“Linguistics in the premodern world? Just nonsense!”

Patrick O’Donnell, who also contributed to this blog, recently published an interesting response to the above argument, as found in this article by Gaston Dorren. Dorren’s main claim is:

While all disciplines attract the occasional eccentric, it seems that two fields exert a particularly strong pull: historiography and linguistics.

Now, it would be fine to say that many excentric thoughts have been uttered about languages wihout any basis. I would add that many excentric thoughts have been uttered also about many other topics, say ways to salvation, but less us live it aside.
The main point is that Dorren does not say that the topic of language, but that linguistics itself is “a magnet for dilettantes and crackpots”. You would think that Sanskrit authors working on language do not belong to either category, but here is all what Dorren has to say about them:

Other cultures were equally self-complacent. In the last centuries BCE, the people of North India felt that their Sanskrit was nothing less than divine, and 1,000 years later the Arabs would feel likewise about the language of the Quran. For the Chinese, civilising the neighbouring peoples was practically tantamount to familiarising them with the only great language. The French of the Enlightenment, not to be outdone, deemed their language better than divine – it was logical. […]
Speakers of big languages are not the only ones to get carried away by love for their lingo. Quite a few people in Tamil Nadu in South India used quite literally to consider the Tamil language a goddess, and some still do.

Look, I enjoyed Dorren’s discussion about how many people described their own language as the oldest or the best and I can see that in some cases these theories where the only ones about language in a given context. But it is hard to conclude from these wishful thinkings about Sanskrit to the conclusion that one can close the chapter of Indian linguistics (as a scholarly field) in this way.

(cross-posted on my personal blog)

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog: elisafreschi.com, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

9 thoughts on ““Linguistics in the premodern world? Just nonsense!”

  1. [The CV in the link is rather old, a more recent one (although it needs updating as well) is found on my Academia page. In any case, one should know that I quit teaching in 2016 at city college after a contractual dispute, which ended in my favor, but left me dispirited and for that and other reasons, I left the school.]

    • Oh, I am sorry for the wrong link (I just copied the one I found in the above mentioned website) and even more for the events you mention and the effects they had on you. Hope the online communitas studiorum will be helpful.
      (Anyway, I will change the link.)

  2. This strikes me as simply a passing comment out of ignorance. One hopes that if he were confronted with the complexity of pre-modern Sanskrit thought and who spoke it, who actually thought it was “the best” and in what way, and with the highly sophisticated analysis of phonology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, and so on, that he would amend his statements to be more qualified. But then his thesis would be less sweeping and far less interesting: some crackpots are drawn to linguistics sometimes, and we have no clear evidence that it is more or less than other fields.

  3. Dorren has since responded to me as follows (I posted the update after my list of recommended reading): “I agree that I could have mentioned Pāṇini as well as certain grammarians in China and the West, for descriptive (and prescriptive) linguistics had reached a high level before William Jones. But all sort of speculation beyond that did indeed produce little but nonsense.” [I confess to wishing he had said ‘I agree that I should have mentioned … ’]

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