Diachronic or Synchronic?

I love my linguistics classes, I really do. They’re fun and informative, and I’m convinced that having a grounding in modern linguistics will enable me to make connections the old guard never could in ancient languages. (I already have some arguments with some of my textbooks based upon what we now know about language in general as opposed to what a native speaker of English can guess based upon ancient evidence.) My only complaint is that modern linguists seem to think of historical linguistics as a quaint curiosity at best, and utter rubbish at worst. Even that wouldn’t be so bad if their concern was people’s tendency to think of historical linguistics when they think of linguistics at all (because it’s entirely true that historical linguistics is a discipline of the humanities, whereas modern linguistics is a burgeoning science), but they attempt to impose their methods upon historical languages, which is problematic at best. As my Linguistics of Signed Languages teacher was wont to say, “Linguistics is not the study of language, but of how the mind processes and produces language;” however, we don’t have any ancient minds to study, besides which we are more interested in figuring out how languages came to be as they are, since that is the only way we have to reconstruct even older, less complete languages.

As a very basic example of this method, a knowledge of how syntax and phonetics and phonology work would not have helped Jørgen Alexander Knudtzon to translate Hittite for the first time in 1902; it was his ability to trace the similarities between Hittite and German through the millennia that allowed him to do so. Modern theoretical linguistics is all well and good, and it is leading to new discoveries and new fields every day, but at the expense of the historical aspects. The study of history is slowly dying out in spite of the fact that historians are only now learning truly to separate fact and educated guess from culturally-inspired opinion, and no aspect of history has suffered more than historical linguistics, courses in which have become few and far between. I will be one of four Classics majors graduating from my 52,000-student university this year, and one of only two majoring in Greek and Latin rather than classical humanities; finding a graduate program for non-classical ancient Indo-European (IE) languages has been next to impossible.

Closer to home for me, I recently found myself wondering why ancient Greek had two possible ways to express the agent of a passive verb (usually with ὑπο (or sometimes another preposition) followed by a noun in the genitive, but followed by a noun in the dative when the verb is in the perfect or pluperfect tense), and pondered aloud that it might have something to do with the fact that Greek was once upon a time an imported language (ie: the local non-IE language might have used one method, and the IE dialect the other, and they merged over time), or that ProtoIE (PIE) had a separate instrumental case which might have descended into the two versions which later merged when two dialects came together. The professor before whom I made these suppositions scolded me for thinking diachronically rather than synchronically. Just because modern linguists have learned that synchronic thought is more likely to be useful in figuring out how something works, they dismiss diachronic thinking out of hand.

This is a problem in most sciences, actually: Once one method is learned to work, any other method is ridiculed, especially if it is an older one. The thing is, though, it is unscientific to dismiss any method out of hand without examining its benefits and disadvantages. In this case, synchronic analysis of language is less useful for figuring out how language works (which is admittedly what most linguists are doing these days), but diachronic analysis is more useful for figuring out why a language uses its framework the way it does (which was the question I posed).

If you’re a linguist and you aren’t yet convinced of my defense for the diachronic method, let’s work through this. First, let me say that “synchronic” is a bit of a misnomer, as linguists are perfectly willing to use Latin for data, and that hasn’t been spoken in the form most people learn it for over a thousand years. A more reasonable distinction would be “cross-linguistically” rather than “diachronically” (across languages rather than across time). So, cross-linguistically I can look at how a passive and its agent work into a syntactic tree (it’s actually fairly simple to draw even using Principles and Parameters, but I’m lazy and don’t feel like having to use more than just Notepad for this, so I won’t) or the semantics of the construction (which is harder (at least for me), but essentially identical no matter what construction is used to form the agent of the passive), and I can just look at the literal versus idiomatic translations, and here’s what I can come up with: while individual languages select for a specific case, the only requirement cross-linguistically is that the agent of the passive be some case other than nominative, accusative, or vocative, usually with a preposition of some sort, as an adjunct to the verb phrase. In fact, here’s a list (original, followed by word-for-word translation, followed by translation):

  • English: The agent is a dative in a dative construction
    • The apple is being eaten by me.
  • German: The agent is a dative in a genitive/ablative construction
    • Der Apfel ist von mir gegessen.
    • The apple is of/from me(dat.) eaten.
    • The apple is being eaten by me.
  • French: The agent is a dative in a dative construction identical to English
    • Le pomme est mangé par moi.
    • The apple is eaten by me(dat.)
    • The apple is being eaten by me.
  • Latin: The agent is an ablative (in an ablative construction)
    • Pomum (ab) me edetur.
    • Apple (from) me(abl.) eat(3rdsing.pres.indic.pass.).
    • The apple is being eaten by me.
  • Greek:
    • In present, the agent is a genitive (in a dative construction)
      • ὁ μίλος (ὑπο)(παρά)(ἀπο) ἐμοῦ ἐσθίεται (ho milos (hupo)(para)(apo) emou esthietai)
      • The apple (under)(about)(before) of-me eat(3rdsing.pres.indic.pass.).
      • The apple is being eaten by me.
    • In perfect, the agent is a dative (in a dative construction)
      • ὁ μίλος (ὑπο) έμοὶ ἤσθιται (ho milos (hupo) emoi êsthitai)
      • The apple (under) to/for-me eat(3rdsing.perf.indic.pass.).
      • The apple has been eaten by me.

Furthermore, Hittite and PIE (languages I don’t know well enough to give examples) both had a separate instrumental case, used only for agent of the passive and instrument (as in “I ate the apple with my teeth.”) So, what does synchronic/cross-linguistic analysis tell us? That Greek has two methods of indicating the agent of the passive simply because it can. My oh my, what a useful tool.

On the other hand, I would expect that, had we sufficient information (say, if very early Linear B writings were found, or if some Ugaritic tablet were found that contained transliterations of pre-literary Greek), then I would expect there to be enough evidence to discover a “why” through the reconstruction of the process by which that older version of Greek became the epic and classical Greek with which most scholars are familiar. This might not add much to learning how languages work, I’ll admit, and therefore might not be of much interest to a modern linguist, but unlike the synchronic method at least it has the potential to answer my question. For all I know there is already enough information based upon other IE languages that I simply haven’t had a chance to read about yet.

I’m not trying to put down modern scholarship, understand. I just don’t like how it completely eclipses older scholarship to the point of insulting it, especially when that older scholarship is the foundation without which the modern scholarship would not exist.

On a completely unrelated note, I’ve been working on a logo. It’s simple but effective; I just have to get it on a clean page and scan it or borrow my tablet and draw it in Photoshop.


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