Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Language and Thought Complexity

When not writing up the results of his research for publication, anthropologist Christopher Hallpike lived among the mountain tribes of Ethiopia and Papua New Guinea for a period of ten years studying every facet of two very different primitive cultures. His latest anthology, Ship of Fools, includes a fascinating chapter entitled “So all languages aren’t equally complex after all”, in which he thoroughly debunks the conventional wisdom about the relative complexity of languages, namely the uniformitarian belief that All Languages are Equally Complex (ALEC).

ALEC is a relatively modern invention popularized by linguists like Noam Chomsky and evolutionary psychologists like Steven Pinker, wholly ideological rather than a product of actual boots-on-the-ground research. It is the undemonstrated and undemonstratable conviction that “There are no simple or primitive cultures: all cultures are equally complex and equally modern.” Or again, “People think the same thoughts, no matter what kind of grammatical system they use.”

Hallpike, on the other hand, starts by observing that “the thought worlds of modern literate urban societies are very different from those found in primitive societies”, then goes about demolishing ALEC with his indelible combination of logic, data and dry British wit.

Primitive Societies and Language

It should be obvious that it is remarkably difficult, perhaps impossible, to communicate effectively or even think lucidly about something for which your language has no words. This is the case with many of the cultures Hallpike unabashedly refers to as primitive and which Pinker and Chomsky would call “equally complex and equally modern”.

For example, the Tauade of Papua New Guinea do not count, or at least they didn’t when Professor Hallpike lived among them. Their society had no need for mathematics and the abstract thought and vocabulary that attend it. Other examples of features of language absent in primitive societies include “lack of relative pronouns; no passive voice; no conditionals; a weak tense and mood system; no case markers; very limited use of prepositions; no comparatives or superlatives; little in the way of logical quantifiers (some, all, each, every); or little or nothing in the way of intensional verbs — assume, want, think, believe — that might require embedding”.

In short, Hallpike argues, all the languages in use in our world are heavily context-dependent. Societies do not generally have words for concepts they don’t use, items they have never seen, beliefs they haven’t developed, and so on. Complexity in language accompanies literacy, urbanization, technology and abstract thought. Where these do not exist, complexity in language is theoretically unnecessary. More importantly, it is simply not there to be observed in the real world.

An Absence of Evidence

Where am I going with all this? Well, in an earlier essay Hallpike concedes, “It is obvious at the outset that we have no evidence at all for how language developed.” That’s an important observation. We are dealing with competing theories of educated men, many of which seem to be little more than exercises in wish-fulfillment. The absence of evidence for most of them is quite startling, and the ease with which their learned proponents can be demonstrated to be full of hot air is both amusing and a little scary. The entire field of language study is riddled with dogma, supposition and unsupported claims. The metamessage of “So all languages aren’t equally complex after all” is that nobody knows anything much about language at all. For every plausible theory there seems to be an equally plausible counter. Once you get down to detail, it seems impossible to conceive a mechanism by which language might have “evolved” over time.

What makes Hallpike’s essay so enjoyable is that it cheerily dismantles the conventional wisdom about language without pretending to offer anything substantive in its place. Hallpike knows what he doesn’t know, and he isn’t trying to pretend he does.

Less Shaky Ground

Bible literalists are on less shaky ground about the origins of language. While the first chapters of Genesis are not an anthropology or linguistics text, they do reveal a man and a woman created in the image of God who are immediately instructed to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

I’m not trying to oversimplify here, but this presupposes, does it not, that Adam and Eve both understood what God was saying and came into the world equipped to respond to it? The woman is capable of a sophisticated dialogue with the serpent. The deception to which she succumbs is certainly not for lack of intelligence or from an inability to deal with abstract thought. While Eve may not have grasped the full implications of knowing good and evil, she was able to equate that knowledge with insight into the nature of reality.

In short, it looks to me as if language was handed to mankind as a complete package. It never “developed” at all.

Downward, Not Upward

The early chapters of Genesis make far more sense of the devastating blows inflicted by Hallpike’s field experience on the conventional wisdom about language development than any bloviating from the experts. What Hallpike observed in primitive peoples was not undeveloped language skills but profoundly degraded language skills. Capacity exists even in primitive societies for further progress in thought and language, but the skill to use language as God intended has atrophied over the centuries as isolated communities became increasingly detached from their own histories. Just as muscles atrophy when their use is abandoned, language retains only the features necessary to the life of the community in which it is used.

Moving ahead to Genesis 11, we find languages “confused” at Babel in order that men might not understand one another’s speech. Far from moving from simple to complex and from diverse to unified, the Bible teaches that human communications have trended in the opposite direction.

The Inspiration of Scripture

I have often wondered why the Holy Spirit wrote scripture the way he did. A Bible designed by me would have resembled a giant info dump wholly oblivious to any mode of thought outside the late-twentieth-century Western mindset. God, taking into account the variety of cultures and languages across which he intended to communicate, did not do anything of the sort. He spoke to the people of each generation in language they could understand. Nobody could argue from reading scripture that the Israelites of 1440 BC were anywhere near as primitive as the Tauade of the mid-1970s — for one thing, reading and writing were skills many were assumed to possess — but even a largely-literate people of that day could not be expected to leap straight out of polytheism into the patterns of thought and expression we find in the early Christian writers.

The Holy Spirit dealt with that difficulty by “carrying along” all sorts of different men throughout a 1,500 year period during which significant cultural changes occurred, expressing his message in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek as necessary, and then providentially ensuring the translation of what they had written into over 700 different languages.

It turns out people of different cultures who use different grammatical systems do not necessarily think the same thoughts at all. That may pose a problem for ideologues today, but it posed no problem whatsoever to God.

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