by Julia Rosalinda de Boer
“Why, Julia, would 2017 be a fantastic year to be a grammarian? Don’t you know that instruction in ancient languages is at an all time low, that many adults struggle to locate the predicate in a sentence, and English enjoys a smug, linguistic superiority? Why, why is it a good time for grammar?”
Thank you, conveniently-place Rhetorical Other; I’ll tell you. It is true that the wider communal appreciation for the grammatical arts appears to have fallen, a trend which is in no way indicative of the overall health of linguistic philosophy as an actual discipline. Linguistics is finding such good health within our beloved Philosophy that occasionally a fellow student or a philosopher I am reading will figuratively or literally roll their eyes backwards into their skull when a language lover interjects to point out that everything, after all, comes back to language. It seems to me that philosophy is still reeling from the linguistic turn, with the realization that if “constitutive language theory” is correct and grammar is not a mere affective phenomenon which can be perfected through pain, language precedes even thought itself and cannot be passed aside in any hearty philosophical consideration.
If I speak in idealistic terms about the current state of linguistic philosophy, it is because I see it as brimming with possibility. We’ve had this linguistic turn, our own copernican revolution, and structuralism is starting to lose its iron clad grasp. It’s not that I am not convinced of Saussure, Lévi-Strauss or Chomsky’s attempts to analyze the underlying form of language; in fact I am a linguist by first training. Rather, I see the tension that arises when we claim the sign is completely arbitrary. These are discussions still ongoing in the academy today. The fact is, we are creatures of meaning, and we imbue meaning into the words that we use and signs that we employ. Of course there are underlying structures of language, and these can tell us more about a human’s capacity for communication, but there must be a balance between saying the sign is sometimes arbitrary, on one hand, and on the other, acknowledging that because we are creatures who seek to add or uncover meaning we must account for intuition in some manner (consider onomatopoeias and similar words where meaning is encoded in the lexical stem). This is why constitutive language theory (language as preceding and indeed enabling thought at all) is so significant: by saying that language is primary to everything, including thought, language can be analyzed for the way in which it does structure our thought, while still permitting it to be an instinctual practice, where language is almost our primary sense.
Speaking of senses, philosophers of hermeneutics (Richard Kearney and Brian Treanor’s volume, Carnal Hermeneutics, springs to mind) are beginning to lament the valuing of sight and sound above the senses of taste and touch. This is an incredibly important critique, and a problem that can only be solved, in my opinion, with constitutive language theory. There has been, and will be, a privileging of language, because it is primary. But in some ways, being aware that it is primary, allows us to “shelve it” and move on. I do not mean “shelve it” to be a negative valencing, but rather to mean that since language is now conceived of some outer shell of linguistic sensitivity which makes thought and sensation possible, we do not need to worry about language superseding other sensations, but understand them in relation to one another (i.e. How does grammar shape our conceptions of touch and sensual experience, and vice versa). Not to sound too normative, but to each its own place, and good riddance. Perhaps you will find I have not actually opened space for such hermeneutics of taste and touch because I’ve primarily justified them in terms of language. I admit, it’s a vicious circle. Mea culpa, but also, meum gaudium.
Language is not logical. It does not simply exist to say something true about our reality. It is not a picture of how things are. Sure, it can be used to speak of things which may be logical, true, or real, but we do not speak only in declarative sentences, nor do we only name things. We also use language to communicate possibility and desire, emotions so often at odds with how things are in reality. In this regard, our definition of what language accomplishes expands, and resists the account given by logical positivists. Truly, knowing that linguistic sensitivity comes first and cannot be or should not be treated as only an a posteriori experience means that we have given up whipping our school children for their “poor” English (or Latin as the case may be) and have instead started to value differences in speech as distinct epistemological possibility. I’m optimistic that we will see a greater valuing of diverse grammar, both in our native tongue and foreign languages.
So what is the point in learning good grammar in light of these things? My estimation is that this linguistic turn allows the possibility of reconciliation with the speculative framings of language from earlier on in our shared cultural heritage; that of the ancients and medievals. Our speech or internal dialogue is not a phenomena which develop when we interact with the world, but rather the mechanism by which we are able to interact with the world at all. And that is an insight which is by no means absent from ancient and medieval thought, something that I recognize when reading Anselm on the two types of rightness/truth demonstrated by language, or read the speculative Modistae as they comment on the ways in which language has helped us paint what is at times a very accurate picture of the life around us. It is always difficult to know how to evaluate linguistic theory before Wittgenstein’s turn, but reading philosophers under the “old system” try to account for the instinct of language is the way that I have begun to bridge this vast difference in paradigms. What they saw keenly is that we are linguistic beings, made to interact with each other and with God, by and through language. Such a spirit supersedes any theory of linguistic philosophy.
My life of faith has called be to ask a new question: how do we, knowing what we now know about the a priori nature of a human’s capacity for language, now reintroduce value into grammar? What constitutes good grammar when correctness is no longer the goal? My Christian life constantly causes me to ask how my grammar, to even the most fiddly, minute detail, can be used to honour God and promote love. It is the calling of a Christian to begin the process of discerning, and this having identified instinct or intuition as the tie between these two accounts of human linguistically, I’ve grown to think that an aesthetic apparatus of judgment might be extremely appropriate. An aesthetic discussion of syntax and morphology might eliminate some of the problems raised by various camps of linguists and linguistic philosophers by providing an analysis which takes into account both beauty and effectiveness. I have more questions than answers at this point, which makes 2017 a fantastic year to be a grammarian.
Julia de Boer is a Latinist and linguist by training, who began a Master’s at ICS when she had too many questions about the interactions between faith and human capacity for language. Her thesis work is still ongoing, but projected to include liturgy, invented languages, and J.R.R. Tolkien.