[B-Greek] Can any good thing come out of Linguistics? (was "Unreasonable Effectiveness of Data ...")

Steve Runge srunge at logos.com
Thu Apr 1 11:50:53 EDT 2010

I wanted  to make one point about Dr. Wilkins' statement. I delete the other for clarity sake.

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[SER: ] 

Don Wilkins wrote:
On this point, Carl, we seem to be going around in circles. Even if I had not known of these studies, I would have assumed the existence of similar phenomena in other languages. IMO this is not the point. All this basically tells me is that if I thought the Greeks were crazy to create their middle voice, either they were not, or else they had a lot of company in cultures with other languages.

[SER: ] Your comment highlights the real problem with the middle--Greek uses something very regularly that English does not. I know your comment about "crazy" is likely tongue in cheek, but nonetheless important. If it were something like the use of the particle following a finite verb to elaborate on the finite action, we would have no problem because the Greek usage matches well what we do in English. It is the mismatches that cause the heartburn, a point I stress in my discussion of conjunctions like DE. The Greeks had no problem with DE, we do because this particle accomplishes two tasks, which in English are typically accomplished discretely by an adverb and a coordinate conjunction. 

 In a perfect world, what I really want (and I think we would all like) is a nice, elegant formula that would give us the meaning of a given middle verb in a given context. Something like what one of my calculus professor's described: "You put in the data and turn the crank." As it is, if you want to know the general effect of the middle voice on a verb, say, of simple motion, you can look up motion verbs in a reliable lexicon and form your own conclusions. And let's not forget those verbs for which the lexicons say: "middle: same as active." I.e. the difference is too subtle for a gloss. 

[SER: ] If you want a "middle voice machine", you will need to go and study what this phenomenon looks like in a variety of languages that actually make comparable use of it. English does not, so repeating the same thing and hoping for different results will land you in a padded room. There are some wonderful typologically-based articles on such things, ones that lay down the ground rules and principles by which such things operate. Going back to my rant from a few days ago, I think Kemmer's work resonated with Carl because she gave him handles with which to pick up the bundle of ideas and impressions that he had been building up over the years of reading widely. It put clarity to something that he was perhaps not) at a loss to clearly describe.

I remember building houses when we would hire a new kid, and it was interesting to watch them flounder in trying to describe something for which they did not have terminology, say for parts of a roof. They would resort to the closest analogy they could, but it was inadequate. If they learned the terminology when we stick-framed a custom roof, they would have to relearn it when they ran into a trussed roof. The often failed to see the linkage in principles between the two applications because they had only ever seen something in one context.

Reading about a subject in the typological literature, e.g. Timothy Shopen's "Language Typology and Syntactic Description," can provide the kind of background and "sense" about how these things operate that will allow you to reorganize what you already knew into a more meaningful framework. If you see no problem with your framework, you will have no interest in looking for a new, improved one. You may indeed end up agreeing to disagree with Carl.

If you want to know more, you have to look up all the occurrences and compare them with the active meanings, which requires you in turn to look up the actives. Thus the reader best able to predict the meaning of a given verb in a given context is the one who has read a very large corpus that includes the verb in question. I don't believe that anyone--linguist or widely-read philologist--will ever be able to provide the formula for a shortcut to the middle meaning. 

[SER: ] I respectfully disagree, but I guess hopeful optimism has always been my downfall. Reading widely without a framework to organize the data may indeed be hopelessly unproductive. But reading about how such things operate in the world's languages can indeed provide a heuristic framework to organize the data gained from wide reading. I agree, though, that there is no substitute for the wide reading part, but it can be made more efficient.

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