content of today will still be around in 100 years, let alone 1000 years. Computers are really vulnerable technology, and so the data on them is not at all guaranteed to be safe either. Remember all data on the internet is ultimately stored somewhere on physical devices.
LikeLiked by 3 people
Yes, of course, clearly I ventured into an unfamilar area,as I am not well informed
on the subject, I was just taking an uneducated guess. I appreciate your knowledge in this matter. Thank you.
LikeLiked by 1 person
No problem, I want to thank you too for your contribution! While you speak your thoughts, there is an opportunity to discuss and therefore exchange ideas; such discussions are interesting to read also for others who do not comment, and they may find such commentary inspiring. So, speculation is welcome on our blog; human curiosity is to be celebrated, and inspiring curious minds is what can be achieved through articles and comments!
LikeLiked by 1 person
with reference to the oral tradition:
The Celts and their educated caste , the Druids, never used the written language to transmit their learning. They could read and write and did so in Greek and Roman for example when they had contact with those civilizations – but all their knowledge of Brehon laws, plant lore, medicine, music, history etc was transmitted orally for thousands of years. Some was written down after Christianity came to the celtic lands of North Western Europe
LikeLiked by 3 people
It is wonderful you brought up the oral tradition of our Celtic brethren. I live in a traditionally Germanic-speaking part of Northwestern Europe, and I may add that the situation of our oral tradition over here was very similar to that of the Celts: laws, plant lore, folk medicine, music, history, etc. were all being preserved orally. Some of it was later written down when monotheism made its inroads and polytheism gradually faded more or less into the background – though the belief in a multitude of magical beings pretty much remained up to modern times. What I really want to emphasise is that it is truly miraculous how much information can be preserved throughout the ages with oral tradition. Thank you for your much appreciated contribution!
LikeLiked by 2 people
Interesting post. Certainly, oral traditions have much to recommend them. They are precious in the field of jazz. I do think, though, that there is a threshold of complexity beyond which oral transmission falters. For example, I cannot imagine the symphonic works of Beethoven, Bartok, Stravinsky and many others being preserved through oral tradition, nor the advanced physics of Einstein. In addition to the prohibitive volume of data, to do so presumes there are always people in place who understand these works well enough to effectively pass them along. Also, how does one teach an orchestra to play for a example, The Rite of Spring, with no written parts. If it could be done, it would take so much longer, why would you want to?
LikeLiked by 1 person
The topics you mentioned caught my fancy. At the same time, I have to point out my impression you might be grossly underestimating the spoken word, and what type of information can be transmitted through it for centuries, or even millennia. Though, as I pointed out, this is a typical Western misconception nowadays, thanks to overemphasis on the wonders of the written word. As for Einstein’s theories, those can be easily transmitted orally. Music can be transmitted simply through hearing – humans are really good at hearing and recognising sounds. If one person can play a certain part, another can copy it; that would be the way to transmit it without writing.
The volumes of data being stored in the human brain are not a problem. I can speak and write practically all living – as well as many formerly dead – Frisian languages, maybe I am the first one in history to achieve that, and the consequence is that I have – without exaggeration – several dictionaries worth of information in my brain, and I still have not encountered a limit. I was once curious about whether there would be a limit, I wanted to really push the limits and just see how far I could get, but I have become increasingly curious actually why there seems to be (almost) no limit and why a human brain can store so much information if it is trained to do so.
As for the question why one would want to learn to play The Rite of Spring with no written parts: well, because the result might be amazing, perhaps way more amazing than what people achieve who base their learning on writing (thus externalising their memory), but instead learned things in the – perhaps hard – old-fashioned way. For instance, reading Homer’s Iliad aloud is not the same as someone who knows it by heart and needs no book to recite every line; such feat of memory can have a positive impact on music too. The ancients could remember entire books, yet we do not generally possess this skill in the Western world anymore, yet I have found it particularly useful.
Writing is ultimately about externalising our memory, it is a sort of crutch which is removing us from unlocking our inner abilities if we are not aware of the nature of writing; when we do not train our memory, when we do not use our memory, it becomes lazy like all things with the biological body, it is like a muscle. Humans are lazy, writing takes some weight off our shoulders, but that is certainly not only a good thing, there are more sides to this as with all things in life; for instance, we need water to live, but it can also be deadly, and so water is not something that is only good or bad.
I am not saying written tradition is unequivocally bad (nor unequivocally good), but a good case can be made for the revival of oral tradition, and ultimately we are better off with both of them, but nowadays the focus is too much on the written, and the potential of the spoken is neglected, which is a very unfortunate development, and I believe strongly that languages could be saved more effectively if due attention were given to actual adoption of oral tradition as a means of documentation and preservation; if the ancients could preserve the most complex of information, and litetally scores of books covering topics ranging from laws to myths to mathematics, then so can we, and the advantage of this is that it keeps the information alive in someone’s biological brain, which can process that same information for active use and the creation of new unique information.
Remembering symphonic works can lead to unimagible creativity accompanied by spontaneity, since once one possesses all that information in one’s brain, one can restructure it at will and create new variations and combinations, so that music if the highest quality can be created spontaneously and with relative ease; for the brain, when it has a lot of information to work with, can recognise patterns and exploit those recognised patterns for new creations. Human brains are very powerful machines, and we tend to forget that nowadays since we are externalising our memories with writing, cellphones, tablets etc.
LikeLiked by 1 person
This is all well and good, however, since the arrival of cyber technologies all bets are off! Printed books might disappear as those Sumerian clay tablets did. Libraries are increasingly digitised and their books are shredded, which I have observed with great dismay many times over. Philosophical books on specific subjects are now beyond the reach of the common man, extremely expensive and available only for specialist researchers. And when it comes to the spoken languages, they are dying out rapidly, as you must well know, and the few we are eventually left with will be all bacterized shells of their former. This is progress, for the good or worse and it cannot be stopped, what we do now is collect and preserve, so the first generation of conscious robots will have enough of our intellectual and emotional material to lay down the foundations for their own cultures.
So whatever you preserve for posterity now, I am sure it will be put to good use after our demise.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thank you for your comment. This is going to be a long and philosophical post. As a disclaimer, I would like to say to anyone reading this, please do not take my openness to different points of view in the wrong way; after all, being interested in and curious about different modes of thinking can teach us a great deal.
Let me analyse your definition of progress; I want to explore the implications of this idea, and finally share my own idea. What I am going to say should, therefore, be read in an unbiased and inquiring way; it may be shocking and appear unpalatable, but why not philosophise?
I understand that you are saying that the death of languages is progress, and you are assuming this is inevitable, or as expressed in your own words, “it cannot be stopped.”
Given that this is how you analyse progress, then do you analyse the death of species and plants around the world as progress as well? Because, does not the destruction of languages and cultures fall in the same category as the destruction of plants, animals, and peoples?
You acknowledge, as it seems to me, that destruction on a global scale is occurring in various ways, and you believe this is necessary for human progresss. If we analyse this without passing judgement, it is an interesting and even compelling point of view; there is a sense of evolution in it.
After all, we are the apex predator, and so if we, for example, wish to destroy the entire planet for our own idea of progress, no one can stop us.
I have read old books making a convincing point about how the destruction of “savage races” is inevitable, and that it is progress. Again, if we do not pass judgement, it is an interesting and even compelling point of view; we can interpret the destruction of various peoples as simply an inevitable sacrifice for progress.
We can come up with an imaginary example: without passing judgement, we can analyse what “government A” is doing with “ethnic minority B” for (coerced) assimilation as progress. Government A of our imaginary example is – as they are acknowledging – putting ethnic minority B in training camps, so they can become good citizens. Others perceive those camps as prison camps since people cannot leave of their own volition. My reason for mentioning this is not politics (because this blog is politically neutral), but I am talking about how we can analyse certain developments as progress; it is therefore not a reference to any spdcific government.
The other imaginary countries may condemn imaginary government A for this, but there are also other ways to look at it; government A ultimately wants everybody within its borders to be the same ethnicity, and so it is progress for them to make sure everybody belongs to the same ethnicity. There is, again, a sense of evolution in it.
If we posit the destruction of languages, cultures, plants, animals and peoples as progress, the step we took before that is to define those forms of destruction as inevitable or necessary (i.e., “it cannot be stopped, resistance is hopeless”), amorally processual (i.e., “it is evolution, so it is neither good nor bad”) and useful, desirable or good (i.e., “this destruction is merely a means to an end because it is helping us achieve a better future”).
These three key elements are the first step we take for defining some specific form of destruction as progress, and since this allows us to define the destruction as (1) inevitable/necessary, (2) amorally processual, and (3) useful/desirable/good, we can breathe a sigh of relief and feel good about the on-going destruction which we acknowledge to be true and of which we do not feel the need to deny the existence/reality.
So an alternative perspective will depend on whether there can be reasonable doubt about the correctness of points (1), (2) and (3). In fact, (3) provides the key for undermining points (1) and (2); for it acknowledges human volition and agency in the acknowledged on-going destruction.
If human volition/agency can alter the course of events, then points (1) and (2) are, strictly speaking, not true. Since many linguists believe in some variety of points (1) and (2), our blog is focused on disproving (1) and (2) through actions showing that if the will is there, endangered languages can be learned and consequently be kept alive.
One might counter, however, that points (1), (2) and (3) are not mutually exclusive, and that if something is useful/desirable for human ends, it may still be inevitable/necessary and amorally processual.
This, however, fails to acknowledge that destruction is not an amoral process if it can be desirable/useful. Additionally, if a change is not good, then it cannot be progress. The idea of “for good or worse”, therefore, is incongruent with the idea of progress, which is essentially “change that is good”. We would not call something progress if it were not good somehow, and therefore progress cannot be amoral. In other words, progress can never be an amoral process, because that is not what progress is fundamentally; it has to be (unquestionably) good for it to be progress, and otherwise it is not progress. Moreover, if the goodness can be questioned, then the term “progress” is actually not applicable.
If something is an amoral process, then we humans have no influence over it, and then point (3) is incorrect. However, if point (3) is incorrect, it cannot be progress, but only an unstoppable change; and if the latter is the case, we have no agency in that change, and this is a falsifiable assumption, which means we can either prove or disprove that we have agency in say the destruction of languages.
Moreover, if we can prove that we have agency in say the destruction of languages, we can disprove point (1). Another vector of attack for undermining the premise of the destruction of languages being progress is using point (3) to point out that there can be different human views on what constitutes useful/desirable/good. In fact, I can see the preservation of languages as good, and such deviation from the norm of the destruction of languages being seen as good/desirable/useful is, fundamentally, a problem, because if we cannot agree that the destruction of languages is good/useful/desirable, then it cannot reasonably be defined as progress.
Additionally, when we prove that languages can be saved by learning the language, which means the failing transmission is being solved, or when we prove that languages such as Wangerooge Frisian can even be brought back from the dead, force can be added to the idea that the destruction of languages is not inevitable, and when we realise that languages do not inhibit us from achieving knowledge, it may be argued that language preservation leads to progress, while the cultivation of knowledge is good.
Of course, one may also argue that knowledge is bad, and that humans should stay ignorant forever and should definitely not know about human diversity. In that case, the preservation of languages is bad, and is not a progressive move.
However, it is reasonable to perceive the acquisition of knowledge as good; humans know that little can be achieved in life without knowledge, and so we tend to agree that knowledge is good.
In that case, it can be argued that the preservation of languages is progressive, and that the opposite is regressive; for the former helps us get further in life. If we know our ancestral language or if we know endangered languages not ancestrally related to us, it can help us solve things spiritually or philosophically, and with these spiritual/philosophical problems out of the way (i.e. new insights), we can make progress in other areas of life. Things affect each other in life, there is a ripple effect.
There is much more to say on this topic – and I could write a book about it – but it is safe to say that the inevitability, as well as the irreversibility, of the death of languages is a myth; it comes down to human agency. We have to ask what we want, do we want a future with more knowledge or do we prefer to destroy knowledge that does not suit us for whatever reason? (Surely, the article above acknowledges the vulnerability of the mediums we may employ for storing that knowledge.)
People may, of course, construe the diversity of languages as an inhibition to scientific and technological progress, but the opposite is rather the case; the diversity of languages has rather aided science and technology in varying ways already since the dawn of time.
In fact, the diversity of human languages has been the origin of science and technology; without all these languages and cultures, there would have been so much less inspiration to be found and there would have been little to compel us to think differently and thereby achieve progress.
Human languages and cultures have inspired us for millennia, they have helped us develop new ideas and tools, they have helped us adapt to new environments and they are testimonies to our ingenuity. In fact, it can be argued that the diversity of languages has sped up human development. (If you view languages as a problem, by the way, for crossgroup transmission of ideas and tools, you might want to consider such knowledge always has a way of passing from one group to another, as human history teaches us.)
Why did the diversity of languages speed up human development? In other words, why does nature favour diversity over homogeneity? The diversity of human languages and cultures led to intergroup competition, which became the driver of technological and scientific progress.
Human tribalism is, in my view, the ultimate cause of our current level of civilisation. I see the diversity of languages and cultures as expressions of human tribalism, and I interpret human tribalism as an evolutionary mechanism, which has allowed humans to achieve certain things which other creatures have not.
Removing what makes us tribal from us, removes what makes us human and therefore removes from us what we need for making progress in the fields of science and technology. We need to embrace our human nature to achieve our fullest potential; for denying our human nature has averse effects on the development of science and technology.
Conscious robots, which you brought up, will be no match for us if they do not possess the same “human nature” as what has brought us this far. Our “human flaws” such as our diversity are not necessarily flaws, there are more sides to this.
While you are saying in the opening line of your comment that the bets are off since the arrival of cyber technologies, I would like to raise your attention to the fact that such technologies are inherently vulnerable. Additionally, they depend on us for their continued existence, and it is unclear when or if that ever will change.
You should also consider that although the universe is hostile to us, the universe is also hostile to cyber technologies. I could elaborate on this at length, but given that my comment is already lengthy, I recommend a YouTube video on the hostility of the universe to computers: the video is appropriately titled “The Universe is Hostile to Computers” and published by the YouTube channel Veritasium.
In conclusion, I should state openly that the underlying assumptions of our blog are that (1) language death is by no means necessary or inevitable, (2) language death is, therefore, not an amoral process and (3) adding force to this idea is the fact that we can desire to preserve languages and we can match this preservation with our very human aims such that the preservation of languages can be perceived as useful, desirable and good by us.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Progress is an abstract neutral term, describing the continuum from cause to effect, independent from the reason neither of the inception nor of its outcome. It does not define any kind of specifics and may be applied in the negative or positive, for example, the progression of a disease getting worse.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I understand that you are equating progress with change that may be positive or negative, and that you are mentioning “progression of a disease” as an example of this.
Given that you mention progression in relation to your definition of progress, are you aware of the semantic difference between progress and progression? Because, why do we say “progression of a disease” in English but not “progress of a disease”?
I may state, progress(-ion/-ive) is the opposite of regress(-ion/-ive), but by that, I mean to express the following scheme:
Progress is the antonym of regression
Progression is the antonym of regress
Progressive is the antonym of regressive
Though all of these terms are etymologically derived from “backward/forward movement,” their meanings are differentiated.
Progression means “moving (forward) from one thing to another,” hence the progression of a disease but not the progress of a disease, while progress means “advancement (moving forward) to a higher or more developed stage, positive movement through a series of events.”
I tend to assume I am being trusted, but you might not consider me an authority on the definitions of these terms, so let us take a look at the (relevant) definitions of these terms in two separate authoritative dictionaries.
The fifth edition of the American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language:
1. Movement or change from one member of a continuous series to the next: progression of the disease in stages.
2. A continuous series; a sequence: a progression of limousines
prog·ress (prŏg′rĕs′, -rəs, prō′grĕs′)
1. Forward or onward movement, as toward a destination: We made little progress on our way home because of the traffic.
2. Development, advancement, or improvement, as toward a goal: The math students have shown great progress.
The 12th edition of the Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged:
1. the act of progressing; advancement
2. the act or an instance of moving from one thing or unit in a sequence to the next
1. movement forwards, esp towards a place or objective
2. satisfactory development, growth, or advance: she is making progress in maths.
3. advance towards completion, maturity, or perfection: the steady onward march of progress.
When reading dictionary definitions, it is important to make a proper selection of senses: I have already left out senses that are too specific in any case and that can be automatically deleted (you can verify this by consulting the dictionaries). Even though I have already made a preselection, not all of the senses I have included are equally relevant to our discussion. For instance, the sense of progress as (physical) movement towards a destination is not relevant as it is too literal, since what we mean by progress is more abstract while it is a reference to time, and so the senses “satisfactory development, growth or advance” and “advance towards completion, maturity or perfection” are relevant to our discussion of the meaning of progress. This pertains to point (3) of my previous comment, as it has to do with the fact that progress is perceived as “where I said progress is “good/useful/desirable,” and I explained later that if it is not good, then it is not progress, because “goodness” is necessary for it to be progress.
To make matters even more complex, the situation is the opposite with regress(ion) in terms of meaning when compared with progress and progression: regress as a noun means “return, an instance of going back” while “regression” means “return to a previous stage of development, negative movement through a series of events.” Making matters yet more complicated, regress can be used as the antonym of progress, though this is less common, and regression is nowadays more commonly – as well as unambiguously – used in English for this sense.
Again, you may not take my word for it, so let us take a look at the definitions of regress and regression in two separate dictionaries:
The fifth edition of the American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language:
1. The act of regressing, especially the returning to a previous, usually worse or less developed state.
2. The act of reasoning backward from an effect to a cause or of continually applying a process of reasoning to its own results.
1. The process or an instance of regressing, as to a less perfect or less developed state.
The 12th edition of the Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged:
4. movement in a backward direction; retrogression
Only too specific senses of regression are included in the 12th edition of the Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged, so I will use the Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary (2010):
re•gres•sion (rɪˈgrɛʃ ən)
1. the act of going back to a previous place or state; return or reversion.
2. retrogradation; retrogression.
Retrogradation is a return to a former, usually worse condition. Retrogression is a return to an earlier, less complex or inferior condition.
When you said “this is progress,” I understood it as “the death of languages is progress.” Let me quote the relevant context to make sure that we are talking about the same thing: “they are dying out rapidly, as you must well know, and the few we are eventually left with will be all bacterized shells of their former. This is progress, for the good or worse and it cannot be stopped, what we do now is collect and preserve […].”
In your new comment, you mentioned the progression of a disease as an example for the negative or positive meaning of progress. Given that these two terms, i.e. progress and progression, are not the same semantically as explained above and therefore not readily interchangeable, I should note that you did not say “this is progression” or “this is the progression of a disease” when you referred to the death of languages. Of course, you are free to adapt that if you meant to say progression instead of progress, and I will later take a look at the implications of that for the sake of philosophical discussion.
Judgement is inherent in the pair of antonyms progress and regression. If we wish to stick to the etymological sense of “forward/backward movement” yet also take into account the current usage of the two terms, we may define progress as “forward movement that is interpreted as good change” and regression as “backward movement that is interpreted as bad change.” The adjectives progressive and regressive correspond to the nouns progress and regression in terms of meaning (yet progressive and regressive can, perhaps confusingly, also correspond to progression and regress in terms of meaning). The two pairs, of which the meaning was expanded from an original sense of “forward/backward movement,” do not just describe “change,” but they pass judgement; so regression/regressive presents a change as bad, progress(-ive) presents a change as good. As said before, this fact is related to point (3) where I explained that progress is perceived as somehow good/useful/desirable.
Therefore, when you said “this is progress” in relation to the death of languages, it is logically irreconcilable with your assertion of “for good or worse,” which I categorised as point (2) in my previous comment, and it is irreconcilable with your idea of “it cannot be stopped,” which I categorised as point (1) in my previous comment. In any case, any usual sense/understanding of progress is not applicable here; people generally understand progress as positive. In your follow-up comment, you define progress as “an abstract neutral term, describing the continuum from cause to effect, independent from the reason neither of the inception nor of its outcome,” but that is not a usual – or generally accepted – definition of progress in the English language.
In light of the fact that the definition of progress as provided by you is neither usual nor generally accepted and the fact that you may reasonably be aware that people generally understand progress to be good and so the mention of progress creates an impression that it is somehow good, your definition comes across as special pleading in the sense that you are creating an ad-hoc exception to the rule that progress has to be good so as to prevent the definition of progress from backfiring against your assertions that (1) “it cannot be stopped” and (2) “for good or worse.” To be fair, these facts cast doubt on whether your definition was special pleading: your definition of progress could very well be the result of contamination (confusion) with the definition of process, and also your follow-up comment is merely an elaboration that is consistent with your previous comment, but the semantic problem nevertheless remains, since your definition of progress is a clear deviation from the normal definitions of progress as can be gleaned from various dictionaries, which I have demonstrated by citing a few dictionaries above, although as I said, you could be confusing the definition of the English term “progress” with the definition of the term “process.”
Let me clarify what I mean by semantic problem so that there can be no doubt about what I mean: your ideas that progress, of which you understood the dying of languages to be a particular example, cannot be stopped and it is for good or worse are irreconcilable with the usual definitions of progress, to which an inherent judgement, i.e. a sense of goodness, has been attached. In other words, you cannot remove goodness from progress as you attempt to do in your definition, because that violates the generally accepted definitions of progress.
Since people adhere to a generally accepted definition of progress, you cannot just change its definition without causing major semantic problems; when you say progress, I am sure you are well aware, it creates an impression in people’s minds based on the generally accepted definitions, and not based on a deviant definition that has been made up by a single individual, which appears like special pleading.
Of course, new definitions for terms can be created for philosophical purposes, but what progress means has already been well-established in the English language and there is little sense in deliberately causing confusion by creating a new sense that is hard to distinguish from the generally accepted definitions due to people already associating goodness with progress; in this case, it is exceedingly unlikely one can successfully bend the English language to one’s will by introducing a new definition because ingrained associations are hard to kill. Changing the English language does not appear to have been your goal, though, as it seems your definition of progress was caused by a contamination, i.e. confusion, with process.
Given that progress does not match your stated definition, namely “an abstract neutral term, describing the continuum from cause to effect,” we may however consider other options, such as “progression,” “change” or “process.” We must bear in mind that you said “This is progress” when referring to the dying of languages, and we may replace the term progress, which is apparently not applicable here, with the previously mentioned terms. “This is progression” when referring to the dying of languages seems a rather odd statement, because it is when one interprets it as “the death of languages is an instance of moving from one thing to another” or as “the death of languages is the movement/change from one thing to the next,” it makes little sense and would be a highly uncommon thing to say, even though, in all fairness, one might try to make sense of it as per your intended meaning.
One might also change it to “progression of a disease” and in that case, it would be a comparison: “the dying of languages is a progression of disease.” In this sense, one might imagine the dying of languages as a disease that is plaguing mankind in advancing stages. As I understand from your words, that was not your intended meaning. So let us take a look at change: “the death of languages is change” would match your stated definition best, since change is “an abstract neutral term, describing the continuum from cause to effect.” That would sound a lot weaker than progress – since a great many people would not be willing to accept that change and be willing to die fighting that change – but since we are looking for the right term, change at least matches your definition.
Surely, when one says “this is progress,” it makes a more positive impression on people than “this is change,” and so you might have preferred to use the term progress, but as explained/concluded many times before, no matter how I have looked at the matter from different angles, progress is really incongruent with your stated definition, and so what you describe cannot be called progress. Nevertheless, you could have meant to say “process” since that term could mean a series of changes that happen naturally, which does seem to match your intention of using “an abstract neutral term, describing the continuum from cause to effect, independent from the reason neither of the inception nor of its outcome.” That does not negate the fact that you clearly said “This is progress” in your previous comment, while one would expect an indefinite article if you intended to say process: “This is a process.” Because one does not say: “This is process.” And you also mentioned progression in reference to progress. Nevertheless, that does not disprove you could have been confused between the definitions of progress and process, which are ostensibly similar-sounding words in English.
Since we have now spent a great deal of time on definitions, it is now time to take a brief look at the assumption that the dying of languages is merely change or a process that (1) cannot be stopped and (2) is for good or worse. As stated in my previous comment, the way to test the validity of this claim is to see whether there is human agency in the dying of languages; after all, the idea that the death of languages is an unstoppable process, for good or worse, is a falsifiable claim that rests on whether human agency can be (dis)proven.
Simply put, the biggest problem for the hypothesis of language death as a natural process is the fact that language death falls in the same category as the (mass) extinction of plants, animals, indigenous peoples, etc. in the contemporary world which means we humans created the conditions for that to happen, and if we could create those conditions we can also choose to reverse that. Thus, it is not a natural process.
If your intention is to prove that language death is a natural process, then the fact that willpower can be used for the survival/revival of a language is a big problem for your thesis; if it were a phenomenon over which humans exercise no control (i.e. “it cannot be stopped”), then human volition should reasonably not be able to affect it, as I explained in my previous comment. The idea of “natural process” leaves no room for human agency, and thus the fact that an organisation like Operation X can help languages survive or bring them back from the dead relying on willpower is a serious problem for your falsifiable hypothesis of language death being a natural process.
It is understandable that if you believe that language death is a natural phenomenon which is inevitable whether we like it or not, you conclude that this is the only option left to us: “what we do now is collect and preserve.” Many linguists would tend to agree with you, and they analyse language death along similar lines as you do. However, they make the mistake of overlooking human agency in the death of languages, which is what jeopardises any notions of language death being a natural phenomenon that cannot be stopped whether we like it or not; there are, therefore, also linguists who have the insight that language death can be stopped and that when certain languages have died, their death can even be reversed by revival efforts.
There are certainly those who do not like that Operation X can help languages survive or make them alive again, because that completely destroys the theory that language death is inevitable, whether you like it or not. If it were really an inevitable process that cannot be stopped, those people would not worry about the actions of Operation X; they apparently dislike what we are doing since we are proving them wrong with our actions. Yet if they were right, they would have nothing to worry about, since all our actions would be in vain, but clearly they are not, and that is what is causing much hate to be directed towards Operation X. No matter how much others dislike or hate our action, what we are doing cannot be stopped, since we have the willpower to continue our work for generations; Operation X is an intergenerational project. Saving languages is part of our philosophy, and it is a philosophical mission we pursue with zeal; we are philosophically motivated never to give up. Also, to be honest, we do really enjoy our role – or I might call it work – of destroying the myth that nothing can be done about language death whether we like it or not; Operation X is the very embodiment of what can be done.
Languages can be kept alive through learning/transmission, and if the production of fluent speakers continues, a language continues to live; if even just one master passes his knowledge on to one student, and that student repeats the process, a language can be kept alive between one master and his student. The concept of “one master, one student” would be the absolute minimum one needs for survival, but it also serves to demonstrate that languages can technically survive very adverse conditions, i.e. not much is needed for their survival. Languages are robust, and this insight is crucial to the work of Operation X. Furthermore, the concept of “one master, one disciple,” which is an important part of Operation X philosophy, is a minimal goal for all Operation X projects, and while Operation X pursues minimal goals, this does not rule out the possibility of achieving much more. We believe in keeping our goals as small as possible first, yet that does not stop us from striving for much more. Our goals are naturally ambitious. However, we are strict with ourselves, since we never wish to make unrealistic promises; we just want to deliver what we have promised, nothing less. So that is why Operation X goals are generally exceedingly minimalistic on the surface, yet that has never stopped us from pursuing more ambitious aims.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Hi, did my mail reach you?
I added it here in case you missed it.
Thank you for your contributions for the discussion of progress/regression (and also related terms!). It is an important topic for years to come.
It took me a whole day to analyse your point of view, and to philosophise about whether it was possible that “progress” could be defined in the way you stated.
I had to conclude that it did not match the definitions progress, but could match the definitions of change or process.
I enjoy my work of helping to dispell myths, particularly with regards to the myth of the inevitability of the death of languages. Enjoying work is the best thing to do, otherwise it is really a long road of suffering, given that there is really a lot of hard work to do!
In any case, I am genuinely thankful to your contributions since they are/were interesting to philosophise about.
If my semantic and logical analysis comes across as harsh, I do not mean that in a personal way, but I am genuinely curious about what is the truth.
A lot of information was needed to look at the issue from different angles, and I weighed the merit of various words.
The myth of the death of languages being is as widespread nowadays as the myth of the inevotability of the extinction of savage races was in the 19th century.
19th-century writers believed non-White races would go extinct and that this was for good or worse, it could not be stopped.
However, as we know, there is human agency in the destruction of human peoples, and we also know there is agency in the destruction of lamguages.
It is, therefore, not a process. We have to ask ourselves: what do we want?
I could have added that certain myths/ideas are dangerous. However, that would pass judgement and dismiss those myths/ideas outright, which is what I do not want to do, and therefore I interpet them as interesting instead, which is the right attitude for analysis.
Since I do not want to dismiss ideas without weighing their merit, a lengthy analysis is necessary, otherwise the idea is not given a chance to prove its merit.
I am not politically affiliated, and I have no financial interests to report. Hence, my stance is neutral.
If it were true that the destruction of human races, lamguages, cultures, etc. were truly inevitable, I would have accepted that, but before I believe such hypotheses, I will analyse them and devise a way to put them to the test. My work involving the preservation of languages was/is a test for whether the death of languages is inevitable, and the results of the last 6 years have proved otherwise.
My conclusion led me back to this, but I did consider your argument despite my familiarity with the idea, because it is interesting to analyse it properly and make another attempt to punch holes in my own views.
What I gained from this discussion is the formulation of a web of semantically related terms – progress, process, change, progression, progressive, regressice, regress, regressive, regression – that could be very useful for future philosophical discussions in my works, and that is the result of our discussion.
Without our exchange, I would not have throught of that semantic web, I might have skipped over the topic already. So, it is important to challenge my basic assumptions and so whether there is more to say.
Since you have played the role of challenging my basic assumptions, I am very thankful; without such, philosophical improvement would not be possible.
I hope you understand, and that I am favourably disposed to you as a person, and that my exchange with you is in a friendly mood. I do not feel bad when you challenge my views, I feel elated because it inspires me to think, and obviously, I refuse to attack a person in debate, I will only attack ideas since that is relevant for the purpose of finding out more.
After all, to mention my example again, if the destruction of all human races except the White race were the ultimate truth, I would not have had trouble believing that either; I will follow the truth wherever it leads.
As a researcher and analyst, what I care about is whether hypotheses are falsifiable and how I can test whether they are true/false; I do not care whether a hypothesis is palatable, and so I am open to the hypotheses of the destruction of languages being “unstoppable.” I am willing to listen to any hypothesis, yet I will also come up with ways to challenge it; I am constantly challenging all my own ideas.
Since I am a skeptic, I have been attacking a lot of dogmas in linguistics. I may initially adopt certain hypotheses since I wish to understand them, but eventually, I will challenge them, and so all my views are subject to change.
So, once more, I am very grateful to you – I can relate to your skepticism, and I share your skeptic outlook on language preservation, and it is in fact my skepticism which led me to my current views, because I wanted to find out whether many languages are doomed to die thanks to an unstoppable force or not.
President of Foundation Operation X for languages, cultures and perspectives
LikeLiked by 1 person