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Trolling for languages

Sej Mac skring at banet.net
Fri Jul 3 12:07:03 EST 1998

Sej Mac wrote:

>Greek and Latin *are* "dead" languages insofar as they cannot change as
>as those we call "English," "French," etc.

F. Frank LeFever wrote:

> Hmmmm...  I thought Latin and Greek HAD changed, fairly
> drastically--into modern Greek and into several Romance languages
> (Italian being just the most obvious; cf. also French, Catalan,
> Spanish, Portugese, Romanian...)
> Or are you just celebrating a tautology?  Classical Greek cannot change
> or else it would not be Classicval Greek; ditto Latin.
> Just to steer this OUTRAGEOUSLY OFF-TOPIC thread back a bit closer to
> neuroscience: a smattering of Greek and Latin makes neuroanatomical
> terms into something more than arbitrary "nonsense words" or "codes"
> and thereby easier to remember.

You're right; this thread HAS become outrageously off-topic, but Net
discussions---like vocal conversations---inevitably "grow" (like Topsy);
i.e., digress far out of range, even when presided over by a chairman,
moderator, classroom teacher, etc.  But, as long as it is interesting  :-)

Note the tenses between my statement of language change, and those in your
response. Of course classical Latin and Greek cannot change, now..  Today's
"English" is replete with words and phrases from classical L & Gr, and the
vocabularic form  has not changed much.  But in many cases the semantics
have, even, perhaps particularly, in the last few decades.  "English" is
changing classical Greek & Latin.  Where do you put that in the pigeon
holes of linguistics?

Neuroscience (and cognitive science) does not include merely a smattering
of Greek & Latin terms, nor are the terms in these "dead" languages
confined to anatomy.  No need to get long winded or arcane to demonstrate:
_neurology_,  _cognition_, _phenomena_, _psychology_, _neurotransmitter,
deviate, divide (etc),  eidetic,  system, qualitative,/quantity,
capacity/or, perception, reproduction, principle, investigate, experiment,
research, subject/object, requirement,  photoreceptor, tolerance_, . . .
apart from articles, prepositions, and other connective terms, one would be
hard-put to find A-S words in any document from either of these areas---or
from any science or scholarly endeavor.

I think what you mean by "smattering of Greek and Latin makes
terms into something more than arbitrary "nonsense words" or "codes"
and thereby easier to remember"  is that neuro-, cognitive, and all
sciences, for that matter, select and use words *referent-specifically.*
The grotesque general abuse of our inherited vocabulary from many past
cultures notwithstanding, *no* word is an arbitrary nonsense syllable.  Far
in the distant past, culture groups assigned a particular referent to a
vocalizable sound, and that vocal sound then became the auditory label for
the (mental image of) that and only that referent (referential class,
actually).   The label was not important, so in that respect you might say
its selection was arbitrary, and, prior to referent assignment, a "nonsense
syllable."  The *referent* was all-important, as the primary natural role
of cognition in survival and homeostasis is to acquire, store, process, and
recall *referents,* those nonverbal thingies for which words stand.  It is
the *referent* of a code label which gives value to the label, not the
other way round (reification), because, as any office or lab worker well
knows, if you lose the label assigned to a referent (file folder, petrie
dish), the chances of losing the referent itself (from cognition) are very

Scientists tend to say that "science uses words differently from the
general public," without specifying that difference.  Referent specificity
is that difference. A case in point is that S. J. Gould once complained
bitterly that some in his general field of biology were adopting a word for
one referent (class of same) to apply to a very different one (can't
offhand recall the word).  His ire did not stem from some petty
professional snobbery, but from the resulting ambiguity of such a shift.

Linguists are fond of the creed "language evolves," is dynamic, without
paying due notice to, or *closely* studying, the factors, variables, and
conditions which bring about that "evolution."  Moreover, linguists tend to
study language as a thing-in-itself---morphology and phonology, speech
physiology, grammar,  syntax, . . .  independent from cognition. Even
semanticisits treat the "meanings" of words as if the words and meanings
were independent of any mind.  The closest to cognition they get, in the
main, is "culture."

It seems to me that cognitive scientists, if not also neuroscientists,
should be more exacting in their expections toward the scientific
understanding of language and the complex roles it plays in cognitive
functioning, for better or *worse;* and more exacting in their expectations
toward the scientific  understanding of cognition and the complex roles it
plays in causing linguistic "evolution."   By far the greatest cause of
language "evolution" has been, since earliest times, ignorance and language
abuse of various descriptions.

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