Ktismatics

6 December 2006

Natural Language and Literal Hermeneutics

Filed under: Ktismata — ktismatics @ 5:12 pm

Yesterday I said that, for the medievalists, the “literal” meaning of a text is one that assumes the words are being used “normally” or “naturally.” I suggested that the normal, natural, literal meaning of a text is more or less the same for us today as it would have been for a Near Eastern Bedouin from 3,000 years ago. Why?

Because all human languages work pretty much the same way. Even otherwise primitive cultures use sophisticated grammar and syntax. All human languages are grammatically and syntactically similar to one another. By an early age children become adept users of the language spoken in whatever culture they happen to be raised in, even without explicit instruction. And again, why?

It’s not completely clear. Chomsky asserted that the human brain is specially structured to understand a “universal grammar” common to all languages. Chomsky doubts whether this specialized and highly complex cognitive structure could have resulted solely from natural selection. Pinker argues that it could – that the evolution of language is not that different from the evolution of vision. Just as incremental improvements in light sensitivity and motion detection and depth perception would have afforded adaptive advantages, so too would incremental improvements in the ability to communicate and to understand others’ communication. But language isn’t just an individual cognitive ability; it is also – it is primarily – a means of social exchange. A language isn’t just inside the head; it’s part of a shared cultural environment. Science, math, architecture, agronomy: these cultural artifacts have increased in complexity over the millennia, but not because the human brain continues to evolve. It’s because our biologically modern ancestors continually thought up incremental improvements and taught them to others, who in turn passed them down through the generations to us. The languages we use today are the product of thousands of generations of cumulative incremental modifications.

Only recently have people begun systematically studying linguistic evolution, which means we haven’t been able to witness a lot of historic transformation of real languages. Tomasello suggests that all languages are structurally similar to one another because they’re all offshoots of a single complex Ur-language:

“It may just be that language, for whatever reason, began its historical development first – early in the evolution of modern humans some 200,000 years ago – and so reached something near its current level of complexity before modern languages began to diverge from this prototype.”

It seems fair to say that genetic, developmental, cultural, and historical forces have all contributed to the similarity of all modern natural languages. Say we’re trying to read a Biblical text written in 1000 BC. From the standpoint of genetic evolution the writer would have been no different from us in terms of sheer brain capacity and ability to use language. In linguistic history three thousand years just isn’t all that long ago: the structure and complexity of ancient Hebrew is more or less the same as modern English. We should be able to understand what the ancient writer had to say.

But what about text – written rather than spoken language? Written language wasn’t invented until about 6,000 years ago, which is like last week in linguistic history. The spoken languages would already have achieved modern levels of complexity before writing was invented. Unwritten languages spoken by isolated tribes are as complex as modern written languages. Writing was independently invented probably only three times in human history: in Mesopotamia, in China, in South America. Modern English writing and ancient Hebrew writing stemmed from the same Middle Eastern source – so our understandings of written language wouldn’t be all that different.

In conclusion, then, it seems reasonable and empirically justifiable to assert that, when we read an ancient text, our natural, literal understanding of that text is pretty similar to how the writer’s contemporaries would have understood it.

 

Advertisements

2 Comments »

  1. K says…
    Because all human languages work pretty much the same way.

    Ok.

    A language isn’t just inside the head; it’s part of a shared cultural environment.

    We adapt and learn language through use. We are a part of a culture – like a fish in water. Languages are taught, but only at a very basic level: Point to table and say “table”, point to ipod and say, “ipod.” Much of the other development of language is learned through use, I would think. I watch and listen to how the people around me are communicating and I try it out. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t work. I lose the stuff that doesn’t work and I use the stuff that does work. From there I build on it. And this process happens all through my life.

    In linguistic history three thousand years just isn’t all that long ago: the structure and complexity of ancient Hebrew is more or less the same as modern English. We should be able to understand what the ancient writer had to say.

    Ok.

    In conclusion, then, it seems reasonable and empirically justifiable to assert that, when we read an ancient text, our natural, literal understanding of that text is pretty similar to how the writer’s contemporaries would have understood it.

    Well, it seems to me that you have moved your argument this way:
    Premise: Languages are similar to each other
    Premise: This is true even over several thousand years
    Conclusion: We should have a similar understanding of the ancient texts as the original context.

    But I’m not sure how the conclusion follows from the premises. Because languages are similar is, I think, all the more reason to think that misunderstanding will occur.

    Furthermore, just because the language structure is similar doesn’t mean that the cultural context is similar. Gramatical and syntactical similarities may abound, but I think that this is only the beginning of what it means to understand what someone is saying…But you have alluded to this already, so, that’s where I get a bit confused. You said earlier that language is “part of a shared cultural environment.” So, understanding depends upon sharing a cultural environment, not on the similarity of structure – syntax/grammar.

    You know, you are sounding just a wee bit like a Structuralist….No?

    Like

    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 9 December 2006 @ 8:27 pm

  2. “So, understanding depends upon sharing a cultural environment, not on the similarity of structure – syntax/grammar.” The point of this post is to point out that structure/syntax/grammar is itself part of the shared cultural environment. We’re used to thinking of language as a given, as if grammar and syntax are part of the natural world, as if humanity has always been swimming in the same linguistic pool of water, but it’s not so. Language is built up incrementally over generations; it’s transmitted not genetically but through social engagement with other language-users.

    Most of the physical stuff we encounter in the world around us is also cultural. Tables, iPods, etc. are cultural artifacts, as are the words that refer to these things, even though they too seem like part of the natural environment. I’m saying, then, that linguistically we participate in more or less the same grammatical/syntactical culture. Our understanding of the linguistic aspects of written communication should be understandable to us even at great geographic and temporal distances.

    You’re pointing that we live surrounded by other cultural artifacts that are perhaps less pervasive than language itself but also less tangible and explicit than tables and iPods. I agree that these tacit aspects of culture can get in the way of understanding. Here I’m pointing out that the obstacle to understanding probably isn’t due to irreconcilable differences in the ways we use language.

    Like

    Comment by holytrinitynice — 10 December 2006 @ 4:15 am


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: