Wave theory

November 29, 2006 | 22 comments
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Family trees are familiar and similarly dissatisfying models in historical linguistics and in the history of religion. In linguistic pedigrees, proto-languages give way to language families that are in turn replaced by modern descendants, so that proto-Indo-European begat Germanic and her sisters; Germanic begat West, East, and North Germanic; and West Germanic begat English, Dutch, German, and Frisian. A similar diagram might illustrate how an original Christian unity was divided by schism into Catholic and Protestant, from which developed the related sects of contemporary Christianity. The problems with family trees in religious history are well known to Mormons: we are emphatically Christian, but we disavow any place in the offshoots of Catholicism that have appeared since 1517. What may be less well known is that family trees are just as unsatisfactory models in historical linguistics as well.

The more you know about a language’s history, the less family trees can describe it adequately. It seems clear enough now that there never was a cohesive speech community that spoke “West Germanic,” for example, but instead a fairly wide range of related dialects whose speakers regularly shifted in their allegiance to each other. A unified “Germanic” or “Indo-European” is similarly unlikely. It still makes sense to discuss and reconstruct features of proto-languages, but you have to assume considerable diversity in these prehistorical language communities.

Family trees are also inadequate for describing dialects and their relations to each other. It’s said that you can start walking in Portugal and continue your trip through Spain and France to the toe of Italy without ever finding a distinct linguistic border. To the extent that people speak their local dialect, they can understand speakers of the dialect across the valley without difficulty, who in turn can understand the people in the next valley over, and so on from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. And yet someone from the middle of Spain will not understand someone from the middle of France or Italy.

One attempt to deal with the inadequacies of family trees in the late nineteenth century was the wave theory. It proposed that language change emanated from centers of innovation, more or less like ripples in a pond. In some cases, one can even find documentary evidence of a linguistic feature spreading slowly up the Rhine over centuries as people adapted their speech habits to those of their neighbors. The isoglosses that define the borders of a linguistic feature extend and decline over time, sometimes joining with and reinforcing other isoglosses, even splitting one language continuum into speech communities that are not mutually intelligible. The wave theory is not perfect, and certainly not the last word in language change, but it has been a useful and stable model in dialect geography.

It seems to me that something like wave theory is necessary to account for Church history. Such a theory of Church history in a nutshell might note that the religious landscape of the Restoration in nineteenth-century New England was marked by disagreement and strife–but argument is also a form of communication, and the obstacles to shifting allegiance from one Christian sect to another seem to have been quite low. Joseph Smith appeared on the scene as a highly productive center of innovation from whom many new religious features emanated, although into an existing American Protestant environment rather than writing on a blank slate, and in competition with other voices. The isoglosses that defined Mormonism rendered it fairly impervious to influences from outside, changing it from a dialect of the second Great Awakening to a separate religion in its own right, and then the trek westward substantially isolated the new faith for nearly a century. The Church continues to be vigilant against unsanctioned innovations or relic-area conservatism that might lead to the development of schisms or differentiation into religious orders. One nice feature of the wave model is that it acknowledges the religious heritage of the first Mormon converts without requiring us to view ourselves as an offshoot of the Methodists, or something equally nonsensical.

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22 Responses to Wave theory

  1. Stephen M (Ethesis) on November 29, 2006 at 9:07 am

    Nicely said.

  2. Mike on November 29, 2006 at 9:30 am

    Any comments on the idea that Mormon who ” abridged” the majority of the B of M could understand Nephi who lived about 1000 years before. Yet when the Spanish found the Aztecs and all the rest of the aboriginals about 1100 years later they were speaking languages not even remotely related to Hebrew or anything else from the middle east? Mormon was at the head of the Nephite army by age 16 and fought wars most of his life. So I don’t think he had time to plan all these wars, compile the sacred record of his people and study obscure archiac languages in order to develop into much of a linguistic scholar. He would have to be like a Hugh Nibley and Robert E. Lee and Ezra of the Old Testament all rolled into one. Two of the three is asking much. Hence I think it is reasonmable to conclude that the Nephite languages didn’t diverge very much over the history of the B of M?. Even if it did, is 2100 years sufficent time for Hebrew to change into Aztec & Mayan or whatever local geographic dialect you wish? Or must we wait for yet another future discovery, of a missing link language to clear up this problem?

    This old linguistic problem from the 1960′s when I was younger seems to have been much like the current fuss about DNA. I don’t recall any satisfactory conclusions; just a lot of long winded excuses and obsfucation from both sides until bordom muffled the discussion.

  3. Marjorie Conder on November 29, 2006 at 9:59 am

    A post like this is what I first found so compelling about T&S. Ideas I had never considered before, well laid out, and thinking about them has expanded my world view.
    I often say, “It’s a bad day that you don’t learn something new”. It is not yet even 7a.m. here and I’ve already learned something important to ponder and mull for quite a while. Thank you.

  4. Herodotus on November 29, 2006 at 12:11 pm

    Hello Jonathan, I enjoyed your post. It is interesting to think of Joseph Smith as an innovative center. I have to admit that comparative religions of Joseph’s time isn’t really my strength, but is there really evidence that he passed on such acquired modifications to other contemporary religions? (ie., the wave)

  5. Clark on November 29, 2006 at 1:47 pm

    Mike, a theory that’s long been discussed is the idea that Hebrew or quasi-Hebrew was only a priestly language. Note that illiteracy was the norm in the ancient world. So being able to read the scriptures probably was a special talent. So it’s quite likely akin to Latin and how little the average American Catholic understands it. (And Americans are comparitively a very literate society)

  6. Russell Arben Fox on November 29, 2006 at 2:06 pm

    “It’s said that you can start walking in Portugal and continue your trip through Spain and France to the toe of Italy without ever finding a distinct linguistic border. To the extent that people speak their local dialect, they can understand speakers of the dialect across the valley without difficulty, who in turn can understand the people in the next valley over, and so on from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. And yet someone from the middle of Spain will not understand someone from the middle of France or Italy.”

    I’m curious about this claim, Jonathan. Who makes it, and do they make it today? Or did it apply to a pre-electronic media (radio, television, internet) world? I think it would be fascinating to discover that such permeability really does characterize European society today, but I’m dubious. If anything, I would guess that the reason such movement would be possible is the heavy hand of ELF (English as Lingua Franca) that has come about due to secondary schooling, Hollywood movies, the need for the EU to come up with a standardized jargon, etc. People travel a lot more today, which means they rely more and more on universal–shall we say “correlated”?–languages, rather than negotiating lcoally embedded linguistic commonalities from one valley to the next.

    To apply this to the church…has the universalizing of the Mormon message, thanks to the global missionary program, sattelite transmissions, etc., changed our relationship to other churches, or even to our own history?

  7. Bob on November 29, 2006 at 3:50 pm

    I don’t know…were most Mormons not from New England?

  8. Mike on November 29, 2006 at 4:13 pm

    Reply to #5

    What a great idea, a special Priestly language. Never heard of that before. Learn something new every day. Pure specualtion of course, not a scrap of evidence to support it directly. But at least plausible, presumeably based on other cultures and other times?

    So when Hugh Nibley says that hundreds of people must have traveled with the family of Nephi to account for the numbers problem, then hundreds of people must have all forgotten Hebrew and started speaking another language. What really fascinates me is how the various problems in the B of M interact with one another and how various solutions make other problems worse. For me it is not enough to divide and conquer each problem seperately. I like comprehensive explanations.

    Or else we have the idea that the Nephites somehow forgot to mention in the sacred record that the Promised land was full of different peoples. So we have cultural Nephites and genetic Nephite descendants. Lots of culturals and not many descendants. Several generations students of the B of M of this dispensation are confused on this point and it is only after we start to believe evidence that most of the native Americans came from Asia that we are able to supose this, some of us anyway. Suppose that the genetic Nephites became such a small part of the population that their genes were completely diluted out by the natives from Asia and their language was lost except for a few special clerics.

    How fast do these special Priestly languages change? I bet not very fast.

    PS. I consider myself a cultural Nephite.

  9. Jonathan Green on November 29, 2006 at 4:39 pm

    Herodotus, religious history isn’t my strength either, which empowers me to post whatever I want about it. It’s much harder to write about topics you actually know something about. I’d love to see cases of Mormon influence seeping into other religions, by the way, but I’d guess it didn’t happen much. But what about, say, Sidney Rigdon’s post-LDS career as a religious leader?

    Mike, interesting points and questions (and thanks for your contributions too, Clark). I might have a post about historicity in a month or three. For now, all I can say is that untangling historical reality from its textual representation is a very tricky business.

  10. Jonathan Green on November 29, 2006 at 5:12 pm

    Russell, let me explain the example again. It’s a bit of dialectologist received wisdom whose veracity I can’t confirm and whose origin I don’t know, but I don’t think it’s far removed from the truth, if you make a few caveats.

    The claim is that Romance dialects–not standard national languages, but the language as spoken in the home and among friends–are very similar to their neighbors, with no evidence of national boundaries. People in neighboring villages can communicate with each other, even if there is a national border in between. Spanish dialects on the border with France will closely resemble French dialects on the border with Spain. So if you start on the east coast of Portugal, you will find that people can easily communicate with the inhabitants of the next village, and people in the second village will easily communicate with people in the third, and so on. However, people in the first village will have a devil of a time in the twelfth and no luck at all in the fiftieth. People in the 49th village will do fine, even if they’re French and the people in the 50th are Italian.

    You asked about permeability and movement, but the claim is not that any speaker could go anywhere and speak with anybody, but that any dialectal speaker could travel a dozen miles in any direction without problem. Maybe a hundred miles in some cases. Farther than that, all bets are off.

    I don’t know if this is still true today. Dialects change and the paths of communication are different today than they were 100 years ago. But something like this still seems to operate with German regional varieties today, at least. All German speakers can understand each other by compromising on the standard language, but if they speak their regional variety, there can be significant comprehension difficulties as speakers from increasingly distant areas try to interact. Dutch speakers stand a reasonable chance with Low German speakers, but no chance with Swiss.

  11. Bob on November 29, 2006 at 6:55 pm

    I guess I just do not see your History ‘Wave(s)’. The Church, New England/Ohio, Joseph Smith, were not still ponds for hundred of years. All were moving targets. My Models would be more like those of Dean L. May in his book “Three Frontiers”.

  12. Russell Arben Fox on November 29, 2006 at 6:57 pm

    Thanks for the explanation, Jonathan. Is this, then, particular to Romance languages? Or specifically the Romance languages which developed in Europe? Probably not, now that I think of it. I’m fairly certain that the Koreans of the far northern part of the peninsula and the Chinese in Manchuria can understand each other pretty well; ditto for a lot of Southeast Asian languages that have developed next-door to each other (Hmong, Laotian, Cambodian, etc.). It’s interesting to speculate on the differences, though. The people of upper New York State have been living just across the St. Lawrence River from French-speaking Quebecois for over two centuries now, and while I suppose it’s not unusual for groups on both sides to have picked up a smattering of each others’ tongues, I really doubt that there’s any real linguistic permeability there.

  13. Bill on November 29, 2006 at 7:07 pm

    Russell, that’s partly because until only a few decades ago, the majority of the populations in those Quebec towns just over the border were English-speakers. Many have gone west in recent years. For a very interesting and all but incomprehensible mix of French and English, head for New Brunswick.

  14. Russell Arben Fox on November 29, 2006 at 7:15 pm

    Interesting, Bill. Obviously you’ve got Cornwall right over the border, and Ottawa isn’t far, but neither is Montreal, and Salaberry isn’t too far away, so I always assumed the French-speaking presence there was pretty strong. Anyway, so the real English/French mix is in Maine/New Brunswick, you say? That’s be neat to check out someday.

  15. Bob on November 30, 2006 at 12:19 pm

    I have lived in the San Fernando Valley for 60 years. White is now a minority. I know few Whites that can handle any Spanish or care to. Do your Waves only go one way ? Are you saying Joseph Smith was caughting waves or making waves?

  16. Bob on November 30, 2006 at 12:20 pm

    That’s catching waves

  17. Jonathan Green on November 30, 2006 at 4:49 pm

    OK, Russell, back to the drawing board.

    Think of language as if it were a matter of being a sports fan. Everybody in your town roots for the same high school, college, and pro teams. In the next town, they root for a different high school, but the same college and pro teams, so you can hold a conversation about sports that doesn’t end in violence. The people upstate cheer on a bunch of high schools you know nothing about, and they cheer on State and not the U, but at least they support the same pro teams. The only time you can talk to your brother-in-law from out of state is during the Olympics, when national unity trumps local differences. So: talking sports is easy with people in your town, possible with people in the same region, strained with people from farther away, and only exceptionally possible with people from out of state. At the end of the day, though, you all agree that baseball, basketball, and football are what makes the country great. You, and every other red-blooded American, can walk down the street in your home town and shoot the breeze about the big game last weekend. Every American will always be able to walk over to the next town and talk sports with the locals, as long as you don’t mention the big game. If you talk to people from farther away, though, talking sports gets a lot riskier, but it might still work.

    Now, imagine your state shares a border with Canada. One day you walk up to the border and strike up a conversation through the chain-link fence with someone on the other side, asking him his opinion on basketball, baseball, and football. He stares at you blankly, but asks who’s going to win the American leagues in fencing, rugby, and synchronized swimming this year. You each walk back to your respective homes with no conversation having come to pass.

    Such is the situation, more or less, with dialects. Communication is easy locally, harder at greater distances. When you reach a language barrier, communication does not occur at all.* You won’t find a distinct language barrier at the local level anywhere between Lisbon and Rome (or so it is claimed), no place where people in adjoining towns don’t understand each other, but you will certainly find one between Paris and Berlin. Think of it as all speakers of Romance languages being hockey fans, while all Dutch and German speakers are handball fans. They aren’t going to talk sports with each other. (Speakers of the Asian languages you mention are not going to understand one another.)

    So: Everyone in New England enjoyed a variety of games that went by the name of football, although the rules were a bit different in every town. Joseph Smith came along and said: the ball should be oblong, play should stop between downs, and it’s OK to throw the ball or run with it. This troubled many people, so they took their round balls and went home and stopped playing football with Joseph Smith. Since then, our rules have changed a bit (we did away with 2-point conversions in 1890). The Church takes care to ensure that all Mormons play ball by the same rules (especially that no one gets any wise ideas about 2-point conversions). Outside of the Church, things have changed a bit too (many places introduced shootouts to break ties), but these innovations have no relevance to Mormon football, and we don’t watch their games much anyway. We keep inviting them to play football according to our rules, but they keep insisting that we aren’t playing football at all.

    Does that help?

    *Yes, I know about creoles, pidgins, lingua francas, and all that. They’re only relevant to language contact, not dialectology.

  18. Andrew Hall on December 1, 2006 at 2:27 pm

    Russell,
    The Korea/China border is a bit different, because Korean and Chinese come from completely different families. Korean is an Altaic language, while Chinese is Sino-Tibetan. Of course Korean has borrowed many words from Chinese, and uses the Chinese characters to a certain degree. But the grammer is completely different. Now, many of those of Chinese citizenship on the Korean border are ethnically Korean (especially in Yanbian), and so probably can speak Korean. But an ethnic Han Chinese and a Korean on the border probably would not understand each other at all. Unless the Korean is particularly well educated, and can write the Chinese characters, then they could write to each other somewhat.

    As for dialects, you need to take into consideration the nationalistic drive to create a national/state language (or languages), that happened all over the world in the 19th and 20th centuries. Governments wanting to create a sense of nationalism and unity had to pick a single dialect, usually that of the capital, to be the national language. And then teach it in the schools. Usually this is the language of polite society, education, and talking to someone from anothe place. Most speak their local dialect at home and among local friends.

    Hi to an old V-hall pal, by the way. I roomed with Matt Fairholm the first semester of your freshman year, then I left for my mission. I am teaching Japanese history at the University of North Texas. I just looked up Matt, and see that he is teaching political science in South Dakota. Do you keep up with him, or any other V-Hall people? I see that Aldo has appeared on TS on the past. Clay Merrell lived near me in Pittsburgh for a while, he has become a very accomplished artist.

  19. ed johnson on December 1, 2006 at 2:32 pm

    Regarding what language the Nephites used, we don’t have to wonder….we can just Ask Gramps!

  20. ed johnson on December 1, 2006 at 2:34 pm
  21. smb on December 3, 2006 at 4:04 pm

    I think the more actual intellectual power is applied to a scientific problem, the fuzzier the taxonomy. I suspect we will discover that the pluripotent genetic taxonomies will prove to have much more cross-talk than we think, much as you have described in the wave representation of language interrelationships. I love (and miss) linguistics (I did theoretical syntax as an undergraduate), but I’m not sure that your formulation of the wave theory actually applies to situating Joseph Smith within Christianity, precisely because of the lack of evidence of effects from JSJ to his milieu. Catholicism, to the extent it existed in America at the time, seems to have been impervious to influence from JSJ. Folk magic doesn’t seem to have acquired much from Mormonism either. Ditto the Masons. As far as Protestantism (people often do lump early Mormons with Methodists or some Baptists or perfectionist sects), I’m not aware much of interactions beyond the hue and cry against theocracy and polygamy which, as various authors have shown, did affect mainline protestants by bringing them together in defense of new Evangelical mores.

    We have to remember that Mormons, no matter their evangelical zeal, were generally a separate society throughout the nineteenth century. It is only now, perhaps in the reaches of the intermountain west (nevada, idaho, wyoming, particularly, but also perhaps Southern California) where you might see these kinds of bidirectional influences.

    I do think there is some merit in this model if you think about it as a way of describing some of the syncretic aspects of JSJ’s worldview, but then it’s not clear what you’ve gained by framing it this way instead of saying “Joseph Smith drew from many different strands available in his milieu.”

    I think a problem with the wave theory is that although it paints a more complex picture of linguistic evolution, it is still a picture of evolution, and it does not well accommodate true innovations. That’s a limitation of the taxonomic enterprise in general.

    You also have to ask yourself whether this theory attempts to describe JSJ as the confluence of many different waves or a voice independent of them all in at least some important way.

    I personally believe that part of the magic of JSJ is his attempt to explicitly reject any of the extant traditions of his day (breaking the old family tree taxonomy as Jonathan has indicated), including the newly framed populist traditions of anti-traditionalism by excavating new traditions from the mythic past. Again and again, we see fragments of extant traditions (the Protestant “forever family” idea, Catholic sacramentalism, Masonic covenants, Methodist Arminianism, anti-hierarchical social networks) refracted through a new lens. Most taxonomies fail to appreciate that new lens, which most of us would somewhat insipidly label “Joseph Smith’s religious genius.” I worry that Jonathan’s model would still fail to appreciate the new lens.

  22. Jonathan Green on December 4, 2006 at 8:40 am

    Thanks for your comments, smb. The world would be a better place if everyone knew more linguistics.

    But Joseph Smith did have a considerable effect on his milieu, primarily in the form of a couple thousand people joining the Church!

    Apart from that: I agree, this isn’t the right approach for analyzing Joseph Smith or his worldview. If you want to describe the Church or its members, though, I can think of two ways to go about it. One is to describe the Church’s theology as a syntax of belief, an internalized set of rules and structures. The alternative is via something like dialect geography, like I’ve attempted here, which I think is a helpful way to think about what Mormonism was in the early 19th century and how it has changed over time. The charismatic excesses of the 1830′s, for example, don’t seem to be derived from Joseph Smith’s teachings, although they do have parallels in other contemporary traditions. I would guess that there are other elements of church history that are similar expressions of both internal and external influences.

    That Joseph Smith’s innovations didn’t spread outside of the church he founded is not a fatal problem for a dialect geographical model of church history; there are plenty examples of linguistic innovations that spread primarily in one direction. (But has our propagation of Family Home Evening, for example, really been without any echo outside the Church?) The failure to offer any particular insight about Joseph Smith as prophet is also not a significant drawback, as that was not really the aim. (Historical linguistics is much less a source for model explanations of innovation as it is a graveyard of misguided attempts to explain them; two hundred years after the formulation of the High German sound shifts and the description of their progress, there is no consensus about what set them in motion in the first place.) Even accepting a completely supernatural or a completely naturalistic explanation of Joseph Smith, the problem of describing the practices and beliefs of his followers is going to require some form of analysis that takes into account social conditions and institutional structures.