Rhetoric of debates, discussions and arguments: Useful destructive criticism for scientific & academic research, reasons and personal opinions; the example of Proto-Indo-European language revival

Rhetoric (Wikipedia) is the art of harnessing reason, emotions and authority, through language, with a view to persuade an audience and, by persuading, to convince this audience to act, to pass judgement or to identify with given values. The word derives from PIE root wer-, ‘speak’, as in MIE zero-grade wrdhom, ‘word’, or full-grade werdhom, ‘verb’; from wrētōr ρήτωρ (rhētōr), “orator” [built like e.g. wistōr (<*wid-tor), Gk. ἵστωρ (histōr), "a wise man, one who knows right, a judge" (from which 'history'), from PIE root weid-, 'see, know']; from that noun is adj. wrētorikós, Gk. ρητορικός (rhētorikós), “oratorical, skilled in speaking”, and fem. wrētorikā, GK ρητορική (rhētorikē). According to Plato, rhetoric is the “art of enchanting the soul”.

When related to Proto-Indo-European language revival, as well as in modern scientific research of any discipline, discussions are sometimes interesting in light of historical rhetoric, as they might get really close to some classical (counter-)argumentative resources, however unknown they are to their users…

Sophists taught that every argument could be countered with an opposing argument, that an argument’s effectiveness derived from how “likely” it appeared to the audience (its probability of seeming true), and that any probability argument could be countered with an inverted probability argument. Thus, if it seemed likely that a strong, poor man were guilty of robbing a rich, weak man, the strong poor man could argue, on the contrary, that this very likelihood (that he would be a suspect) makes it unlikely that he committed the crime, since he would most likely be apprehended for the crime. They also taught and were known for their ability to make the weaker (or worse) argument the stronger (or better).

So, for example, if people might generally think that evolution is very likely to have occured, because of the scientifical data available, one only has to say something like “God put those proofs there to confound people and prove their faith“. And, even if there is no single reason to give why that person is entitled to interpret the Bible that way, and to determine what ‘God thought’ when ‘inventing proofs of a false evolution’, in fact there is no need to give rational arguments: this very likelihood of evolution is in itself a proof of how good God is in cheating us…

Statistics was a discipline mostly unknown to sophists, but I’m sure they more or less imagined the typical bell curve that population beliefs and opinions follow. If interpreted the other way round, one could say that the more an idea is believed by people, the more likely is that someone will come along with another, competing one. In fact, that’s natural evolution, too: without that universal trend that life has to differentiate itself from the normal, matter would have never changed and get more and more complicated…

That trend is observed in research, too, as man is obviously another animal and its intelligence another natural feature subjected to the evolutive machinery of nature. That’s why Occam’s razor is never a sufficient argument to end a research field or hypothesis: you have e.g. Gimbutas’ theories (or Renfrew’s, if you like) – even though obviously not completely proven hypothesis -, about some prehistoric speakers being successful in their conquests and migrations through Eurasia, which infers with logic that what happend with Indo-European languages expansion is what has almost always happened in the known history of language expansion, using the most probable extrapolation they can with the facts we know. But you will still find competing hypothesis about an unlikely millennium-long, peaceful spread and mix of languages through and from Europe or Asia, based on some controversial facts and a great part of imagination. And, even if such theories are far away from what can generally be considered rational, they will certainly find supporters; and it’s not bad that such unlikely ideas emerge: science is built up thanks to some of such marginal ideas which eventually prove true; apart from the million ones that prove false and disappear, and some dozens that are sadly able to remain, like homeopathy or Esperanto-like conlanging, as I’ve said before. The same happens with the human body, which went through mutation obtaining lots of advantages, but at the same time dragging some genetic illnesses along…

About Proto-Indo-European research, it’s more or less straightforward which hypothesis and theories are considered generally accepted, and which ones minority views. Nevertheless, that doesn’t prevent renown experts from accepting some marginal hypothesis in some aspects of PIE reconstruction, while keeping the general view on other ones; neither does that prevent renown linguists and philologists to consider Proto-Indo-European, or comparative and historical grammar in general, an absurd work: the ex-Dean of a southern Spanish University, a Latin professor, deems PIE an “invention”; in his words, “from Lat. pater, Gk. pater, and Eng. father, we say there is a language that said what, ‘pater‘? pfff”; he obviously considers “language=written & renown language system”; the problem with that thought is that if PIE becomes spoken (i.e. written too) and renown, just as Old Latin became Classical Latin – instead of disappearing as the other Italic dialects – the whole reasoning is useless; so it’s also useless now. One of the most famous Indo-Europeanists in Spain, F. Adrados (e.g. marginal supporter of Etruscan as an IE language) and Bernabé (e.g. marginal supporter of the Glottalic theory, I think), even if dedicated to Indo-European reconstruction, deemed PIE revival – in some news in Spanish newspaper El Mundo – a “uthopia“, but considered at the same time possible that Greek and Latin (respectively) became EU’s official language: it’s not that they don’t consider speaking PIE impossible, but only that there are “better” alternatives: better, I guess, for Romance or Greek speakers or philologists…

About Proto-Indo-European language revival for Europe, thus, it is difficult to ascertain if it is the most rational choice, as it is to ascertain if liberal thoughts are more rational than conservative ones. I have lived in other countries within the European Union, and have visited other parts of Spain where the spoken language is not Spanish; from that experience, the different attitudes I’ve found are overwhelming: when you speak in English or German anywhere in Europe, the conversation is everything but fluent; also, if you speak English in the UK, German in Germany, French in France, or Czech in Czechia, even mastering quite well the regional language, you’ll never get the same reaction as if a Catalan (from a Catalan-speaking region) speaks Spanish in, say, Galicia (a Galician-Portuguese speaking region), as both use a language (Spanish) common to both of them. That was also the idea behind the first Esperanto out there, probably Volapük, and it has been the idea behind every conlang trying to be THE International Auxiliary Language since then; and none has succeeded. That was also the idea behind Hebrew revival in Israel, for speakers of a hundred different languages living in the same territory: they had other modern, common languages to choose instead of an ancient, partially incomplete, and “difficult” (in Esperantist terms) one, too, and it succeeded.

Latin use in Europe, on the other hand, has been declining ever since the first Romance dialects developed, and had its latest offcial (i.e. legal) use in Europe, apart from the Catholic church, at the beginning of the XX century in Hungary – curiously enough, a non-Indo-European speaking country. Its revival has been proposed a thousand times since then, but has never recovered its prestige, as Germanic-speaking countries have taken the lead in Western Europe, and Slavic-speaking countries in the East. It is hard to explain now why English- or German- or Polish-speaking peoples should learn and speak again the language of the Romans and the Roman Empire, with which they have little history in common…

The rest of known language revivals, like Cornish or Manx, or even e.g. the partial revival (“sociolect”) of Katharevousa Greek, not to talk about the so-called “revivals” – in fact “language revitalizations” – of Basque, Catalan, Breton, Ukrainian, etc. have been just regionally oriented language (or prestige + vocabulary) revivals with cultural or social purposes.

So, is Proto-Indo-European revival a “correct”, or “sufficiently rational” option, given the known facts? As an opinion, it is neither correct nor incorrect, as being “Indo-Europeanist for Europe” is like being leftist or conservative in politics; just like supporting Hebrew revival wasn’t (a hundred years ago) “sufficiently rational” in itself, and controversy over its revival have never ended. But, the reasons behind PIE revival can and should be questioned, as the reasons behind a conlang adoption (i.e. the concepts of “better” and “easier” when applied to language) can and should be critically reviewed. In Proto-Indo-European, it refers – I think – to two main questions:

1) Did Proto-Indo-European exist? i.e. can we confidently consider any proto-language something different from especulation or mere unproven hypothesis? The answer is “it depends”. Proto-Indo-European was probably a language spoken by prehistorical people, as probable as any generally accepted scientific theory we can support without experimental proofs, like theories on the Universe, its creation or development: they might prove wrong in the future, but – following the necessary abstraction and common sense – it’s not difficult to accept most individual premises and facts surrounding them. That migh be said about proto-languages like Proto-Slavic (ca. 1 AD), Proto-Germanic (ca. 1000 BC), Proto-Greek or Proto-Indo-Iranian (ca. 2000 BC) or Proto-Indo-European, especially about its European or North-Western subbranch (ca. 2500-2000 BC); on the other hand, however, about proto-languages like ‘Proto-Eurasiatic’ or ‘Proto-Nostratic’, or ‘Proto-Indo-Tyrrhenian’, or ‘Proto-Thraco-Illyrian’, or ‘Proto-Indo-Uralic’, or ‘Proto-Italo-Celtic’ (or even Proto-Italic), or ‘Proto-Balto-Slavic’, and the hundred other proposed combinations, it is impossible to prove beyond doubt if and when they were languages at all.

2) Is the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction trustable enough to be “revived”? i.e. can we consider it a speakable language, or just a linguistic theoretical approach? Again, it depends, but here mostly mixed with political opinions. In light of Ancient Hebrew – a language that ceased to be spoken 2500 years ago -, “revived” as a modern language introducing thousands of newly coined terms – many of them from Indo-European origin -, to the point that some want to name it “Israeli”, instead of “Hebrew” (as we call MIE “European” or “Europaio” instead of “Indo-European”), I guess the answer is clearly yes, it’s possible: in any possible case, Indo-European languages have a continuated history of more than 4000 years, and modern terms need only (in most cases) a sound-law adjustment to be translated into PIE. Also, in light of the other proto-languages with a high scientifical basis and a similar time span, like Proto-Uralic, Proto-Semitic or Proto-Dravidian, there is no possible comparison with Proto-Indo-European: while PIE is practically a fully reconstructed and well-known language without written texts to ‘confirm’ our knowledge, the rest are just experimental (mainly vocabulary-based) reconstructions. There are, thus, proto-languages and proto-languages, as there are well-known natural dead languages and poorly attested ones; PIE is therefore one of the few ones which might be called today a real, natural language, like Proto-Germanic, Proto-Slavic or Proto-Indo-Aryan.

However, anti-Europeanists (or, better, anti-Indo-Europeanists for the European Union) won’t find it difficult to say a simple “a proto-language is not enough to be revived, as Ancient Hebrew was written down and PIE wasn’t”, thus disguising their sceptic views on the politics behind the project with seemingly rational discussion. While others will also state, in light of our clear confrontation with conlangs, that “proto-language is nothing different from a conlang”, thus disguising their real interest in spreading their personal desire that a proto-language be similar to a conlang. One only has to say: “Classical Latin couldn’t be reconstructed by comparing Spanish, French and Italian” – when, in fact, the question should be something like “could the common, Late Vulgar Latin, be reconstructed with a high degree of confidence, having just the writings of the first mediaeval romance languages?” The answer is probably a simple “yes,and quite well”, until proven the contrary, but by expressing the first doubt one can easily transform the possible-reconstruction argument in an apparently unlikely one; enough to convince those who want to be convinced…

Thus, whereas some people consider PIE a natural language, confidently reconstructed, but impossible to speak today because of political matters, others just consider it another invention, nothing different from Esperanto, while Esperantist talk about it as a “worse” or “more difficult” alternative to it: you could nevertheless find all opinions mixed together when it comes to destructive discussions, as the objective is not to defend an own rational and worked idea, but simply to destroy the appearance (or likelihood, in sophistic terms) of the rival’s idea. Be it anti-Europeanism, anti-Indo-European-reconstrution or anti-everything-else-than-Esperanto, you don’t have to defend your position: just repeat your known anti- cliches, and you’ve “won”. Apparently, at least.

Cicero noted what Greek rhetors already knew before about usual debates, and how arguments should be made and countered so that no idea is left accepted. In that sense, discussions were (and are) generally so unnecessary, that the Socratic Method seems to be still the best philosophical approach to discussions, even those concerning scientifical (i.e. “most probable”) facts: Instead of arriving at answers, non-expert (and often expert) discussion is used to break down the theories others hold, not “to go beyond the axioms and postulates we take for granted” and obtain a better knowledge, as Greek philosophers put it, but just to destroy what others build up.

So, for example, we might get these general rules to counter any argument, even if it’s not only based on opinions, but also on generally accepted facts:

1) Demonstrate the falseness of a part of the rival’s argument; then, infer the falseness of the whole reasoning. For example, let’s say Gimbutas’ view is out-dated, or that we at Dnghu included something considered nowadays ‘wrong’ in our grammar: then PIE revival is also mistaken; nothing more to explain. Or, let’s say that Hebrew revival is not “equal” to a proto-language revival, and that therefore the comparison is ‘false’ – even if comparisons are there to compare similar cases, not “equal” cases, which would be absurd – then, the whole PIE revival project is ‘equivocal’ or ‘absurd’. That’s the view about PIE revival you can find in some comments made on American blogs out there.

2) You can also confirm a part of your rival’s argument, and then, by doing it, carry that argument to its extreme, to the extent that the consequences of it are intolerable, and the paroxism completely distorts your rival’s argument. That’s more or less what I usually do when confronting conlanging as a real option for the European Union, by saying “OK, let’s adopt the ‘better’ and ‘easier’ language: first Esperanto, then the “better” and “easier” Esperanzo, then Lojban, then Pilosofio, then Mazematio, etc. etc. ad infinitum” – so, as a conclusion, one might accept that “better” and “easier” are not actually good reasons to adopt a language; hence the arguments based on “better” and “easier” cliches are opinion, not ratio.

3) The most common now (and then, I guess, in spoken language) is personal discredit, by which you can infer that his argument is also corrupted. That is what some have made when lacking more arguments, calling me personally (and the Indo-European language Association in general ?!) a “racist”, “nazi”, or “KKK-like” group; or trying to discredit me personally by saying I don’t master the English language; or that I misspelled or ‘was wrong’ in reconstructing this or that PIE name or noun; or even just because I am “an amateur”, – thus suggesting we all have to be “language professionals” to propose a trustable PIE revival. A recent example of this is our latest Esperantist visitor, saying I am “close to being racist” because I propose PIE for the EU – thus obviously inviting readers to identify “language=race”, saying that “I propose one language = I propose one race = I am a racist”, and therefore if “I=racist” and “I propose PIE revival” => “PIE=x”. The whole reasoning is nonsense, but he is not the first – and won’t be the last – educated individual to say (and possibly believe) that…

4) The fourth is actually only a minor method derived from the third, used in desperate cases, which consists on taking a sensible, emotional example of the consequences of the generalization of the rival’s argument, to demonstrate the moral baseness of the one who defends it; then, if he is discredited, his argument is corrupted, too [see point 3]… That is what some desperate people do when saying that PIE revival for the EU is “bad” (or “worse”) for non-IE-language-speakers like Finnish, Hungarian, Estonian, Basque or Maltese peoples. In fact, anyone who had taken a look at our website, or had made a quick search about me, would have found that I began this project of PIE revival to defend European languages (at least minority languages, as national or official languages are already well protected) against the European Union’s English officious imperium and English-German-French official triumvirate. Also, if we left PIE revival, only some languages (the official, i.e. national ones, 25 today) would get EU support, while the rest just die out or resist with some regional or private support. With Modern Indo-European, on the other hand, there will only be one official language supported by the European Union, and the rest really equal in front of each other and the Union, be it English, Maltese, Basque, Saami or Piedmontese. Nowadays, English is the language spoken in institutions, Maltese has an official status before the EU, while Saami is official in its country, Basque is only official in its territory, and Piedmontese, Asturian, Breton, and the majority of EU regional languages are only privately and locally defended. Nevertheless, one only has to say “supporting Indo-European is what Nazis did, PIE revival is racist and wants to destroy non-Indo-European peoples and cultures”; and, there you are: nothing proven, nothing reasoned, but the simplest and most efficient FUD you can find to counter the thousand arguments in favour of this revival project.

However unnecessary and unfruitful it might seem, I still discuss – or even directly look for debate -, because I get a benefit of such long, active pauses from my study, unlike those tiny passive TV- or radio-pauses I insert between study hours, especially in these stressful exam periods. Indeed I can find something to discuss in any website at any time, but I’m generally interested in debating these language political options. Nevertheless, I find it difficult to understand why some people get mad (at me, the project, or even the association or the whole world), when in fact taking part on any discussion is freely accepted by all of us, and it’s me who put new ideas and proposals on the table, and the others who just have to criticize them…

Something valuable for life I learned from psychology (possibly the only thing…) is about Chomsky’s reaction on Skinner’s comments: my professor (close to Freudian psychoanalysis), who told us the story – I hope I got it well, I cannot find it out there – thought it was Skinner who “won” the debate, by answering to Chomsky’s criticism, who in turn had criticized Skinner’s work, Verbal Behaviour, for his “scientistic”, not scientific, concept of the human mind. In fact, the younger Chomsky had just applied science to psychology (a need that psychology still has), simplifying the understanding of mind with a strict cognitive view, and criticizing some traditional views that psychologists accepted as ‘normal’. Skinner and those who followed his behavioural school of thought overreacted, mostly based on the belief that Chomsky’s reasons were against their lives and professional options, when in fact reason and opinion are in different planes. Chomsky, instead of entering the flame (yes, trolling existed back in the 60′s) did nothing. When asked years later, about why he didn’t reply as expected to all that criticism, he just said: “they missed the point”; he said what he had to say, criticized what he wanted, proposed an alternative, and left the discussion. And still, even by not answering, cognitive revolution provoked a shift in American psychology between the 1950s through the 1970s from being primarily behavioral to being primarily cognitive.

If you want to debate about opinions – be it PIE revival, Europeanism, general politics, Star Trek or the sex of angels -, entering into unending criticisms and personal attacks, that’s OK; but you should do it if and when you want, as I only do it because I obtain something beneficial, having a good time, laughing a little bit, relaxing from study, thinking about interesting reasons that might appear for or against my views or ideas, etc. And you should do it to get something in (re)turn, be it that same stress relief I (and most people) get, or other personal or professional benefits whatsoever. If not, if maybe you are getting more stressed trying to “convince” me or others, to “make us change our minds” with great one-minute ‘reasons’, by discussing directly your opinions as if they were ‘true‘, then you are clearly “missing the point” (using Chomsky’s words) with these discussions, and – as our latest Esperantist commenter (Mr. Janoski) puts it – “losing your time”, “trying to understand” something…

2 comments

  1. Mithridates

    Interesting as always. I’m curious about what the response from the IAL community is to the subject so I wrote about it here:

    http://mithridates.blogspot.com/2008/06/open-thread-june-3-2008.html

    I’m going to write about it on Auxlang as well. Actually, you might want to consider joining the group; the people there are surprisingly reasonable, and an Auxlang or an IAL need not be an artificially constructed language, so Europaio counts as well. Technically Hebrew counts as well too actually, though since it’s not a current topic anymore (it’s already succeeded) we don’t discuss it all that much.

  2. Pingback: Indo-European languages of Europe » Blog Archive » A simple FAQ about the “advantages” of Esperanto and other conlangs: “easy”, “neutral” and “number of speakers”

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