September 15, 2006

Oldest Writing System vs. Oldest Language

This morning NPR reported on an exciting find in Veracruz, Mexico: the discovery of fragments with apparent writing dating back to the Olmec civilization, nearly 3000 years ago. This would, the NPR introducer of the segment said, be "the oldest writing found in the Americas". She then handed over to a reporter who gave some details, including brief interviews with archaeologists (not linguists -- presumably the expert decipherers of Epi-Olmec haven't yet gotten into the act). This reporter closed with the dramatic statement that further finds could yield the key to "the oldest known language in the Americas".

Too bad: up to that point it was a great piece. But then the reporter fell into the common trap of equating the oldest known writing system with the oldest language. It reminded me of a story from my undergraduate days, the oldest academic horror story in my repertoire (well, except for the one about the geography teacher who took roll every day and then read a chapter of the textbook, which he had written): The Oldest Romance Language.

The professor was teaching the second linguistics course I ever took, at Stanford, long before the university had a linguistics department. The course was worthless in every way, partly because he chose the textbook -- by Mario Pei -- as a prime example of an academic fooling the system into thinking he was doing good academic work, and partly because he never actually talked about linguistics, instead devoting class periods to complaining about parking problems, his dog, and other ultimately uninteresting things. (Some dogs are interesting. Mine, for instance: just take a look at my home page. His wasn't.)

One day he told us how he had thwarted an evil colleague who was trying to gain an advantage over him. My professor, whose academic home was the Romance Languages Department, was a specialist in Italian. His hated colleague specialized in Portuguese. At an upcoming doctoral defense (on a completely unrelated topic), my prof said, he knew that his colleague would ask the student what the oldest Romance language was. And if the student didn't answer that Portuguese is the oldest Romance language, the colleague would fail him in the defense. BUT, my prof said proudly, I am not going to let him get away with that! If the student does say Portuguese, I will fail her in the defense!

This story impressed me deeply, even more deeply than his story about almost slapping a postal clerk who, noticing that the prof was sending a letter to Italy, tried out some broken Italian on him and...used the familiar form of address! Heinous. The experience in this class did not sour me on linguistics (since I never heard anything about it in the class anyway, I couldn't blame the field for this course), but it did make me suspect -- no doubt unfairly -- that I would not find a happy home in a Romance Languages department. To this day I still don't know for sure whether the argument about Portuguese was based solely on the purported or actual relative ages of the earliest writings in Romance languages. But I bet it was.

Posted by Sally Thomason at September 15, 2006 09:18 AM