March 17, 2007

St. Patrick, a linguist?

It's St.Patrick's Day and no matter whether you're Irish or not, the legends surrounding this beloved saint are all around us. What you may not have known, however,  is that he was actually one of our first linguists. Okay, maybe he wasn't even Irish (some say he was Welsh), he didn't really rid Ireland of reptiles, and he had nothing to do with the symbol of the shamrock. But there is at least some evidence that he was probably a linguist.

The lack of known facts about St. Patrick's life to the contrary (and since when do missing facts hinder progress?), there are many things that seem to reveal his linguistic bent. And if the Fox Family Channel can say what it says about him in its 2000 made-for-TV movie, St.Patrick: Irish Legend, then so can we. So here goes:

1. He preceded the efforts of current cognitive linguists with his profound ability to convince the world that he minimized the alleged snakes in Ireland even though Ireland didn't really have any snakes to get rid of.  Now that's a powerful linguistic act, preceding the modern minimalist theories by several centuries.

2. He developed and mastered the speech act of promising when his negotiations with God ultimately insured that Ireland would forever remain essentially Catholic (well, pretty much so anyway). His promises must have been felicitous since Ireland remains Catholic to this day.

3.He must have invented the recency principle, way ahead of Grice... 500 years, in fact. His adoption of Druid symbols in order to undermine the rival religion seems pretty evident of this.

4. Perhaps his most obvious contribution of all is reflected in the familiar mantra frequently chanted by modern-day linguists: "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously." Ask yourself, just where did these "green ideas" come from anyway? And we haven't even mentioned his legacy of green beer.

Posted by Roger Shuy at March 17, 2007 12:01 PM