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This past weekend I finished reading R.M.W. Dixon’s Basic Linguistic Theory: Volume 1 Methodology.  I came across a passage that struck a particular chord:

…people sometimes say how lucky it was that the great anthropologist Evans-Pritchard chose to work on Nuer society, from the Sudan.  His analytic skills were able to reveal the manifold complexities of Nuer life.  This is in fact little comment on the Nuer, simply on Evans-Pritchard.  Such was his excellence that, whatever society he had chosen to study, he would have made it seem fascinating.[1]

The specific context of this remark is Dixon’s advice on how to be a good fieldworker and to document a language competently.  He notes that a competent linguist might produce a solid, detailed grammar of Language X, while a less competent colleague might produce a slim and superficial grammar of neighboring Language Y; based on this work, outside observers might conclude that the first linguist was lucky to have found something as complex and interesting as Language X, while Language Y “is a rather simple and dull language.”  The truth, he argues, “is that X and Y are equally complex and interesting, if analysed in the right way.”  The problem lies in the skill of the analyst, not in the inherent qualities of either language.

I doubt that very many of us spend much time reading descriptive grammars of underdescribed languages, so we’re not necessarily getting our impressions from field linguists (of varying skill).  Most of the prejudices the general public has against a particular kind of language has to do with the more pernicious prejudices against race, ethnicity, and class.  This is a point I’ve probably made before and I will definitely make again:  There really is no such thing as a “primitive” language, and societies that have historically been classified as “primitive” tend to have linguistic complexities unfathomable to a speaker of a dominant language (see this quiz for specific examples).

Every society has the “manifold complexities” that Evans-Pritchard revealed in the Nuer people, and every language has the manifold complexities that Dixon has revealed in the communities of Australia and Fiji and Brazil where he has worked.  If we outside observers find a particular language, a particular culture, a particular way of life somehow “simple” or “dull,” that is a failure of perception and imagination on our parts.


[1] Dixon, R.M.W. (2010). Basic Linguistic Theory. Volume 1 Methodology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. pp. 313-4

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