09 February 2010

Philology and evolution

Continuing with Orientalism, I've now read the section on Ernest Renan (1823–92), who's best known for his atheistic Vie de Jésus, but who was also an example of the growth of philology.

Although it's not part of my immediate interest here, I'm surprised the parallel between 19th century philology and the scientific revolution headlined by Darwin isn't more commonly made. Just as scientific discoveries were showing that the biblical view of the physical world couldn't be true, linguistics was showing that the biblical story of language couldn't be correct. Hitherto, the aim of linguistics (in the west) had been to show how languages derived from the pre-Babel single language. Now it appeared that, for example, Sanskrit had much older roots.

I wonder why the implications of this have had so much less impact on public debate than evolution. Why aren't there crazy Americans denying the antiquity of the Indo-European languages? Maybe there are, but we just don't hear them.

Renan, according to Said, dealt with Semitic languages in a slightly perverse way. Now that their biblical specialness was denied, he went to another extreme, proving that "the Semitic languages are inorganic, arrested, totally ossified, incapable of self-regeneration" (p 145).

Again, I'm not specially interested in the specific content, but in the way Renan is said to have approached the question. Said compares him to a museum keeper:
What is given on the page and in the museum case is a truncated exaggeration, like many of Sacy's Oriental extracts, whose purpose is to exhibit a relationship between the science (or scientist) and the object, not between the object and nature. (p 142)

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