To the Editors:
Primitives Are Not Primitive
A position statement
The analysis of linguistic structures at all levels, the phonological, the syntactic, the semantic and perhaps some minor others, potentially less important ones I am unaware of, commonly leads to the discovery, description and definition of ever smaller indivisible units that are claimed to make up the constructions of language, speech, discourse and text. These units are usually referred to as “primitives”. I’d like to argue that this labelling carries a condescending connotation that does no justice to the elements so fundamental to our analyses.
Indeed, the Concise OED defines ‘primitive’ as: “undeveloped, uncultured”. In a similar vein, the French ‘primitif’ is defined as « ce qui a la simplicité, la naïveté, la grossièreté supposée des premiers âges [...] sommaire, rudimentaire » (source: Le Robert historique).
This, of course, does not correspond to the burden laid upon the metaphorical shoulders of the no-further-divisible units. Without them, nothing would be in existence. No phoneme, no morpheme, no TopicPhrase.1 There is thus nothing naïve or gross about them. I urge the linguistic community not to recur to these expressions again that insinuate to the smallest fundamentals of our world such an insulting trait.
I therefore propose to refer henceforth to the ultimate elements in linguistics as “First Elements”.
Prof. Primus I. N. Terpares
Head of First-Aid Services
Primary Care Centre
Department of General Linguistics
School of Trivium and Trivia
Schola Medica Salernitana
Ah, yes, one of the great dangers of academe: well-intentioned political correctness run amok. Amok!
“First Elements” seems like a fine term, but the meta-linguistics of academic sociolinguistics can become tiring; not because one doesn’t care, but because the cultural tectonics of political correctness mean that we stand on sand in the best of times, and it never stops shifting.
Many of the editors are old enough to recall efforts to relabel so-called “primitives” as “indigenemes” or “aboriginemes”. “First Elements” is perhaps better, because it does not invite the question of “indigenetics” or “aborigenetics” (an unfortunate term, as early biolinguists discovered). “Linguistic Nativism” had a good run, too, until the Universal Grammar crowd clobbered its meaning. Even the use of “autoch-tone” was popular in certain phonology circles for a while.
But the real problem is the real or perceived lack of respect accorded the concept so label(l)ed.2 As long as there is no respect, the label will eventually become pejorative, no matter the meaning. If you took at random, say, the telephone word “o!pakept!y”3 and used it, instead of “primitive”, all would be fine for a generation; but in 25 years’ time, someone would be complaining about the connotations of “o!pakept!y”.
What will befall “First Elements”? It’s impossible to say. At this point it wouldn’t surprise us if it came to be taken to refer to the first of four planned prequels to that movie with Robert “The Bruce” Willis, Gary Oldguy, and Milla Yo-yovich. Sigh.
1 The status of morphomes, in this respect, could not be defined.
2 Yeah, we noticed your l-gemination. You’re probably some liberal hippie European, aren’t you? Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
3 In the SpecGram offices, our phones have Q on the 7, Z on the 9, and all the click consonants on the 1.4
4 And the telephone number in question, “o!pakept!y” is thus a favorite of telephone pranksters.
Dear Sir or Madam of the Committee d’chercher:
God I am so frikkiŋ awesome. It’s hard for you to conceive of this, as a mere mortal, but I will dispense some wisdom to you out of kindness. This will assist you in understanding why you need not consider further applicants for the position of Assistant Track Professor in your department of Satirical Linguistics, as inadvertently revealed on the Linguistics Academic Job Wiki. I am currently ABJ in linguistics at the Most Auspicious Order of the Rajamitrabhorn. I expect you to defend your decision to hire me by July 2012, and you should plan to submit to my demands by September 2012.
One reason I’m awesome is that I’m the best teacher ever. Not just the best there’s ever been. I’m the best there ever will be. I taught Jesus how to walk on water. And yet, my skills at cultivating insights in my pupils are so immense that he never even knew that’s how he learned it. My instructional methods consist principally of muse-like serendipity, awe-inspiration, and group work. As you may manage to note from careful perusal of my application packet, carved into a single tusk of mammoth ivory, I have never received less than a 6, on a 1-5 course evaluation scale. My student feedback has consistently been more impressive than anything your own pitiful children could come up with, unless they took my courses.
My research dwarfs yours. I am a frikkiŋ genius. My intellect is the cause of black holes. I am funded by the most prestigious of institutions, the universe itself. Repeatedly. My analysis of counter-junctive trijacency builds the Taj Mahal. My work on slurping constructions has landed on the moon. Furthermore, my recently completed dissertation on L4 phronetics & phrenology is poised to revolutionize the field. Three anonymous reviewers have independently described it as supplanting the book of Mormon as successor to the Tao Te Ching. One half-dozen representatives from major publication houses are currently fighting to the death for the privilege to copy-edit.
Once hired at [your institution], I would look forward to devouring human knowledge to hasten Ragnarok, as well as fruitful collaboration with your faculty. And by fruitful collaboration, I mean literally cornucopias. It will be like a fruit-salad forest just dumped the wealth of its treasure trove onto your outstretched hands in time of need. I will subsequently mend the resulting broken fingers as well, in exchange for tenure.
I AM THE BRINGER OF ALL PERFECTION. Quod Ego Demonstravi.
You may bow to my will via email, using the address enclosed. I await your response.
Thanks for the letter of application. If only we had a position to offer. Unfortunately, these tactics have been tried on us before, and we fell for it—now he’s the frikkiŋ Managing Editor. Never again. However, those rubes over at Language will fall for almost anything.
I just finished reading Ruminating on Consonants. What’s the deal with this article? It reads like it was written by like eight different people.
Dear V. Interesting,
Uh, um... uh, gotta go now!
Speculative Grammarian accepts well-written letters commenting on specific articles that appear in this journal or discussing the field of linguistics in general. We also accept poorly-written letters that ramble pointlessly. We reserve the right to ridicule the poorly-written ones and publish the well-written ones... or vice versa, at our discretion.