when is ‘a received truth’ not ‘an entrenched dogma’?

lynn gwyst’s advice for young readers

nicholas ostler’s book, ’empires of the word – a language history of the world’ comes with glowing reviews from all the important newspapers, and ostler’s qualifications are, on the surface, impeccable according to early 21st century academic standards, out-moded as we all know those standards are. and he’s right when he says that ‘the interplay of languages is an aspect of history that has too long been neglected’. but, wrong as current models of language history are, my darlings, being based on the biblical chronologies which are academically unsustainable if you think carefully about it, this history is as badly flawed as any written in the past. 

here’s a gorgeous little quote from the preface (page xxi). sorry about the holes. J

‘ it is a received truth. . . that in the roman empire the west was administered in latin, the east in greek, and the greek administration lasted for many centuries more than the latin: how surprising. . . that . . . latin survived (the collapse of the empire) . . . but greek largely evaporated within a couple of generations. ‘

now rotflmao is not an academic comment, so i shall withhold it. i shall simply get up off the f and find and reinstall my a and find my way back to the podium to continue the lecture.

‘a received truth’ ?!!! without going too far into the exquisitely serious difficulties that plague the defining of the word ‘truth’, and without any claim to hermeneutical certainty (herman’s still doing serious time for heresy in the dungeons of ogsford, beneath the clammy catacombs lined with ancient oaken shelves rotting spongily beneath their groaning loads of hide-bound books, in many-towered academica ), he clearly (herman would say ‘prolly’) meant ‘firmly-held belief’ ‘article of faith’ or ‘entrenched dogma’, not ‘truth’.
it is sad that students doing linguistics aren’t force-fed little epistemological gems like that, and great chunks of academica vera for breakfast along with their oh so comical chromosomes in academia. L a scholar should be able to distinguish between a truth and a cherished notion.
how is this ‘truth’ received? usually via the much-structured, majestically-traditioned, ecclesiastically- conditioned, primarily western european education system. to which kudos! blessed be it! hang on in there!

and whence came this ‘received truth’? not hard, mes enfants: from studies of old texts.

now old texts are those written in old-fashioned languages and forms of languages, and while it’s certain that all manner of changes will happen in any evolving language cloud over time, especially in troubled times, it is very difficult to trace them, and all the worse when all you’ve got is a few mouldy tomes left by the tinily elite and linguistically a-typical literati, and rediscovered by who knows who and when and even where and under what circumstances, (see don quixote for eye-witness accounts of book-salvaging and entertaining insights into renaissance hermeneutica and the translation and distribution of books yn termyn eus passyes) and it’s all done by linguists in an intense exchange with historians and none of them trained at all at all at all in hermeneutics. let’s hope this is changing. J

given the total, ardent, militant devotion some scholars seem to have to the results of these studies, which build upon without testing the foundations laid down by renaissance, medieval and earlier texts, (there i’ve said it)


i have unsubscribed. i’m taking the academically (practically) unprecedented step of thinking for myself. learning not just from inevitably flawed and annually superceded textbooks and books written by academics for the general public (which anyway get used for textbooks as any student of linguistics knows), but from any and every source that might yield insight relevant and revealing. even ostler’s empires of the word is capable of providing access points for extending my own research.

i’ll share it with you as we go. won’t it be fun when we look at the next bit of the sentence?

and no i’m not welsh. i’m an entirely fictitious character invented for fun and frolic by wyldwyverne aka vyvyan ogma wyverne formerly, um, er, oooh, now that’s going back a bit. . . and she’s by a mainly – munster irishman out of cockney mongrelry with a dash of the cornovian den/dane/ duine – tá ‘chuile short ann! but bred in the colonies of oz and resident there amid lizards and crows and largish mobs of human-sized, human-eyed, highly-intelligent kangaroos.


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