Command All Words like an Army

Now this is a pusillanimity of theirs (the book writers) that they think style power, and yet never say as much in their Prefaces. Come, let me do so ... Where are you? Let me marshal you, my regiments of words!

Rabelais! Master of all happy men! Are you sleeping there pressed into desecrated earth under the doss-house of the Rue St Paul, or do you not rather drink cool wine in some elysian Chinon looking on the Vienne where it rises in Paradise? Are you sleeping or drinking that you will not lend us the staff of Friar John wherewith he slaughtered and bashed the invaders of the vineyards, who are but a parable for the mincing pedants and bloodless thin-faced rogues of the world?

Write as the wind blows and command all words like an army! See them how they stand in rank ready for assault, the jolly, swaggering fellows!

First come the Neologisms, that are afraid of no man; fresh, young, hearty, and for the most part very long-limbed, though some few short and strong. There also are the Misprints to confuse the enemy at his onrush. Then see upon the flank a company of picked Ambiguities covering what shall be a feint by the squadron of Anachronisms led by old Anachronos himself; a terrible chap with nigglers and a great murderer of fools.

But here see more deeply massed the ten thousand Egotisms shining in their armour and roaring for battle. They care for no one. They stormed Convention yesterday and looted the cellar of Good-Manners, who died of fear without a wound; so they drank his wine and are to-day as strong as lions and as careless (saving only their Captain, Monologue, who is lantern-jawed).

Here are the Aposiopaesian Auxiliaries, and Dithyramb that killed Punctuation in open fight; Parenthesis the giant and champion of the host, and Anacoluthon that never learned to read or write but is very handy with his sword; and Metathesis and Hendiadys, two Greeks. And last come the noble Gallicisms prancing about on their light horses: cavalry so sudden that the enemy sicken at the mere sight of them and are overcome without a blow. Come then my hearties, my lads, my indefatigable repetitions, seize you each his own trumpet that hangs at his side and blow the charge; we shall soon drive them all before us headlong, howling down together to the Picrocholian Sea.

—Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome
Quote's about style, but the post is actually about linguistics. They're not unrelated. Also, sorry about the extended quotation, there, but it's one of the best examples of Belloc when he was in a silly mood.
  • Leaving to one side whether the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is valid at all, do people who use it in their conlangs seriously not compare their work to real languages? I mean, think how many proud, honorable, highly warlike cultures that taboo the mere expression of fear, in fiction, have an almost totally isolating grammar, without the need to mark tense, number, aspect, or anything else if it can be inferred from context. While of course ancient civilizations that regard scholarship and statecraft as ends in themselves and the highest aspiration of mankind will have highly complex languages with a plethora of word-classes and a multifarious system of inter-lexical agreement within sentences, coupled to a subtle system of mood, tense, and aspect inflections.

    Maybe we shouldn't make our conlangs in a conceptual vacuum informed solely by stereotypes? Just putting that out there.
  • That amusing inversion noted and kept in mind, there could be a reason for a warlike people to have a simplified grammar. Old Chinese was much more complex, within words and not just between them—it actually modified its word-stems, which Middle and Modern Chinese never do. Old English was as highly inflected as Russian. What happened? Simple, other Chinese ethnic groups, and the Norse. The simplifications of Chinese stems probably happened as different Chinese-speaking tribes were assimilated by the nascent Chinese Empire; we know for a fact that Middle English has a simpler structure than Old English because of pidginization with Old Norse, which had most of the same stems but different endings. As the Chinese Empire conquered its neighbors, and the Danes were subdued and settled, the languages they spoke, related to those of their neighbors, experienced simplification to aid communication within the Empire and the Kingdom.

    Of course, that's not always what happens. If the people the warlike tribes conquer don't speak a language that's related to their conquerors', they'll just influence its sound, or else their conquerors will adopt their language. Zulu, for instance, gets its click-consonants from the Bushmen; they're not found natively in Niger-Congo languages (Bantu is a branch of Niger-Congo, just so we're all on the same page here). Every Romance language except Italian and Romanian can be described as descending from "late Roman military slang pronounced with a German accent by Celts".
  • I am curious to know where people get the odd idea that English has a huge vocabulary. It can coin Humanist Latin (or bastard Latin-Greek) neologisms like "television", but then, so can all Western European languages, which coined most of the ones we borrowed. It can steal words like shampoo from subject peoples like the Hindus, but then so can Spanish (e.g. "chocolate", from "xocolâtl", bitter water/beverage). And it certainly doesn't have words for "big toe" or "the angry straight man in a comedy duo", the way Latin and Japanese do. (English has to pidgin-ify itself with Russian Yiddish to translate "tsukkomi", because the word basically means "buttinsky", except with different connotations.)

    I think what sickens me about it is the amount of Jingo cheerleading that goes into it—have you Saxon dogs still not gotten over your inferiority complex from Norman French? Yes, fine, English is a perfectly good language for any of the purposes you need it for; you don't talk about philosophy anyway (we still need Greek, Latin, or Sanskrit to do philosophy well, there is a reason most German philosophy scholarship consists of trying to parse what German philosophers actually meant). Quit pretending, however, that English is markedly superior to, or even different from, any of the other Western European languages—and kindly stop even comparing it to languages from other parts of the world, because you don't generally have the background necessary to make those comparisons meaningfully.

    Yes, in case you wondered, I am familiar with the book and miniseries "The Story of English"—with all the prattle about the UK being MultiKulti, they sure can roll out the flag-waving brownshirt Ahnenerbe when it comes to history.
  • How, precisely, are we supposed to use math in a first-contact situation? Sure, "We are capable of figuring out math" can be adequately expressed by the right triangle with the squares on each side (i.e. the Pythagorean theorem), but ringing a bicycle-bell is hardly the deep things we wanted to convey to aliens. Math is severely hampered even in expressing concepts like "the guy threw the ball"; good luck with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

    One guy came up with an idea called Lincos, or Lingua Cosmica, that might provide a (bare-bones) groundwork, for if you don't happen to be able to use the cheating workaround I used in my first contact story. It basically starts with counting (in binary), moves on to some kinds of machine-logic, and then introduces some basic concepts like "Good" and "Bad".

    Has, uh, anyone considered, though, that alien civilizations may well have something like the Pythagoreans whose theorem we just mentioned, who regarded math as a sacred mystery to be guarded from the uninitiated? What if you kick off something like the Earth-Covenant war by shouting numbers at people who don't like to talk about them in public? One does grow so tired of humanists' presumption that their quaint local prejudices constitute a universal.
  • If you needed yet another nail in the coffin of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, how about the fact that a typical question asked regarding it is "how can people who use the same word for green and blue perceive the two colors?"

    Only, uh, how about "as two shades of the same color"? That question, from an English speaker, is exactly like if a Russian said to you, "So, you use the same word for the color on the UN flag as on the American one? Does that mean you can't tell them apart?" See, Russian considers "azure", the color halfway between blue and green, to be a separate color, mostly because it is (if we're dividing our color-wheel up evenly). What we regard as just a light, greenish shade of blue, Russians think of as a different color, as separate from blue as purple is. In the same way, what the Japanese or Koreans regard as purplish or yellowish azure, we regard as "blue" and "green".
  • Yet another point, whether a people has a more specialized vocabulary for a thing is not directly correlated with how much they encounter it. As Belloc once pointed out, most of English's military terminology is just ordinary French words (their soldiers walk, on the road, and spread out; ours march, en route, and deploy), because the French have been more warlike than any English-speaking people, and did not actually regard soldiering as an activity requiring a specialized jargon.

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