On grammar books, linguistics, ancient demons and epistemological luddism

As far as scientific disciplines go, linguistics is probably not the most contentious that springs to mind. And yet, in the last few days, Greek linguistics has become the centre of a seemingly ludicrous controversy over a school textbook.

Interested readers can find details about the ‘vowel controversy’ here (in Greek). In a nutshell, the grammar book in question defines vowels as parts of the phonological system (noting that they are five), whereas some older textbooks defined vowels as letters in the alphabet (noting that there are seven). This discrepancy is due to the imperfect correspondence between the phonological and orthographical systems, i.e., because some vowel sounds can be spelled in more then one ways. In fact, raising awareness of this mismatch seems to be an intended learning objective. But for certain teachers, teaching phonology constitutes part of a sinister plan conceived by “Greece-hating linguists”, who are intent on dumbing down spelling and on paving the way for the eventual replacement of the Greek alphabet by the Latin script. These beliefs have been rather vociferously propagated in the social and mainstream media, where they were mixed with unsubstantiated claims about directives from Berlin to cut costs by simplifying spelling, or with warnings that such changes might make Greek comparable to other, ‘inferior’ languages.

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If you are explaining, you’re losing.

It is not my intention to respond to such concerns here. These have already been addressed by the book authors, teacher associations, a prominent authority on the Greek language, and an ad hoc group of 140 linguists (update: as of 2019, these links have gone inactive). Besides, similar concerns have been addressed, repeatedly, with reference to French, Arabic and other languages. Plus, I am conscious of the futility of any attempt to explain the primacy of speech or language evolution to those few individuals who demonstrably fail to distinguish between the phonemic and the orthographic systems. It seems to me that if the teachers in question were unable to grasping fundamentals of linguistics during their four-year teacher education courses, my own modest posts should not aspire to much.

Rather, what motivated this post is my intense surprise at the following statement by Mr Polydoras, the erudite former Speaker of the House of Representatives. The statement is reproduced in its entirety below, followed by a translation of my own:

Μετά λύπης μου, όπως διαβάζω στις εφημερίδες «Δημοκρατία», «Ελεύθερο Τύπο», «Αδέσμευτο Τύπο», «Εστία», «Βραδυνή», «Έθνος» και «Νέα» πρόκειται περί οργανωμένου σχεδίου. Η διάλυση της γραμματικής και της γλώσσας γίνεται με… «επιστημονική» υποστήριξη βαρέος πυροβολικού 140 πανεπιστημιακών! Δεν είναι λάθος ή αμέλεια. Είναι «προμελέτη». Μας λέγουν με πρωτοφανή οίηση: «Πώς τολμάτε, εσείς οι μη λέκτορες, οι μη ειδικοί, οι μη γλωσσολόγοι, οι αγράμματοι, μ’ ένα λόγο να αντιστέκεσθε;». Επομένως, ΠΟΛΕΜΟΣ! Γρηγορείτε Συνέλληνες!

I was saddened to read in [a bizarre assortment of broadsheets and tabloids] that this is an organized plan. The dismantlement of our grammar and our language is being implemented with the heavy artillery…“scientific” support of 140 academics! This [the discussion of vowels] is no mistake or oversight. It’s “premeditation”. They are asking us, with scorn that is unheard of: “How dare you resist, you non-lecturers, non-experts, non-linguists, in nuce illiterate people?” Therefore, it is WAR! Fellow Greeks, on the alert!

One cannot help but admire the conviction of Mr Polydoras’ beliefs, who seems to have decided that, since he is not formally qualified to engage in the scientific description of language, then scientific grounding cannot be all that important. One is also compelled to commend his moderation: unlike his Grace the Bishop of Piraeus, who recently described CERN scientists as “puppets possessed by the ancient demon”, the Speaker accuses linguists of nothing more nefarious than premeditated language planning. But even if there were a plot to reduce the number of vowels in the alphabet by two, I am wondering whether the declaration of war against a book, its authors, their colleagues and science in general, might be something of an over-reaction. And that’s going by the standards of a nation who have taken up arms over loose women and stray dogs.

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It is precisely because this statement by Mr Speaker is so amazingly passionate that it commands careful attention. Starting as scholarly quibbling, this ludicrous controversy seems to have attained the status of what Blommaert might call a ‘linguistic ideological debate’, a debate that fuses social concerns, religious beliefs and political considerations. At the core of this debate, I believe, is a concern about who is entitled to provide answers to the questions that matter: those who have demonstrable expertise, or those who can rally popular support? The danger which prompted this call to arms, it seems, is that if theoretical or empirical support can be brought to bear on an issue such as linguistics, or education, then there’s nothing to stop the principle from being extended to, say, economics. Seen from this perspective, Mr Polydoras’ insistence on framing the debate in oppositional terms, his disingenuous construction of threats where none exist, and his rallying calls against scientific elitism when none was implied, reveal more than just an inability to understand nuanced positions. ‘Academics are not to be trusted’, the politician seems to say, the unstated implication presumably being that we should trust him and the political system of which he is a prominent member.

The position of the academic community on the linguistic aspects of the debate has been stated with unequivocal clarity. It is that linguistics is a descriptive discipline. Put differently, it is that linguists can only influence the way we think about language, but not language itself (much like astronomers can only influence what we know about the heavens, but cannot change the trajectories of stars). To echo David Crystal, it is difficult to know what our options might be when a dispassionate and objectively framed position is countered with unsubstantiated accusations and conspiracy theories. Crystal suggested that “younger, better-built and more explosive linguists would probably go and punch [the accuser] in the nose“, whereas “older, flabbier and mild-mannered ones have to be content with simply restating their position“. So here goes, once more: There is no evidence of a conspiracy against the Greek language. None whatsoever. Those who talk about plots against the language are either hiding their evidence or lying. And one is compelled to ask why they are lying.

Nevertheless, the language is under attack: Among the true threats one can count linguistic conservatism, i.e. the misguided attempts to artificially arrest the development of the language. One can also count epistemological luddism, the scaremongering ideology which seeks to prevent advances in the scientific study of anything simply because they are new, and because they challenge the existing state of affairs. It is my view that, any possible good intentions notwithstanding, the ‘indignant’ teachers and their political patrons are guilty of both, and that the influence they continue to exercise on public affairs entails dangers that transcend linguistics.

Featured image: The Zosimaia Academy, a bastion of pre-scientific knowledge. Photo Credit: PhotoIoannina CC BY-NC | Embedded images by GettyImages


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