The fascination of languages: Chomsky, Grimm, etymology … and the sardonic grin
As a mother of trilingual children, I am grateful to the great master of linguistics, Noam Chomsky. With him, linguistics acquired a truly new perspective. And mothers gained new hope in how their children would skillfully and naturally acquire languages!
For centuries, it was believed that every language is unique. Until in 1956, a young linguistics professor gave a legendary presentation at the ‘Symposium on Information Theory’ at MIT. Chomsky supported the thesis that every intelligible sentence conforms not only to the rules of its particular language but to a universal grammar, that encompasses all languages. Rather than absorbing language from the environment and learning to communicate by imitation, children are born with the innate capacity to master a language. This power is part of the evolution of our species. For Chomsky, this unique human possession is at the core of a large part of our culture and of our imaginative, intellectual life.
There was a rapid cognitive change in humans, occurring between 150,000 and 75,000 years ago. We have proof of this evolution through the discovery of refined artifacts, symbolic representation, and more complex social structures. According to Chomsky, this sudden burst of creative activity had to be connected with the sudden emergence of language.
Chomsky did not agree with the thesis that language was a learned behavior, acquired through reinforcement. But, as in the Fifties ‘Behaviorism’ was the predominant stream of thought in linguistics (and not only), the prevailing theory was that a person could turn into anything, depending on how environment and training procedures were organized. Therefore, Chomsky’s idea of language connected to a genetic component was considered quite weird, if not heretical.
We know that an infant, at birth, has some information about his mother’s language and he can distinguish it from some other language when both are spoken by a bilingual woman. The infant reflexively selects out of that complex environment all language-related data. Then, the infant gains an internal system, which gives him the capabilities we all have. No other organism on earth can do that. This is the fascinating bit of the story, as we really do not know what is happening in the infant’s brain and how things evolve.
There is still so much going on in the study of linguistics. The idea of a ‘universal grammar’, registered in our brain, and that commands our common sense while we pick and study a language, is truly thought provoking.
Still related to my interest in languages and linguistics, I find quite captivating the exploration of Philology and Glottology, where we can actually trace back the roots of those words that ‘sound familiar’ in various languages, while understanding the reasons of their differences. Why the word ‘Father’ is showing a ‘f’ sound in English and Danish ( far), and a ‘v’ in German (Vater), where ‘v’ and ‘f’ are fricative consonants, but these are ‘p’ in Italian ( padre), French ( père) Spanish ( padre) and Latin ( pater), where ‘p’ is an ‘occlusive’ consonant? The ‘Grimm law’ can explain the reason. In the first millennium BC there has been an evolution of the proto-Indo-European ‘occlusive’ consonants as they developed into Proto-Germanic ones. Proto-Indo-European languages were based on Greek, Latin and Sanskrit, while Proto-Germanic languages were based on Northern-European languages. The one above is just a small example, as in fact we had many Proto-European consonants who shifted into Proto-Germanic ones… and I do not want to annoy you with more old and odd phonetics rules. But all this is so intriguing just because it shows how similar our different languages are.
Now, one last thing that will make you – literally– smile. It is still about language, but in particular about word etymology. As we are so much talking about Sardinia in these days, it comes in handy…
Have you ever asked yourself where the expression ‘sardonic grin’ comes from?
From the Greek word ‘sardonios’…and from Sardinia! Homer first used this expression to describe a bitter or scornful laughter.
If we search in the dictionary, the word indicates a laughter deformed by folds of the mouth, as if to express irony, derision or provocation. But it is also used in the medical field to indicate a spasm of the masticatory muscles, causing convulsive laughter.
According to some Greek writers such as Pausanias and Pliny the Elder, a plant similar to celery, but poisonous, grows in the island of Sardinia. The foreigners who ate it, unaware of its danger, died of a fit of nerves, pulling their lips in a strange grin, similar to a laughter. In 2009, some scientists in Italy seemed to have identified the neurotoxic plant responsible for the sardonic grin in the ‘water dropwort’ (Oenanthe crocata).
Another theory about the origin of the word ‘sardonic’ is one from the Greek Sicilian historian Timaeus and it refers to certain customs that were typical in ancient Sardinia.
The elders who past the age of seventy, according to tradition, had lived long enough. Therefore, their sons stoned them with sticks and pushed them to death down the cliffs, sacrificing them to Cronos. While being beaten and and while falling into the abyss, the elderly laughed and rejoiced as if they were happy to go to death. It would have been coward to cry. By laughing, they were showing courage and nobility in the face of sure demise.
According to Eustathius, their sons were also laughing. This was a way to purify themselves and to show parents that they were not causing them harm, but rather freeing them from the problems of old age.
All these – to say the least- bizarre interpretations, surely show us the multiple and infinite series of myths, legends, stories and tales about ancient Sardinia. Probably, for the ancient Greeks, the definition of the said ‘Sardonic grin’ was a way to identify everything that was beyond the frontiers of their civilization.
To us, this belongs to the ageless fascination that words and languages transmit.
And in this case, it is part of the meaning of an island too…