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The History of a Myth: Marr and Marrism. Notes from a book by V. M. Alpatov. Biographical background. Born 1864 in Georgia, son of a Scottish father (81 years old!) and a Georgian mother

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the history of a myth marr and marrism

The History of a Myth: Marr and Marrism

Notes from a book by V. M. Alpatov

biographical background
Biographical background
  • Born 1864 in Georgia, son of a Scottish father (81 years old!) and a Georgian mother
  • Showed high linguistic aptitude from early on: studied (in addition to Georgian) Russian, German, French, English, Latin, Greek and Turkish in Gymnasium
  • At Petersburg U, was first student ever to study simultaneously all languages in all four depts devoted to Near Eastern studies: Armenian, Georgian, Persian, Turkish, Tatar, Sanskrit, Arabic, Hebrew, Syrian.
fast rise to fame
Fast rise to fame
  • Graduated 1888, began teaching in 1891, by 1911 had title “Akademik”
  • Discovered valuable monuments of Georgian and Armenian language on expeditions to Sinai and Palestine
  • Authored grammars and dictionaries of Georgian, Armenian, Abkhaz, etc.
but did he have linguistic training
But did he have linguistic training?
  • He never took a single course in linguistics
  • Near Eastern studies at Petersburg U did not include courses in linguistics
  • His main contributions are in archeology, philology, and literary studies
  • “In one of his later works, Marr wrote that the IndoEuropeanists had gone too far in their research and it was hard for them to turn back without having to demolish their idols. Marr didn’t have such a problem.”
in a class of his own
In a class of his own…
  • Already as a student, Marr criticized the work of qualified linguists, who were forced to move to other work, and ultimately there were no specialists in Caucasian/Near Eastern languages with enough linguistic training to judge his work, and also no linguists with enough knowledge of Caucasian/Near Eastern languages to judge his work
marr marr so contraire
Marr, Marr so contraire…
  • “I have a habit of listening to everyone who has given me advice (and there have been so many) in order to be that much more sharp in often doing the exact opposite.” – from Marr’s autobiography
  • Marr completely rejected Western scholarship
  • Antoine Meillet (famous linguist Marr met in Paris in 1894): Marr has “a striking imagination which is totally lacking in linguistic content”
an axe to grind
An axe to grind…
  • Marr’s work shows a consistent focus on proving the importance of Georgian in particular and Caucasian languages as a whole. He felt that the scholarly world had unjustly ignored them.
  • He felt it was unfair that the Georgian language was considered an “isolate”, and he was determined to find some relationship to other languages
the third son of noah
The third son of Noah…
  • “Japhetic theory” -- 1908 Marr tries to prove that Georgian is related to the Semitic languages, despite his lack of skill with comparative/historical linguistics
  • “Language Hybridization theory” -- He was also convinced that some Armenian dialects were related to Georgian – he didn’t understand that apparent similarities were more likely the result of recent contact
where these ideas lead
Where these ideas lead…
  • This went beyond anything acceptable as a theory of “substrates” in language and ultimately led to hypothesis that hybridization is relevant to many, and later to all languages. This of course meant that ALL languages were related to the Caucasian (Georgian) languages…
  • This especially applied to languages that had not been identified as belonging to any other families, which were immediately dubbed “Japhetic”, inlcuding the Basques (thus giving Georgian a foothold in Europe) – Also: Etruscan, Hittite, Dravidian, Chuvash, Hottentot…
  • Some of his ideas were clearly ridiculous, but others had some basis in fact – the problem is that fact and fantasy were all mixed together
ultimately marr saw two kinds of languages
Ultimately Marr saw two kinds of languages:
  • The “Japhetic” ones that, for the most part, had not been assigned to other families
  • Those in other families he designated as “hybrids”, with a “superficial” layer (which was I-E, Semitic, etc.), and a deeper layer (which was “Japhetic”). The superficial layer is associated with the conquering elite, whereas the Japhetic layer is that of the original nation – this idea played out harmoniously with the communist revolutionary ideology of the Bolsheviks…
today we know that
Today we know that…
  • No one takes the “Japhetic” theory seriously
  • In fact, no one even believes that the Kartvelian languages are related to the other Caucasian languages
  • And of course Armenian and Hittite are I-E
along comes the revolution
Along comes the Revolution…
  • Marr decided to side with the new gov’t
  • Even before the revolution and civil war, Marr had drifted away from his original group of students, and now he was cut off from them and from going on expeditions to the Caucasus.
  • This meant he had no new factual material, and he turned his attention to linguistics (his weakest field)
  • Meshchanin becomes his new student and later leads the “new theory of language”
post revolution
  • Marr tries to establish international Basque institute, but fails and turns from Western science
  • 1921 In SSSR he founds
    • State Academy of History and Material Culture
    • Japhetic Institute (the only linguistic institute in Academy of Sciences at the time)
the new teaching about language
The New Teaching about Language
  • The Japhetic theory grew into a theory of “world proportions”
  • Premiered Nov 21, 1923 – there are/is no protolanguage
  • A definitive break with real science, and a tragedy both for Marr and for Soviet science…
the new soviet dogma
The new Soviet dogma
  • The New Teaching about Language is full of contradictions of facts, unproved claims, bad logic, divergence from accepted scientific practice… so why was it the accepted Soviet dogma of linguistics for two decades?
  • It was scientifically weak, but ideologically powerful, especially for the Stalinist cult of personality.
  • The ideas and the person were also very attractive, thus forming a myth
a work in progress
A work in progress…
  • There is no definitive characterization of “the New Teaching about Language” because Marr himself kept changing it, though always in one direction, but with contradictions…
new teaching
New Teaching…
  • Language is a superstructure of society, like art
  • Language developed independently in various societies, but there is just one path of cultural development
  • Language was at first gestural, and then there was a revolution with invention of spoken language, and those that had it had advantage of power
new teaching1
New Teaching…
  • Spoken language starts not with sounds and words, but with an ideology of structure: syntax
  • The original spoken language consisted of only four elements: SAL, BER, JON, ROSh (based on the tribal names of Mediterranean peoples)
new teaching2
New Teaching…
  • Next comes the stage of phonetic and semantic differentiation, when the four elements were broken down into sounds and given meanings, but ALL words go back to those tribal names.
  • For example: ‘Arm’ and ‘leg’ were not coined as parts of the body, but as connected with magical function, in dancing and playing…The lexicon was built up by hybridization and phonetic differentiation of the four basic elements.
new teaching3
New Teaching…
  • Grammar also developed in stages, going from isolating (most primitive – Chinese) > agglutinative (Turkish) > Inflectional (most developed and perfect)
  • Only the languages with complex inflection were fully developed – Romance and Germanic languages lagged behind, showed some of their Japhetic origins
new teaching4
New Teaching…
  • Parts of speech developed in this order: nouns > pronouns > verbs
  • Plural came before singular
  • There is no such thing as protolanguages because all languages are hybrids
  • Shared vocabulary does not come from genetic relationships, nor does it come from borrowings – it comes from hybridization and the single path of linguistic development
new teaching5
New Teaching…
  • Russian and French are closer to Georgian than they are to other Slavic and Romance languages…
  • Japhetites were the bearers of “the creative origins of the exploited social strata of such ancient times that they cannot be assigned a historical name”
  • All languages must go through a Japhetic stage
  • The development of languages is conditioned by social causes, reflecting social structure
new teaching6
New Teaching…
  • Personal pronouns and singular are connected to more developed understanding of the individual
  • Superlative adjectives were a property of most developed languages
  • Revolutionary shifts in language were motivated by changes in technology and material culture, which yielded new ways of thinking and talking, and this is why there are different “systems” of languages
new teaching7
New Teaching…
  • All languages, and all thinking, is class-based
  • Languages of the same class are more the same than languages of the same nation or country
on our way to one world language
On our way to one world language…
  • Language is preparing for its revolution, to create a “new and unified language where lofty beauty comingles with the highest development of reason. Where? Comrades, only in our communist classless society.” --Marr
problems with the bright futures
Problems with the bright futures…
  • The correlations between language types and classes mixes together typological and sociolinguistic types
  • Japhetic studies are anchored in only two points – a past so distant we have no written records, and a future that we cannot reach – but this also made them impossible to disprove…
  • Marr claimed to solve the unsolvable by postulating how language came into being
the one global language
The one global language
  • Marr didn’t give many details, except to say it wouldn’t be a spoken language
  • 1926 -- a group was formed at the Japhetic institute to establish the “theoretical norms of the future common language of mankind”, but their work never got off the ground…
no checks and balances
No checks and balances
  • According to Marr, all sounds could become all other sounds, unlike his enemies, the “indo-europeanists”, he didn’t follow regularities of sound change, and his correspondences were never limited, except by ideological motives (causing him to claim there was no connection between Russian rab ‘slave’ and rabota ‘work’)
language planning
Language planning
  • In 20s and 30s the new Soviet Union had to create alphabets for unwritten languages and for languages with Arabic script, etc. -- somehow Marr and marrism got the credit for making this happen…
  • His only real contribution to these practical problems was his analytical alphabet of Abkhazian, which was supposed to prefigure the one world language, which was devised before the revolution and adopted in 1924
so much for that one
So much for that one…
  • But his alphabet was designed to capture all possible sounds and, with 62 symbols, was too complicated to be practical, so it was replaced in 1926…
  • Marr’s works contain an abundance of ultra-revolutionary phrases, but very little practical information, and what directives there are, are usually impractical. For example, he said that one should not use a given dialect as the basis for constructing a literary language, but instead create something equally comprehensible to all dialects – this and other guidelines caused problems in language planning
jakovlev polivanov
Jakovlev, Polivanov
  • Fortunately there were other, more talented people who actually did the work…
  • They had to do battle with Marr and his analytical alphabet
ardent supporters
Ardent supporters
  • Marr had many admirers, even including the famous poet Brjusov, who saluted Japhetic theory on a poem, as well as many officials in the Communist party and Soviet gov’t
  • People in related fields (philosophy, literature, archeology) just took him at his word, for they desired a “key” to prehistory