an unlikely innovator

I’ve just come across an article by John E Joseph on the man who invented the term ‘phoneme’. It’s something of an accidental followup to this post which was really only an opportunity to showcase the narrow escape which phonologists had from the tonguetwisting nightmare of phthongology – but it turns out there’s tantalisingly more to the question of the origin of some of our most familiar terminology than I’d realised.

The man in question began his career as a sailor and travelled all over the world, giving ‘considerable energy to the recording and analysis of the phonetic inventories of whatever languages he came across.’ (p57) Intriguingly, he is still known only by his surname, Dufriche-Desgenettes – his first name has never been discovered beyond its initial, A.

He never had any formal training in languages or phonetics (in other words, he was an ‘autodidact,’ which the OED informs me means ‘one who is self-taught’). Joseph portrays him as a man always on the margins of the academic linguistic community, stubbornly holding on to his own opinions regardless of how much they were dismissed and disregarded by other scholars. He seems to have always been very careful in matters of terminology – one letter (translated by Joseph) shows him defending himself for using the term phonology rather than phonetics: ‘I’m not trying to substitute this name for that of phonetics: certainly there are two nuances.’ (p67)

His term phoneme was adopted by a younger associate of his, Louis Havet, who later became acquainted with Saussure (Saussure was only a teenager when Dufriche died in 1878). Joseph credits Havet with a fairly substantial role in propagating the term – he was the first to quote it, and he edited and even read out some of Dufriche’s papers to the Société de Linguistique in Paris, for example. The term was then available for Saussure to pick up – he ‘put it to memorable use in his Mémoire,’ which itself became more widely known thanks in part to the enthusiasm of Louis Havet. ‘From there,’ says Joseph, ‘phonème found its way into the work of Jan Baudouin de Courtenay and Mikołai Kruszewski, where it would gradually take on the meaning with which it would be the very cornerstone of structural linguistics through most of the 20th century.’ (p71)

So there we have it. And that’s only the origin of the term itself – never mind the tortuous debates over what it actually means, or whether phonemes even exist beyond phonological notation and diagrams – questions which I think we can safely leave for another day.

Joseph, John E (1999), ‘Dufriche-Desgenettes and the birth of the phoneme.’ In Sheila Embleton, John E Joseph, and Hans-Josef Niederehe (eds), The Emergence of the Modern Language Sciences. Volume 1: Historiographical Perspectives. Amsterdam: John Benjamins

owen’s priorities

John Owen was one of the most intellectual, prolific, and deep of the English puritans, someone who was regarded as a genius by his contemporaries and whose theology has been respected and followed down to the present day. His works have been republished by the Banner of Truth, with an attractive minimalist white and green cover, in no less than 23 formidable hardback volumes.

But I was touched by this remark he made in a treatise in volume 1 of his works.

“I had rather choose my eternal lot and portion with the meanest believer, who, being effectually sensible of the love of Christ, spends his days in mourning that he can love him no more than he finds himself on his utmost endeavours for the discharge of this duty to do, than with the best of them whose vain speculations and a false pretence of reason puff them up unto a contempt of these things.”

Or, loosely paraphrased: “I would rather choose my eternal inheritance with the most insignificant believer who is conscious of the love of Christ in a way that has an ongoing impact on his life, and spends his days mourning that he can love him no more than he does, even after he has done his utmost to perform this duty, rather than with the best of those who are puffed up into a contempt of these things (ie the love of Christ and his work as Mediator) by their pointless imaginings and a false claim to reason.

What I think it shows is not just Owen’s own reverence, and the impact that his scholarly theological work had on his own personal piety (making him adore and worship God more and more the more he studied), but his generosity of spirit and his awareness that he shared his experience of God’s saving grace with all other believers in whatever circumstances they might be. Reading, you can’t avoid the realisation that these doctrines were very real and valuable to himself, but he also gives this sense of longing that other people would come to share with him in admiring and loving and worshipping the same God and Saviour.

Theology without reverence is worthless – even harmful – and I mean the kind of reverence that shows itself in practical application, in a life of personal godliness. But this (if I remember rightly) is the same theologian who said that for all his learning, he would rather be able to preach like the tinker, John Bunyan.

It’s the same principle: the little that a truly godly person has in the way of experiential religion, is more and better far than all the wealth of theoretical theology which some people seem to be able to store up while all the time the experience of saving grace is completely foreign to them. They might know all about the Saviour, but they’ve never wanted to know him.

John Owen, ‘A Declaration of the Glorious Mystery of the Person of Christ.’ In the Works of John Owen, vol 1, The Glory of Christ. First published 1679, Banner of Truth reprint 1965. Quote from p167.

all tingly

After the last amusing misspelling of my name (which seems to have resulted in me not receiving four of the promised six free installments of the magazine in question), I seem to have developed a problem with voicing in word-initial stops. I was booking some tickets over the phone last night and when the email confirmation arrived, my name which I’d said at least twice and spelled out, with a D, at least once, arrived all made out to a T.

Meanwhile, apropos of absolutely nothing, this was the depressing sight which confronted me on the way to the office this morning. I estimate that this summer I have spent a total of three hours and seventeen minutes in sunshine, and a fortune on umbrellas.

foreign policy, but ideology too

Inayat Bunglawala’s recent article is summarised like this: “Blaming terrorism on some unspecified evil within the Muslim community may please warmongers, but it won’t help us defeat the violent extremists.”

Some of the problems with analyses like this include the following.

  • The ‘evil within the Muslim community’ isn’t at all unspecified: it consists of the belief that violent jihad is justifiable, and the putting of that belief into practice in undertaking acts which are intended to harm and destroy other human beings.
  • The so-called Muslim community consists in fact of several Muslim communities. Only some of them are so radically politicised as to justify mass murder and violence. And the more that non-Muslims allow themselves to treat the various strands of Islam as if they were all of a piece (and the more that Muslims themselves allow the idea of this fictional unitary ‘community’ to be entrenched), the more it legitimises the radical elements in their imposition of their own brand of extreme Islam or Islamism on all the other groups and traditions within Islam.
  • It’s a mistake to think that everyone who blames Islamist ideology rather than US and British foreign policy for acts of terrorism is a warmongerer. It’s perfectly possible to believe that British foreign policy is often wrong and sometimes illegal and in many cases adds to whatever sense of grievance people may feel, and to believe that that is no justification for resorting to violence. It’s an ideology, after all, that legitimises the violence as a response to the perceived oppression of American and British foreign policy.

You might not wish to go any further into Bunglawala’s article than the tagline I’ve quoted above. But there are no less than three recent articles by writers who take the opposing view: Ed Husain in the Times and Asim Siddiqui and Hassan Butt in the Guardian, and this time the link isn’t just there for sourcing purposes – they are worth the read.

‘The tone of British Muslim communal discourse in relation to national security and terrorism is worrying. Among young Muslims, there is a widespread Islamism-influenced belief in a bipolar world: a lethal them-and-us mentality. The police and intelligence services belong firmly to the “them” side of the divide. As do clubbers, Jews, gay people, Christians, atheists and even moderate Muslims who reject the extremists’ war call.’ (Husain)

‘No, it’s not foreign policy that’s the main driver in combating the terrorists; it is their mindset. The radical Islamist ideology needs to be exposed to young Muslims for what it really is. A tool for the introduction of a medieval form of governance that describes itself as an “Islamic state” that is violent, retrogressive, discriminatory, a perversion of the sacred texts and a totalitarian dictatorship.’ (Siddiqui)

‘If our country is going to take on radicals and violent extremists, Muslim scholars must go back to the books and come forward with a refashioned set of rules and a revised understanding of the rights and responsibilities of Muslims whose homes and souls are firmly planted in what I’d like to term the Land of Co-existence. And when this new theological territory is opened up, Western Muslims will be able to liberate themselves from defunct models of the world, rewrite the rules of interaction and perhaps we will discover that the concept of killing in the name of Islam is no more than an anachronism.’ (Butt)

take me to … the hilton

The tourists have arrived, even if the weather hasn’t.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have a clue where the Hilton was, to direct the middle aged couple who’d driven off their map.

This was in stark contrast to last week’s encounter with a couple of Australians who asked, ‘You girls local?’ in an accent so strong that the person I was with didn’t realise they were speaking English. Apart from that, it was no problem to direct them to the local laundrette …