[b-hebrew] We and us

Peter Kirk peter at qaya.org
Tue Nov 21 04:25:26 EST 2006

On 21/11/2006 03:40, David Kummerow wrote:
> ...
> Now to you contention that "[l]ooking at other languages will only 
> result in a lot of hot air". This is your view, and you are entitled to 
> it. It is certainly not mine, and I would need convincing to move to 
> such a position. Typology has demonstrated again and again that 
> cross-linguistic variation in languages reveal systematic patterns ... I fail to see that this is "hot air"; rather, it is a 
> concrete language predication. ...

Here I think we need to consider carefully what such patterns can teach 
us. When we come to a new language, it is good to know what patterns to 
expect. But we need to look at the data from that language in their own 
right and find the language's own patterns. We should not come with the 
presupposition that it will necessarily fit within the expected 
patterns. If we do, we end up rejecting the data (such as Revell's) 
simply because it doesn't fit our presuppositions. That is a very 
dangerous scholarly procedure. It has been far too common in various 
fields of scholarship for scholars to hypothesise a rule based on a 
small number of examples, and then when collecting further examples, 
some of which don't fit the hypothesis, to find some way to reject those 
further examples. In this way faulty hypotheses rather too often find 
themselves elevated to the status of scientific laws, at least until 
someone comes along, re-evaluates the whole set of data, and finds that 
the supposedly immutable rule was in fact based on almost nothing.

As an example of the danger of this in linguistic typology, consider the 
one time firmly held typological rule that basic word order was never 
object first. Then Des Derbyshire studied the Hixkaryana language of a 
tiny tribe in the Amazon jungle and found data to suggest that its basic 
word order was object first. Now if he had taken the approach you seem 
to suggest, he would have concluded that this was in fact impossible and 
so he must find some other way to explain his data. Fortunately he 
didn't do this, but instead went on to study the phenomenon in detail, 
to PhD level I think, and proved to the satisfaction of the linguistic 
that, against the former typological rules, Hixkaryana is an object 
first language. And in fact since then a few more object first languages 
have been found - a tiny proportion of all the world's languages, but 
sufficient to show that such typological rules should always be taken as 
probabilities rather than certainties.

> ... Further, it raises a helpful question 
> concerning Revell's proposal and helps to raise the issues of 
> evaluation: a) what is the nature of the synchronic politeness 
> contrast(s); b) what is the diachronic development of the contrast(s), 
> that is, can the development be traced to known politeness sources; and 
> c) how has such a process occurred in BH when in other languages the 
> process only happens after a distinction is made in the second person. 
> Now, Revell's study has only touched in part on a). b) and c) are not 
> discussed at all. But it is c) that is where it would get really 
> interesting, for this would be getting at the heart of the function. But 
> a study might flounder on completing a) such that a complete synchronic 
> demonstration of a politeness distinction from the data might not be 
> justifiable and hence b) and c) would be unnecessary.
Of course it would be nice to be able to answer b) and c). But the 
available data from Hebrew might be enough for us to demonstrate a), or 
at least show that it is a probable explanation, without being able to 
find out much about b) and c). I guess this is the position with 
Hixkaryana, since it has no written record; we can simply observe that 
it has this unusual word order without being able to find out how or 
why. And the same could easily be true of Hebrew politeness distinctions.

So, my real point here is that we should examine Revell's data 
carefully, without presupposing on the basis of language typology that 
it is necessarily wrong, or not to be explained in terms of politeness. 
Then, when we have found out what is actually happening in Hebrew, it 
would be good to compare it with Helmbrecht's rule, and consider whether 
that rule needs to be modified in the light of new data.

Peter Kirk
E-mail:  peter at qaya.org
Blog:    http://speakertruth.blogspot.com/
Website: http://www.qaya.org/

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