why should they be secret?

From Barnabas:

Islam is a one-way street. You can convert to Islam but you are not allowed to convert from Islam. All schools of Islamic law, shari‘a, agree on this rule and specify the death sentence for an adult male Muslim who chooses to leave his Islamic faith. Most also impose the death penalty on women apostates. The rule was established many centuries ago by Islamic scholars, but even today most Islamic religious leaders and many ordinary Muslim people agree with it.

The death penalty is rarely put into practice, but the existence of this “apostasy law” is so well known amongst Muslims that it generates strong hostility towards apostates, whether from family or community, from religious or secular leaders, from police or judiciary. So it is normal for converts from Islam to face persecution and violence. They may be arrested, either for apostasy or on a pretext. They may be attacked, beaten or even murdered by their own relatives. And those who commit the violence will probably not be punished for it.

A further range of penalties for apostasy is laid down in shari‘a, including losing one’s spouse and children and forfeiting one’s property and inheritance. These are imposed in many Muslim contexts today.

It is not surprising that many converts from Islam to Christianity keep their new faith secret, but why should they have to do so? Islam actively encourages non-Muslims to convert to Islam, but it is the only world faith with a death sentence for those who leave it.

As part of the campaign to have the apostasy law abolished, Barnabas has a petition you can sign, calling on the government to ‘support all efforts by Muslims to have the apostasy law abolished, so that Muslims who choose to leave their faith are no longer liable to any penalty but are free to follow their new convictions without fear, in accordance with the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.’

four years

Four years ago yesterday, I wrote my first ever blogpost!

(That was over at blogspot.com – we’ll have to wait till next month for the three-year anniversary of the move to wordpress.)

When I started, I hardly told anyone about it, thinking I would feebly run out of things to say within a few posts. Ah, the folly. (Then when that never happened, somehow the time never seemed right to make a big announcement. Come and read my new old blog!)*

What’s more surprising is that more and more people keep reading. That such ruminations and pontifications linguistical and calvinistical should hold more than a passing interest is surely a matter of wonder all round – although I must say it’s lovely talking to y’all and long may the conversations continue!

* It goes without saying though, that everyone who knows me in real life should consider themselves warmly invited! Even if we’ve never discussed it in person, don’t be afraid to visit and browse freely.

the humanness of language

Vern Poythress has a new book out – In the Beginning was the Word: Language – a God-Centred Approach (thanks to Jeremy Walker for flagging it up).

It’s available for sale here, accompanied by a publisher’s description which induced some raised eyebrows, I admit, from a linguistic point of view (what can be meant by the specification of the meaning of every word in every language? in what way does language reflect and reveal the glory of the Creator, other than in the trivially true way in which everything in the Creator’s creation does? doesn’t the publisher care about gender-specific pronouns, or is it only Christian men who are supposed to read this book? isn’t the publisher aware of the difference between language and speech? am I, possibly, being too harsh?).

Let’s just overlook all of this and put it down to a non-technical presentation of what must be, at least if you read the endorsements, an insightful, profound, compelling, significant piece of work.

Instead, I’m more interested in what you can see inside the sample pages.

Specifically, this paragraph from p18:

The New Testament indicates that the persons of the Trinity speak to one another. This speaking on the part of God is significant for our thinking about language. Not only is God a member of a language community that includes human beings, but the persons of the Trinity function as members of a language community among themselves. Language does not have as its sole purpose human-human communication, or even divine-human communication, but also divine-divine communication. Approaches that conceive of language only with reference to human beings are accordingly reductionistic.

Now, I find almost everything in here questionable (apart from the first two sentences, I suppose). One – terminology – I’m more familiar with the term ‘speech community’ than ‘language community’ (although I don’t suppose much hangs on the difference; correct me if I’m wrong). I find it odd to say that God is a member of a language community that includes human beings. Surely, it is odd to think of God as being a member of any kind of community that includes human beings: he is infinite, humans are finite; he is eternal, humans are created; he is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being and his attributes; humans are not. If he so much as notices humans, it is infinite condescension on his part – and yet he does more – and even so, he is not part of our communities. Great fear, in meeting of the saints, is due unto the Lord, even and especially when he reveals himself most condescendingly. Certainly he speaks, and we must listen. And through the Mediator we have access to the Father to speak to him in prayer, which in his grace he hears. But this does not a speech community make.

Two – I fail to see how it is reductionistic to conceive of language as merely serving human-human communication. Partly, there’s no ‘merely’ or ‘only’ about it – language is a beautiful, rich, elegant, effective, complex, amazing tool, which only humans out of all creatures have, for communicating with each other. It doesn’t belittle language to say that only humans have it. But partly too – only humans have it! Humans use language for all sorts of meaningful reasons – to convey or take in indexical, social, affective, and propositional kinds of information, and so on. Animals have no way of using such a tool. But also, to speak reverently, the Trinity has no need of such a tool. The Scriptures present the persons of the trinity as taking counsel together and speaking one to another (this is one of the reasons, after all, how we know there are distinct persons in the Godhead). But the three persons of the trinity have always existed in a fellowship of love and harmony with each other. The Spirit searches the deep things of God. The Son knows the will of the Father. As the Father is omniscient so is the Son and so is the Holy Spirit. The purposes of the Father are the purposes of the Son and the purposes of the Spirit. Everything is always present before God. Thus, on the propositional front, he doesn’t need to be told anything for information. Indexical? Each person knows the other persons thoroughly; there is no question about the identity of any person or the relationships each person stands in to the other persons. Affective – he has no parts nor passions: it doesn’t even apply. Or think of the stuff of language – syntax, morphology, phonology – with imagination straining at the limits of what is reverent, without the physical production of some word, spoken through a vocal tract (or gestured by hand in signed languages), there can be no phonology, and without a word, no morphology, and without concatenations of words, no syntax. How sad, to have a concept of the communion between the persons of the Trinity that doesn’t even rise above the possibility that language such as humans have is the only conceivable manner or method of it.

Pages 18-19 do (I should point out) contain discussion of two passages of scripture which are used in support of the position that part of the purpose of language is for communication within the Trinity. One is John 16:13-15, where the Spirit is said to hear (from the Father) of the things of Christ. The other is John 17, the intercessory prayer: “John 17 presents not merely human communication but also divine communication between the divine persons of the Father and the Son. That communication takes place through language. And so language is something used among the persons of the Trinity.” But caution is needed. It cannot be a literal hearing, just as it cannot be a literal speaking – speaking and hearing involve physical, motor and sensory, processes. Further, things are true of the incarnate Son which are not true of the other persons of the Trinity. It is not in question that Christ speaks in John 17 as a divine person, but he speaks as a divine person with a human nature. There is no doubt that the Father heard him (as he “hears” prayer) as he spoke with human language, but the fact that the communication between Christ in his time on the earth and the Father naturally included human language does not automatically license the conclusion that the pre-incarnate Son and the Father and the Spirit communicated with each other using language that is somehow the same means of communication as human beings use among themselves.*

So: I think the case is overstated. There is no doubt that there is communication between the persons of the Trinity. There is no doubt that God speaks to humans using language. There is no doubt that language, which humans use to communicate with each other, is a gift from God (although of course affected by the Fall). But a more compelling case needs to be made – from scripture – that the communication between the persons of the Trinity is by way of language. Language is a special gift for humans – it is suited to human capacities and human needs. By conflating ‘language’ with ‘communication’, you fail to take the opportunity to explore exactly how unique and special language is, you bring divine communication within the trinity down to the level of the finite and frail efforts at interaction which creaturely and fallen humans make, and you make linguists grouchy.

All of which, it turns out, I said before, better, here.

Note too the argumentation in the following pages from the possibility of translating ruach as ‘breath’; and the notion of breath “carrying speech to its destination”; this concept does not strike me as particularly salient in how phoneticians would understand articulation, nor in how semanticists would conceive of the creation or accessing of meaning, although on both fronts I remain open to correction. Phoneticians and semanticists, needless to say, are prone to mistake – but if there is a mistake here, or elsewhere, in how linguists understand language, this needs to be demonstrated through serious engagement with the principles and concepts that are current. Even in something aimed at a lay audience, there could still be a nod to the concerns of anyone with more specialised knowledge.

words of comfort

I just spoke to someone after sending them a draft of something to comment on, apologising for how long it had taken to get it finished.

“Well, writing…” was the response – “You can set aside the hours you’re going to spend on it, but you can never predict how much you’ll get done.”

A bit like this, in fact.




an article of faith?

In my literature, there is an interesting to-and-fro between researchers from different schools of thought.

In one paper, Authors X, Y, et al. criticise Authors A, B, et al. for sticking with a theory which hypothesises a cognitive (linguistic) deficit in the absence of convincing/relevant perceptual deficits.

Authors X, Y et al make the stinging point that neuroscience research in general “has yet to find a cognitive deficit that arises detached from any neural underpinnings in terms of sensory or perceptual problems” – implying that you can only take a cognitive deficit seriously if there is physical/biological performance data to support it.

Presumably stung, Authors A, B et al respond in their subsequent paper by saying that this position is “an article of faith, not a scientific result”.

For discussion: to what extent are Authors A, B et al right to allege that the position of Authors X, Y et al is an article of faith, and to what extent, if at all, does this undermine the position of Authors X, Y et al?

(As flagged in passing in a footnote in my thesis.)

on phonematic units

Firthian Prosdic Analysis provides a way of thinking about language and phonology which is fundamentally different from approaches in the ‘American’ and/or generative tradition.

As Anderson’s overview points out, “While one might be tempted to compare the phonematic units of the former with the phonemes of the latter [ie phonemicist analyses], for example, this would be a clear mistake. Both are essentially segment-sized units, it is true, and form systems of paradigmatic contrasts, but the similarities end there” (Anderson, 1985: 189).

The extremely helpful (clear and informative) JL article by Ogden and Local (1994) makes the same point very forcefully – it is thoroughly misguided to use the concepts and categories of generative approaches as a way of understanding Firthian ones, as though the differences between the analyses were simply terminological, or as if Firth was merely fumbling, in isolation from the American mainstream and in a quaintly eccentric English gentlemanly way, towards the same understanding as SPE-style analyses ended up with.

“Phonological units are, according to FPA, in syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations with each other. Syntagmatic relations are expressed as prosodies. Prosodies can also be in paradigmatic relations; this is what it means to be ‘in system’. Thus one can talk equally well of a ‘prosodic system’ and a ‘phonematic system’ (such as ‘C-system’ or a ‘V-system’). Both prosodies and phonematic units must also be stated in relation to ‘structure’ which in turn expresses syntagmatic relations” (Ogden & Local, 1994: 480).

“In making a Firthian Prosodic statement, the analyst typically begins by paying attention to the syntagmatic ‘piece’ and stating the prosodies relevant to the description of the piece under analysis; but the information is explicitly not thereby ‘removed’ or ‘abstracted away’, and the phonematic units are not ‘what is left’: in particular, phonematic units are not ‘sounds’ (Goldsmith 1992: 153), since phonological representations according to FPA  are not pronounceable; nor are they merely the ‘lowest’ points on which all else hangs, like the skeletal tier. Phonematic and prosodic units serve to express relationships: prosodies express syntagmatic relations, phonematic units paradigmatic relations. All else that can be said about them depends on this most basic understanding” (Ogden & Local, 1994: 481).

It may possibly be worth adding that when Anderson speaks of phonematic units being ‘segment-sized’, this likely needs to be qualified by saying that in a Firthian-inspired approach, establishing the size of a segment is actually part of the analysis – segments and phonemes are emphatically not equivalent – a syllable or a foot could equally well be a “segment” in a Firthian analysis, if descriptive or analytical adequacy called for these units to be the terms in the paradigm. Hear Lodge:

“there is nothing that tells us a priori that paradigmatic relations that establish the meaningful contrasts of a language have to be between segment-sized entities at the phonological level any more than at any other level. In syntax, for example, a ‘segment’ is usually word-length, and certainly morpheme-length; the ‘segment’ is the smallest bit of the speech chain suitable for describing the patterns of a particular level. We segment speech in different ways for different purposes. Such segments include syllable places: onset, rhyme, nucleus and coda, the foot, the intonation group, the morpheme, and so on” (Lodge, 2007: 80).


(Post inspired by the surprising discovery that “phonematic units” is a search term that leads to this blog.)

(Also in the back of my mind being the Friendly Humanist’s talk about silos – phonologically speaking, the Ogden & Lodge article is superb for such a purpose, not that I would particularly claim to be anything more than firth-sympathetic.)

Anderson, SR (1985). Phonology in the Twentieth Century: Theories of Rules and Theories of Representations.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lodge, K (1997). ‘Timing, segmental status and aspiration in Icelandic.’  Transactions of the Philological Society 105: 66-104

Ogden, R & Local, JK (1994). ‘Disentangling autosegments from prosodies: a note on the misrepresentation of a research tradition in phonology.’ Journal of Linguistics 30: 477-498


Betty’s analysis is spot on.

Once upon a time, there were lots of people who believed in religion. They were all really stupid. Then along came a man called Dawkins, and everyone saw the light. The more you think about it, the more it makes sense. There is no god at all, and Dawkins is his prophet. And they all lived in hostility for ever after. Amen.