Theoretical Linguistics

In this subdiscipline: 7 papers

Discipline summary

A multimedia History
of the World Languages


This work is a formal and interdisciplinary history of literary languages, and it includes mainly ancient Semitic, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese, English, German, and Italian. Spanish and French are occasionally mentioned to support the argument. It is a revision of the origins and dynamic of linguistic development by comparing ancient and modern languages. It illustrates that all literary languages evolved in the same pattern; they grew and mature within the context of its immediate cultural environment. This environment is a repertoire of inherited and imported expressions, such as oral languages (including regional dialects), music, visual images, performing gestures, and foreign languages. The similarity of various world languages lies less in their shared grammatical features, phonetic characteristics or borrowed vocabularies, and more in the way in which each is inspired, motivated and transformed by interaction with diverse cultural media. As the primary dynamic of linguistic evolution, this historic interaction and mutual enrichment determines the initial form, the historic tendency, the formal maturity and transformation of the literary language.

The evolution of literary form has mirrored the human evolution in general. Language has formed the fabric that supports all things philosophical, scientific, and mystic: the very imagination of man.

During contemporary times, linguistic and cultural theories have been focused on the overall structure of languages: the grammar of literary language, the conceptual boundaries of its vocabulary, and the abstract structure (tonality and harmony) of musical language. This abstract approach has missed out the real dynamic of linguistic evolution: accumulation of expressive variations and multitudes. This accumulation process has been driving the growth, establishment, and disintegration of these cultural media. Focusing on appearance rather than inner dynamic of the language development, these theories encounter challenging difficulties as modern languages evolve through fundamental changes during the latter part of the twentieth century.

The limitation of these theories is inherited from the history of the western language in which these theories are constructed. As the youngest and most rapidly evolved language group in global history, these languages had experienced, until the twentieth century, only the formative stage of accumulation in which they established and consolidated their basic structures. As they matured after centuries of growth, the accumulation of expressions began to overwhelm the basic structure and culminate into unprecedented diversity that frustrated their theorists. The only way to go beyond this limitation is to compare the history of western European languages with those in the Middle East and Far East, which have much longer history, and are, in fact, many centuries beyond the point where European languages currently are. From this comparative perspective, one realizes that language will continue to adapt and evolve, but its development has increasingly little to do with the established basic linguistic structure.

In order to extend the scope of research, some basic assumptions that have handicapped linguistic and cultural research during the past decades must be challenged. The first challenge is to the assumed connection between language and ethnical origins which underlies our basic categorization of world languages. This history attempts to illustrate that Linguistic change did not have to have anything to do with migration or ethnical interaction. Language simply changes as it growths; it travels to (adopt) different forms as its life dictates. The second challenge is to the universal pattern that we have forcefully imposed on the history of language. With this yardstick, we issue judgment on the behavior of languages. In fact, there is no right or wrong way to communicate as long as the message is received and understood. If one way does not work, another will be invented. The early start in the linguistic evolution of the Middle East and China led to rich cultural heritage but the burden of the past has substantially slowed their progress and the conservative establishment has smothered innovation. The relative later and shorter accumulation of expression benefited Western Europe and allowed it to become the rising star of global literary creation.

This non-structural approach to linguistic history in terms of accidental and specific interaction between literary language and non-literary expression, and between host language and alien language challenges the presumptions that see language as human faculty or brain function rather than as stimulator and cultivator of the mind. It emphasizes when and how a literary language takes its form, inspired by the languages of music, dance, theatrical (or/and ritual) gestures in specific place and time, and how it adopts or assimilates foreign literary expressions. It illustrates that each literary language has grown, matured, and transformed within a constantly evolving and interactive cultural diversity which shapes its distinct characteristics.

The best historic example of this interaction and its various consequences is the ways in which languages of Europe and the Middle East adopted the Phoenician alphabet. Many language communities in Africa, Mesopotamia, Europe, and China at one time or another independently attempted to create a writing system that reflected the sound of spoken language. It took Egypt and China many centuries to streamline their graphic symbols into a phonetic system due to the complexity of their graphic variations and overlapping connotations symbolized by a large number of signs. Egypt finally decided to adopt foreign alphabetic system, but China created a phonetic yet non-alphabetic system for its syllabic and tonal language that maintained its rich repertoire of graphic vocabulary.

It took many centuries and several linguistic changes for the ancient Semitic (Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian, and many others afterwards) to develop a semi-alphabetic system (only consonants were represented in writing, not the vowels). However, the Phoenician alphabet, which had difficulty to establish itself as a universal language in its own Semitic family, surprisingly triumphed in Europe. It did not take long for the Greeks to add several vowel letters to the Semitic system to enhance written representation of their sophisticated oral language, which had been spoken, sung, danced, and recited in a variety of regional dialects for many centuries. Alphabetic writing became the only way to write after Latin established itself as the predominant literary language of Europe during the Middle Ages. This early world history of literary languages indicates that the origin of a writing system plays a minor role in the formation of a literary language when compared to the process through which the adopted writing system was transplanted and the ways that it functioned in each host culture. In other words, the specific environment of the host culture, which borrowed the writing system, actually defined the forms and functions of the script. The inherited oral language and its degree of maturity and sophistication in fact shaped the history of its written form. As long as the indigenous language survived, its expression, poor or rich, mature or primitive would be carried into its written form. This was the reason why literary languages such as Greek and Arabic were born much more mature and refined compared with their younger neighbors that borrowed the same script.

Another example of the interaction of literary language and other media is the relationship between language (especially poetry) and music. Although the mutual inspiration and influence between language and music has been well recognized, linguists and cultural theorists often have a biased attitude towards unity and separation of words and music. They favor unity and yet are uncomfortable about discussing separation and independence of the two art forms. In fact, the separation between words and music is at least as important and instrumental as its unity in the development of both literary and musical languages. Separation is a crucial pre-condition for both literary language and music to evolve and mature. Language, poetry included, can develop its own music (prosody and speaking rhythm) only after it has distanced itself from musical accompaniment. Music can evolve into a far more advanced language of scale, rhythm, and modulation only after it breaks away from the imprisonment or restraints of text. Classical music and instrumental music of the early twentieth century illustrate this concept. Language can transform awareness from one sense to another only through verbal creativity.

There are endless examples that demonstrate how the development of literary and musical language benefited a great deal from each and every stage of the alternating relationship between unity and separation of words and music. The complete union of Latin text and church music during the medieval period made the development of both language and music stagnant. Rapid evolution of musical language resumed only after the popularity of instrumental music took off and elevated musical imagination into a new height of expressive power. The songwriting and theatre of the Renaissance period in various European cultures played an indispensable role in the formation of vernacular literatures. Each European language formed a distinct relationship with its music according to its phonetic and rhythmic characteristics. Italian, the most singable language in Western Europe, produced the most expressive repertoire of classic and baroque opera, an artistic form that allowed music and poetry to unite seamlessly. German, a language that adapted much less easily to music produced the most talented composers of instrumental music. The abstract character of German music also nourished generations of musicians whose imagination eventually expanded the formal foundation of the classic music and paved the path for the evolution of music during the twentieth century. English, after centuries of adaptation and assimilation of continental idioms, had finally found its partner in modern music, which was the most compatible to its speech rhythm. English is now the most popular and widespread language used in modern musical lyrics. Modern music, which radically enlarged the formal horizon of traditional Western music, can now express a range of emotions as wide, sophisticated, refined and as subtle as poetry.

The interactive relationship of words and music can also be observed in non-European languages. China developed a highly sophisticated musical culture well before the West. A historic survey of Chinese music from the third Millennium BC to Sung dynasty (AD 960–1279) is equivalent to the entire major history of European music up to the nineteenth century. The Chinese orchestras of 1000 BC that played regularly at the Zhou royal court included more than a hundred instruments of wind, string, and percussion. Without a visual musical notation system similar to that of the West (Chinese wrote music in words rather than staff), Chinese music language quickly became extremely lyrical and personal. However, Chinese poetry relied heavily on music to provide its expressive form. Every genre of Chinese lyric poetry originated from a type of song, the form of which became the compositional foundation of poetic expression. This co-dependent relationship with music was one of the reasons why Chinese became a tonal language capable of expressing a wide range of emotions. Rich, multi-layered hues of images, emotional variations, and subtleties of expression in Chinese classic poetry surpassed that of poetry written in any existing language except Arabic.

The Arabic that emerged from the Arabian Peninsula was already a mature poetic language at the time that it was first being written. Its vibrant rhythms and highly developed and polished imageries had no contemporary equal in Western literature until the modern period. Unlike the ancient Greek, which was also a mature and sophisticated language when it was first written but manifested itself in many literary genres of different and competing dialects, Qur’anic Arabic established itself as an authoritative voice throughout the Middle East and a part of Europe. Islamic literature had codified not only its written language but also its pronunciation. By using the vowel markings in the book of Qur’an, standard Arabic pronunciation [fusha] was recited uniformly as it traveled around the world. Arabic in form of rhyming prose, like the literary Chinese, became the backbone of a tradition that was able to assimilate and tolerate regional dialects without losing its dominant position. Western Europe did not produce a universal language of the same depth, magnitude and duration until the successes of Modern English and Spanish.

To write a history of language in the paradigm of this concrete diversity and influx, the framework of neatly structured linguistic categories has to be undermined. Like water, language never travels the same path twice and it has no specific road map to follow. It turns at each location and time according to the specific interactive stage of its development and its specific relationship with various media and languages. No language has exclusive rights to any particular kind of grammatical structure or literary form. There is neither winner nor loser in the history of language. Literary history is a process of accumulation of expressive variations and refinement; each language presents a different mixture of different genres in different degrees of refinement. Only the languages that have the capacity to diversify, assimilate, and accumulate variations can survive, expand, and refine themselves enough to embrace an increasing number of speakers and writers.

If there is something universal about the histories of the world languages, it is much more than grammar or phonology. The universal characteristics of natural languages lie in the evolution of changing forms that alter tone and rhythm, define meaning, expand connotation, and renovate structure. Non-verbal expression, such as music and visual and performing image within the immediate environment provide constant inspiration for growth and refinement. The dynamic of linguistic evolution lies in its interaction with the non-linguistic forms of expression as well as the interaction among various levels of expression within the same language: oral, written, national, regional, prose, poetry, literary and dialectic expressions.

If language history is a universal process where formal variations and refinements accumulate, the way in which each language reaches this goal can be very different. For example, the earliest language that evolved in relative isolation often took the longest time to create a system capable of making complex distinctions while keeping pace with its various vernaculars and regional dialects. The more variations a literary language accumulated, the more complex it became; it would be more difficult for it to change as quickly as its oral language. Both Latin and Biblical Hebrew, whose religious and secular scholars had developed highly advanced languages of learning and spiritual pursuits, became so abstract that they lost their appeal to ordinary speakers who had to find a more relevant and worldly alternative language. When a language becomes a tool of worship rather than the everyday instrument of communication, it uproots itself from speech, and fades away in popular usage.

The emergence of modern European languages is the most obvious illustration of this kind of linguistic reorientation. During this reorientation, new vernaculars had begun a new process of accumulation, often following the Latin model, as Latin was the only learned language that Western Europeans had ever known at the time. However, different European languages found their own ways to grow depending on their closeness or distance from the Latin model. It was inevitable that Italian was the first European vernacular to mature as a literary language because its Italic roots made it easier to build a new tradition. Although under the same ideological influence of Latin tradition, it took Germanic languages relatively longer to accumulate their own repertoire of expressions. However, compared to Chinese, European languages represent a miraculous achievement in linguistic history. They arrived at similar degrees of expressive efficiency and sophistication in only a fraction of time.

The European short cut for rapid linguistic accumulation was to borrow and adopt rather than reinvent. Like a writing system, a relatively more mature poetic form could be borrowed and transplanted into another language where it was taken for granted as a syntactical structure, detached from the indigenous music that gave its birth. For example, Greek hexameter was transplanted into Latin, and sonnet, invented by French troubadours, flourished in Italian first, and was then transplanted into Spanish, English and German. Chinese poetic form was transplanted in Japanese and Korean. However, once transplanted, the new form began a new life. It changed its sound, rhythm, perceptions, as well as its sentiment. Some transplanted forms are nothing but a fashionable flair and others become an important part of the local literary establishment. The compatibility and kinship between its original and host languages define the life span of a transplanted literary form.

This study does not intend to pass judgment on the achievement and shortcoming of any particular language. Rather, it attempts to explore the historic process during which these characteristics formulated and retained. The concept of English, Latin, Chinese, or Semitic, are linguistic and cultural terms without any ethnical connotation. Cultural and linguistic features here are seen mainly as inherited rather chosen, even for the best writers in all languages.

This multimedia literary history is described in the following four parts, each of which focuses on a specific aspect during one period of language evolution. The first part is the invention and development of world writing systems. The second is the formation of poetry between music and words. The third is the cultivation of literary imagery, which enables the mind to see, hear, and gesture with eyes closed, hands frozen and in silence as literary language matures.

PART ONE: Giving Picture a Voice: from Graphic to Phonetic Language is an early history of writing systems of the world. The linguistic research of the past two centuries has proved that world languages do not have to come from a single origin, ethnic or geographic, as many eighteenth and nineteenth century linguists once believed. The ability to speak and to write is as human as the urge to hunt fish and farm although the ways in which man writes differ according to his inherited cultures. Writing has been attempted originally and independently in the Middle East, Europe, Africa, the Far East, and Americas. However, the majority of societies ended up borrowing an alien writing system instead of reinventing their own.

Chapter 1, From Pictures to Symbols, describes and compares the histories of Egyptian, Sumerian and Chinese writings. It focuses on how these three languages which had invented highly sophisticated graphic symbols developed their phonic systems which seemed to be the key to build a vital link with the ever-changing spoken languages. It was a lengthy and painful evolution and each of these cultures found distinct ways to cope with linguistic and dialectic diversity.

Chapter 2, From pictorial to phonetic writing, is a more detailed picture of how Egyptian, Sumerian/Akkadian, and Chinese abstracted symbols of sound from their vast pools of graphic symbols. It focuses on the comparison of the Middle Eastern and Chinese solutions and the ramifications of these actions. The Semitic succeeded in transplanting symbols from one language (Egyptian and Sumerian) into another language (Akkadian, Babylonian, and Assyrian). This transplantation made it possible for the signs, which had original meanings in the original language, to be used as pure phonetic sign (alphabets in a primitive sense) rather than idiotic symbol. Chinese succeeded in what Egyptian failed to do; that was to reduce the symbol of ideas into radicals representing sound and combine these phonetic radicals and symbols of meaning into a single word. It took Chinese several centuries to transform the entire language from a mainly graphic to a phonetic system. This transition eventually found a way to maintain the graphic symbols within a mainly phonically organized system.

Chapter 3, Writing in Alphabet, is a comparative study of alphabetic and non-alphabetic language from a global perspective. The success of an alphabetic system depends on a simple and immediate relationship between writing and speaking. A system that could transliterate the sound of any spoken language was especially appealing to a formative language when it lacked (or before it had an opportunity to develop) sophisticated written expressions. This was the reason why Semitic-writing systems found it easier to establish in Europe than they did in the Middle East, where different languages had borrowed Sumerian/Akkadian symbols to various degrees and produced a mixed system. The weakness of an alphabetic system is that it is too sensitive to phonetic change, such as regional dialects, which made it difficult to stabilize and sustain. What is easy to be adopted is also easy to be overthrown and abandoned; any variant pronunciation could be written down and proclaimed as a new language. Latin was overthrown by its own vernaculars, which were initially various pronunciations for the same language. For the same reason, Hindi and other regional languages of India decrowned Sanskrit; Aramaic replaced Hebrew as spoken language.

PART TWO: Singing the Words to Making words Sing: The Music of Language is a history of the relationship between formative language and music, which includes old and middle Chinese, ancient and mediaeval Greek, Latin, Germanic, and Romance languages before modern period. It took many centuries for poetry (especially poetry that grows in relative isolation) to evolve into an independent art form. When and how a literature achieves this is dependent on its historic relationship with music. This relationship is often shaped and reshaped by two separate issues within the literary evolution of a given language: first, the level of maturity of the language and the second, the interaction between the rhythm of the language and the rhythm of music which embraces the poetry.

Literary language took different paths to mature, often through long immersion with various forms of music or through adaptation of various literary forms from their parent or neighboring languages. The ancient Chinese and Greek are examples of the former, where music shaped the tone and rhythm of the language. The Middle Chinese, medieval Greek, Latin and most modern European languages are examples of the latter, where music provided structural form for literary languages after they had distanced themselves from music. The languages of South Asia and those of the Middle East began as the former and evolved into the latter through change of literary languages, from Sanskrit to various regional languages of India and from Ancient Semitic to Hebrew and Arabic.

Chapter 4, Sound of Music and the Formation of Language, describes the relationship between music and the phonetic characteristics of formative languages. It mainly focuses on ancient Chinese, Greek, and, to a lesser extent, Sanskrit. It studies how music (indigenous and foreign music) defined the sound and rhythm of the spoken language and its regional variations. It analysis the different roles that music played in creating a basic form of literary language and how this base linked with its regional dialects. It also illustrates how spoken language changed its rhythm after it no longer required a musical background.

Chapter 5, Rhythm of Language without Music, demonstrates how poetry changed after it distanced itself from music. Poetry developed new forms according to the rhythm of spoken language; a process that created and manipulated rhythmic distinctions. This process is illustrated with two comparisons. One is a comparison between the formal history of Chinese poetry and those of Greek and Latin poetry; the other is a comparison between the histories of formative Italian, Spanish, German, English, and French, and highlights how each language found poetic form compatible to its speaking rhythm and how poetry contributed to the phonetic evolution of the written language.

Chapter 6, Music free from Text, is a comparative study of the history of Western, Chinese, and Arabic music in terms of their relationships with literary languages. Like literature, Western music is the youngest and currently most vigorous musical tradition in the world. Its vitality emerges from its enormous diversity (as it freely adopts language from other parts of the world) and a freedom of form, which was impossible to achieve within single traditional language that has been tamed by its unique literature. The most extreme example of this freedom is demonstrated by the German musical imagination, a music of the mind and eyes as well as sound because German poetry, more than any other western languages, is a poetry of the mind.

PART THREE Hands of Words and Eyes of Mind: Literary Imagery is a history of dramatic (including ritualistic) presentation and literary imagery in Greek, Latin, Chinese, Germanic and Romance languages. It focuses on the accumulation of visual distinctions of languages inside their distinct cultural environments. It challenges the linguistic assumption that the origins of imagination lie in the general faculty of mind by illustrating that the mind’s visual ability (the ability to imagine without a physical vision) is cultivated by languages, which varies from culture to culture during different times and places.

Like music, performing and visual images played different roles in the history of literature in both formative and mature languages. A mature language would provide a large collection of verbal imageries while a formative language was poorly equipped for visual refinement. In other words, a literary language adopted different forms of performing and writing to enhance its visual capacity, which in turn, added to its visual repertoire.

Chapter 7, Pre-Literary Theatre and Language, is a formal history of pre-literary theatre (including ritualistic theatre) in various languages in terms of their relationship with the evolution of literary language. It is intended to be compared to the post-literary theatre that will be discussed in the next chapter. Most distinguished theatrical traditions were created by emerging languages, such as ancient Greek, Latin, Renaissance English, French, and Spanish. However, written language could be created by reading and writing alone without full-bloomed theatre, playwrights and script-driven performance. Good examples of this are Chinese, most Semitic languages, and early modern Spanish and Russian, each of which managed to cultivate literary poetry and distinct narrative before and/or even without dramatic display.

Chapter 8, Post-Literary Theatre and Language, compares the role of musical theatre and literary theatre in a formative and a mature language. It focuses on the timing and function of musical theatre in the formative languages such as ancient Greek and Renaissance English and the mature languages such as Chinese, Italian, and the Modern English and German. It demonstrates that musical theatre contributes differently in the development of literature depending on the degree of refinement of the language, which is reflected by the familiarity and expectations of the audience for the production. The difference between American musical theatre of the early twentieth century and European or Chinese theatre is that the former comes to the theatre to be immersed in the plot and/or to hear the new songs; the latter comes to see a specific performer because the entire play, its arias, and even every single note are already in their memory.

Chapter 9, Mind’s Eyes and Literary Imagery, studies the relationship between the degrees of depth and refinement of poetic imagery that was created by each literary language and the length of time in which this process occurred in different cultural environment. This relationship is explored and analyzed in the histories of Chinese, British English, and American English poetry. The degrees of refinement that separates these languages derived from various degrees in which these languages were capable of depicting and distinguishing various sensual experiences. Language became capable of distinguishing visual details and stimulating the mind and allowed it to see, hear, smell, touch, and feel as poetic imagery became varied and refined with shades of subtlety.

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