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How to help a Creationist learn historical linguistics?

asked 2017-11-10 13:28:25 -0400

KateGladstone gravatar image

I have a friend who has been asking me for basic, popular books that will explain the histories and interrelationships of the world’s languages, starting from present-day observations and “working backward to show the stages of their developments and how we know these” — BUT I know that my friend (who is a Biblical literalist) will reject any book that STARTS by saying that the Tower of Babel story is false. She would NOT reject any book that started with the present and led back into reconstructing the past, whatever that method of explanation took — she just knows herself (and I know her) well enough to be able to say that. As she puts it: “I want and need to learn these things, but I know I won’t be able to process this information unless it is reached by gradual, trustworthy, and highly evidential steps which begin with, say, present-day English and then work BACK through history to its earlier forms, its remoter and remoter origins, and so on. What I’m looking for is a book that will take me, a layperson, to a basic knowledge of historical linguistics on an ‘informed layperson’ level, purely by solid evidence that’s been written to reach a person who is rooted in Christian Biblical literalism and get me gradually where I need to be.” So, linguists all ... what book can I give her, to help her get that far?

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answered 2017-11-30 07:52:05 -0400

splash gravatar image


noone answered so far, and I can imagine why: (a) such a book has yet to be written (i.e. will never be written unless she commissions it) and (b) everything hints to the fact that your friend has no intention of approaching the subject openmindedly.

You realise she's asking for book to have a structure the way it pleases her, to be in a chronological order the way it pleases her, to be targeted at a specific level the way it pleases her AND (and this is actually ridiculus) to be targeted at people rooted in Christian Biblical literalism? And it must do so purely by solid evidence / in highly evidential steps? Please! It may be hard to grasp for her (and for you), but it's not your friend's ideas and expectations that linguistic publishing is most concerned with. It didn't and doesn't evolve around her requests. Linguistics, like all science, is focused on what brings insight, knowledge and progress, and it is structured around these needs.

Know whom she makes me think of? Someone saying [start quote]with a demure little sigh and a smile 'Oh please, please...all I want is a cup of tea, weak but not too weak, and the teeniest weeniest bit of really crisp toast.' ... She is in what may be called the 'All-I-want' state of mind. All she wants is a cup of tea properly made, or an egg properly boiled, or a slice of bread properly toasted. But she never finds any servants or any friends who can do these simple things 'properly' — because her 'properly' conceals an insatiable demand for the exact, and almost impossible, palatal pleasures which she only imagines[end quote] (from C.S. Lewis's "The Screwtape Letters")

You see what I'm getting at?

Anyway, there are some interesting books around which give an idea of how hughe an element is linguistic change and development.

In one of them, Guy Deutscher's "The Unfolding of Language", you'll have to white out the word "Evolution" in the subtitle. I think this really is a book that might explain pretty much everything she still doesn't know she's looking for. So this would be my no. 1 recommendation.

"Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages", also by Guy Deutscher, is another book that gives a great general idea of the vastness of language variation, interrelations and of the historical exploration of these aspects. How did the understanding of the world's languages develop in history?

Another one is Michael Tomasello's "Origins of Human Communication". Not focused on any specific language. It looks at the predecessors and the motivation of the need for actual speech and communication: coordination of cooperation, gestural signals, sharing intentions and then up to infant pointing and pantomiming and to the most basic grammatical structuring used for signalling whether with those simple gestures and vocal expressions one intends to ask, to ... (more)

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Asked: 2017-11-10 13:28:25 -0400

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Last updated: Nov 30 '17