Guide to Anthropology for Teachers and Students
Aesthetic Realism Explains a Crucial Social Science / By Arnold Perey, Ph.D.

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Sweet potato planting magic by Iaulit,
Oksapmin, Papua New Guinea
Photograph © by Arnold Perey.


Linguistics is the study of language. It's part of anthropology because a tribe's language is part of its culture, and culture is studied by anthropology.

The words of a woman walking up a mountain path in New Guinea this evening, or walking down Seventh Avenue in New York, are part of her culture, which means she learned them from other people and they meet a deep need in her self. Where, after all, did the words we use every day come from? And why do we get such meaning from speaking and listening and reading and writing?

The Transitory and Permanent

Speaking and writing are opposites that correspond to the transitory and the permanent. They are important in language history. For example, something like the sentences I just wrote could have been said by an Inuit, Bemba, or Miwok. They likely could not have been written, though, since many years ago the tribal people of the world did not know writing. The alphabets and symbols invented independently in cities (in the Middle East, China, Mexico, Peru, and Africa) never got to the people living in remote mountains, jungles, islands, tundras, and near the Arctic icecap. So, very much of spoken culture, including stories, chants, epics, poems, entire histories of peoples, were too transitory to have survived before the invention of writing. Now, of course, people everywhere are learning to write their mother tongues.

Anthropological linguistics, therefore, is concerned with the spoken word—finding a way to write down vocabulary, grammar, stories that might otherwise perish.

Unity and Variety in a Language

As we look at how culture developed, changed, and became more complex and diversified, it is also important to know that tribal languages, the earlier languages, like Polynesian, while complex and rich in their own right, do not have some subtleties that more developed languages have. For instance, this could not have been said in the language of Oksapmin, New Guinea: "If I had known you would be coming that day early last week, I would have served you a sumptuously cooked and delicately spiced supper." Once a language has been written down, it can get more words than before and a more regular and complex grammar—like Latin. It becomes both more unified and has more variety. And so a language gets what every one of us hopes for in life: more unity and more variety.

Structural Linguistics

Linguistics, like many other studies, joins the past and present. Often the two aspects are taken separately. Structural linguistics accents the present. In it, we study a living language. In the field, an anthropologist often will work on transcribing onto paper a previously unknown language spoken by a few thousand people in a remote forest or desert. This too is part of structural linguistics.

In structural linguistics we're trying to see how a language is made. When we try to discover how it has developed, we are engaged in historical linguistics. Great historical linguists were the Brothers Grimm, who were first to describe a mathematical law that expressed how languages changed. But that's for another time.

Do Languages Have Something in Common Where They Begin?

A great purpose of linguistics is to study what all languages have in common and how they differ. So the opposites of sameness and difference are vital. Both must be perceived at once to see where a language belongs in the family of languages.

The Noam Chomsky Approach. Meanwhile, since the human mind is organically the same wherever in the world you go, and since language comes from the mind, we would expect every language to have something of the same grammar, the same structure. It has been the life-work of the linguist Noam Chomsky to find out what it is. He has described what he calls deep structures that languages all have in common. This approach has made translation from language to language easier.

The Eli Siegel Approach. Meanwhile, it is equally important to understand that every language describes, in sounds, the same world—the one we live in. Therefore it is logical that we will find, in every language, a representation of the structure that all things have in common. This is the approach that Eli Siegel has taken. The structure of every language, he shows, represents the same philosophic opposites reality has.

That is why you see pairs of qualities in the sounds of every language, and they are opposites: for example the hardness of the letter K and softness of the letter W are like the hardness of a kick and the softness of water. The spaciousness of the sound AH and the obstruction of the letter B are like the openness of the sky and the density of a bone. The world has rocks and clouds, nails and flesh, quiet pools and the swift fish that swim in them.

A Picture of the World in Sounds

Language is a picture of the world in sound. Here is Eli Siegel's definition of language in his Definitions, and Comment:

LANGUAGE,  (a) Language is the representation by a self in terms of what it is, of the reality this self is of and in. (b) Language in the smaller sense is words and how they are combined by a number of selves using those words, and how they are combined for the purposes of life in general.

In ourselves we have matter and space. As to matter: our hard teeth and palate are definite, firm matter, for instance. And we represent matter when we utter hard consonants like t and d and b. We utter them by colliding the matter of our tongue and teeth or lips.

As to space: Space is represented in the open space of our oral cavity, nasal cavity and our pharynx. They are resonant and spacious. And that's where vowels resound like a and o and ee.

We use these parts of our bodies to make sounds that combine into words.

Two Words from New Guinea: awa and monga

Take two words from Oksapmin, New Guinea. One has vowels dominant. The other has consonants dominant. The words are awa and monga.

And guess what: Awa means WIND and SKY, while Monga means EARTH or the GROUND. Consider which word has more space? and which word has more obstruction?

The word awa is said with the mouth open a good deal and space present in the wide vowel sounds. The word monga begins with closed lips and has obstructing internal consonants in the middle. Awa word is light, like the wind; monga is heavy, like the ground. One represents space successfully and the other represents matter successfully. Anyone in the world could tell the difference, once he is asked the right questions.

We can study how every language uses the opposites of vowel and consonant, with vowel being an open sound and standing for space, and consonant being an obstructed sound and standing for matter. We can see how swift sounds and slow sounds, noisy words and quiet words, sharp sounds and dull heavy sounds, represent objects and concepts that have qualities like the words. I have found so many pairs of words like these in so many languages that I know it isn't coincidence. People are using themselves to represent the world around them. "Words," explained Mr. Siegel, "are the results of the successful love of objects."

In poetry the correspondence of sound to meaning is called onomatopoeia. As Alexander Pope wrote, in his Essay on Criticism, "The sound must seem an echo to the sense."

The presence of onomatopoeia in the basis of all languages is, I believe, more important than has been realized. I began to see this when studying the Aesthetic Realism explanation of poetry I began to see that sounds themselves have emotion in them and a structure corresponding to the structure of reality, in terms of opposites like space and matter, rest and motion, hard and soft.

Rest and Motion in Grammar

The presence of rest and motion in grammar also should be studied. As mentioned before, every language has a noun idea, and a verb idea, standing roughly for rest and motion in reality. Reality has both and a sentence needs both, to be complete.

For example: The word "pen" is a noun, an object. Unless it is joined by a verb it doesn't do anything at all. When you join the noun "pen" to the verb writes" you have noun and verb together, rest and motion united, and a complete sentence is born: The pen writes.

Every language in the world has complete sentences which must include both noun and verb or their equivalent.

So far I have been discussing structural linguistics, which studies the way languages are put together.

One and Many Are Central Opposites in Every Language

Every language in the world makes sentences. Every sentence is a combination of single words in such a way that each adds meaning to the others. That is, a sentence is one and many in a coherent form. It consists of many individual things—words—that join into one new thing: a sentence. This is like a painting or a song that has many notes or colors that all add to one another and make a whole.

It is hard to imagine saying much without sentences, and I don't imagine anyone ever has.

There are three things that make up the structure of a language, that is, three things you have to know to be able to speak it. If you want to learn the Miwok Indian language of California you have to find out:

(1) Vocabulary. What do the words mean one by one?—what is the Miwok for father? Brick? Pleasure?—that is the word list or dictionary;

(2) Syntax. You have to learn how to put the words together in sentences. You are taking individual things, that is, words, and joining them into a larger unit called a sentence. The rules for joining are called grammar or syntax.

Occasionally we put together word-parts like "ing" or "ed" which are called morphemes because they're less than a word but carry meaning nonetheless.

(3) You have to learn pronunciation. It is possible for a language to exist in writing only, but every living language is spoken. Ideas have changed into sounds. The study of pronounciation is called phonology, with phono meaning sound and ology meaning the study of it.

Historical Linguistics: or Division and Unity

Historical linguistics is about past languages and how they changed into present languages. For example, Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese are Romance Languages because they came originally from Roman—or Latin. A historical linguist studies how. The fact that they did belong to a unified group of languages was clear for a long time to people who were acquainted with all four languages. The Romance languages have a common source in Roman, and they are divided by their geographical boundaries and different histories. This group of languages seemed very different from the Germanic language family (Swedish, Anglo-Saxon, Danish, German...and more). And it seemed even more different from a dozen languages in northern India. This feeling went on for a long time.

However, there was a big surprise awaiting in the 19th century. The Romance languages weren't, after all, completely different from German, or Persian, or Czech. Many, many languages that seemed to belong to different families turned out to be part of a big family that embraces languages from northern India all the way to northern Europe, and so it is called the Indo-European family.

Indo-European includes Swedish, German, English, Italian, Romanian, Russian, Persian, Bengali, Hindi. All these languages are unified by having grown out of one very ancient language, given the name of Proto Indo-European.

This overall family, while unified by having one ancestor, is divided into numerous smaller families. Another of these smaller families (like the Romance languages) is the Slavic language family. It has Russian, Serbian, Polish, Ukrainian, and other geographically-allied languages in it. Like the Romance languages, they too have sounds in common with one another, and much grammar and vocabulary. It's thought all are unified by coming from one very old root language, Old Slavonic.

You will notice the Indo-European family stretches continuously from East to West over thousands of miles. Nobody even imagined this huge language family until the 19th century. People too much thought languages were different and that's that. For many years they hadn't asked systematically, are the oldest languages we know like each other too? That was asked in Germany when multilingual scholars noticed words in Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit were too much alike for it to be coincidence. They all had to come from the same root, these German scholars reasoned. And they showed it was so.

Just to get a touch of how this works, the Sanskrit word for the god of fire is Agni. In English, when we light a match, we "ignite" it. See the similarity between "agni" and "ignite"? It didn't happen by chance. There are other similarities, even though if somebody were speaking Sanskrit (or one of its modern daughter languages, Bengali) you still might not know what they were saying.

Nowadays this giant language family is believed to have begun some ten thousand years ago, and their common ancestor (Proto-Indo-European) has been reconstructed from clues in the oldest daughter languages.

Other language families also seem to correspond roughly with geographical areas. And like Indo-European they have daughter language familes in them. For example, there are the African languages, the Native American Languages, the Asian Languages, the Austronesian languages (a compound of Australian and Polynesian language groups which are really one big one). All of them have subdivisions, and subdivisions inside the subdivisions.

Sameness and Difference

So you can see that two opposites that are central in the study of language families and their history are Sameness and Difference, or Sameness and Change.

As we study the fascinating data showing how original, parent languages changed into all these different daughter languages, we're looking at both sameness and difference. This is a different state of mind than the wars come from which divide the people who even speak related languages, like Hebrew and Arabic: the two living members of the Semitic language family. The fact that any two languages can be found to have words in common and grammatical structures in common, and that they arose from a common ancestor, has yet to be brought into the political field and used to unite rather than divide people.

Sameness and Difference, or sameness and change, are opposites present, too, in the study of biological evolution. Just as it took thousands of years for the different human races to become different, it took thousands of years for languages to become as different as they are today. Yet, we all come from the same "root" and are more alike than different.

The Origin of All Languages

The origin of language has been much discussed. But it is not known in any definite way.

Meanwhile, what I have written above is a way of saying that the Eli Siegel approach to language—and the place of onomatopoeia in the structure and sound system of every language—sheds a new and deeper light on its origin.

Whatever that origin may be, historically, in terms of today the desire to speak is instinctive in every human baby. The desire to take into mind the facts of the world and express them in words is within us as we enter the world from our mothers' wombs.

Ability and Desire are One. Whatever language a baby today learns tomorrow, Inuit or Arabic or English, it will be because he has both the ability to speak and the desire to use that ability—like a baby bird has the ability to fly and the desire to use that ability.

Animals communicate but do not have language in the central way people have. A human infant instinctively "babbles" many different syllables once he reaches a certain age. These will become words and then sentences. Even a baby chimpanzee does not babble, and so he cannot learn articulate speech although chimpanzees are being taught the silent language of the deaf: American Sign Language, using hand gestures.

An ape can learn one or two hundred words (as much as 500 perhaps) and creates simple sentences like "Give me drink."

A human infant easily and universally learns a language. The ability is part of his brain structure. It shows early in that "babbling" in which a baby tries out combinations of sounds. He also has the desire to learn language, which shows in the fact that pre-talking babies understand a good deal and work, themselves, to learn speech.

That a human has the desire and the ability to learn language.This means, in keeping with Eli Siegel's definition of language that was discussed above, every person wants to represent, in terms of what he is, the reality he is in and belongs to. This desire in man is deep, and is an aspect of the desire to like the world outside ourselves and see meaning in it. Words establish a relation between ourselves and the world outside us that is new in evolution.

Part 6. Cultural Anthropology

Depsin of the Mountain Ok area of Papua New Guinea


Copyright © 1975, 2008 by Arnold Perey