When ho is ha, medal loses shine

Prix Volney Essay Series
October 11, 2002

What is the Prix Volney? Think of it as a Nobel prize of linguistics, but more honorific than monetary as it consists only of a gold medal originally worth about £2,500 of today's money. It was much less famous too: even the 1900 Larousse Encyclopedia makes no mention of it, although it accords half a column to its founder, Count de Volney.

The first part of volume 1 opens with Volney's biography; it follows with a history of the prize, and closes with two long appendices; one is a 200-page list of all the candidates from 1822 to 1991, each with a short biography and publication list; the other is a set of comprehensive statistics, from yearly numbers of candidates to the topics of their submissions and so on.

Constantin-François Chasseboeuf (Volney's real name) was educated in Angers, in a school where, writes Joan Leopold, "studies were subordinated to religious considerations, particularly as enunciated in the Old Testament". And so young Chasseboeuf "became a rationalist and freethinker" and resolved to learn Hebrew to form his own opinion of "the real meaning and origin of the Old Testament". Perhaps that is why some hold that he coined his pseudonym out of the first syllable of "Voltaire" and the last of "Ferney".

In his will, made three days before his death, Volney reserved the equivalent of some £50,000 for this prize, to encourage research first into "transcribing Oriental languages in European characters" (think of this as the forerunner of the international phonetic alphabet), and supplementarily into any "philosophical study of languages".

The remaining volumes in the series present a selection of submissions for the Prix Volney in its early years. Leopold's introduction tells the story, but just flipping through the chronological list of candidates in the first volume shows how far the Prix Volney has drifted from its original intent.

Two of the submissions selected are in German, one in English, the rest in French. They are all preceded by thorough introductions in English, which include the candidates' detailed biographies and publications, so that you can see the picture that they paint of the development of comparative linguistics. The picture is not always accurate, however. Jacques Bourquin's introduction to Joseph Proudhon's essay, for example, is far too forgiving. So you must wade through the essays themselves. You may be disappointed by the typographical mistakes and poor proof-reading, which detract from the essays' substance.

Least distracting are the occasional typos such as where frantsuzskogo has become frantsuaskago in this transliteration of Russian. Most distracting is the poor proof-reading in Heyman Steinthal's comparative study of Chinese. To complement Steinthal's German-based rendition of Mandarin, Cantonese and Fukien pronunciations, editors have added their own in the international phonetic alphabet. Sometimes these are clearly wrong, such as when a character is attributed a Cantonese pronunciation that is in fact Mandarin. Most often you remain in doubt. It would have been better to dispense with those editorial additions. Steinthal's transcription system is transparent enough - a [sic] would have sufficed wherever the editors thought that he had made a mistake.

The discrepancies in Proudhon's essay on grammatical categories are of a different order altogether. Proudhon draws upon Biblical Hebrew, and the Hebrew has been mangled. When a Hebrew quotation straddles two lines, its parts are often reversed, with its end on the first line. When it fits on a single line, it is also often partly reversed. For instance bara' 'Elohim eth-hashshamayim ("God created the heaven") becomes eth-bashammayim bara' 'Elohim . Note also the misplaced dagesh forte and the beth where there should be a he . Either the editors of Proudhon's essay did not bother to proof-read their work, or they did, but knew no Hebrew.

But let us ignore those aggravations and turn to the substance of Proudhon's submission. It did not win the prize, only a commendation. It should have been laughed out of court. Proudhon sees the Latin future suffix - bo ( amabo, lavabo ) as having a common origin with Greek "I walk" and Hebrew bo' "going". He breaks up Latin caelos into cael-ho-s to extract the Greek article ho . He then brings in Hebrew ath-ha-Schamaim [sic] (he systematically mistransliterates eth as ath ), and sees in that ho the Hebrew article ha. "I even dare suspect," Proudhon continues, "that this preposition [Hebrew] ath , [Latin] ad , pronounced with a sharper whistling, reappears in the accusative endings os , as , es of Latin." The jury rebuked him only mildly for not being up to date with knowledge. Proudhon was a social philosopher and highly regarded - "undeniably one of the great geniuses of the 19th century", writes Gaston Bordet in his introduction. He had great influence in the "Internationale". Imagine if his political clout had helped his brand of linguistics to find acceptance.

In stark contrast with Proudhon and his linguistic delusions stands Peter Stephen du Ponceau. He was born in France but became an American citizen, earning his living there as a specialist in constitutional and international law. He became expert in American-Indian languages, with his interests extending to Chinese and Malayo-Polynesian languages. His 1826 submission won the Prix Volney. That year the prize was to reward the best answer to whether and how writing systems influenced the development and structure of languages. Du Ponceau's answer does not matter. What matters is how he reached it.

To him, facts prevail over theories and wishful thinking. So when he finds no evidence for Algonquian and Iroquoian being related, out goes linguistic monogenesis: "It seems impossible to me that all extant languages can derive from a common origin" (my translation). To him, the search for knowledge prevails over established authority: "It is fortunate for science that the discovery of [Indo-European] was not made in the days of Grotius [a 17th-century theologist, historian, philologist and diplomat]. Then the primal tongue would have been discovered and doubt no longer permitted. Fortunately that discovery was made in a more enlightened century, when all is open to scrutiny and to discussion." If you read in Michael Coe's Breaking the Maya Code how Sir Eric Thompson's authority in the field of Maya inscriptions stifled their decipherment until as recently as 1975, you will realise that du Ponceau's jibe applies as much today as it did almost 200 years ago.

Du Ponceau counters misconceptions with factual observations. Lacking inflections, with only monosyllabic words, Chinese is so inappropriate for oral expression that its speakers must resort to gesturing - or so many believed. But he reports that having observed Chinese people in conversation, he has not seen them gesture any more than we do.

Some claim that American Indians are incapable of abstraction since their languages have words for every tree species, but no single word for "tree". Du Ponceau promptly brings in as witnesses to a fallacy French words for clearly related notions that nevertheless lack a single word covering them commonally.

Du Ponceau opines that Aztec writing was true writing, not merely pictographic, as commonly believed. Right or wrong, what is interesting is his reason for this opinion: the evidence of early Spanish observers suggests that Aztec writing was a functional means of communication across space and across time. That is not easily dismissed, and would call for cogent counter-evidence.

As du Ponceau's essay is an example of linguistics almost as a hard science, so is Proudhon's a fascinating specimen of the pathology of linguistics, rather as the "Bible code" and Newbold's "solution" of the Voynich manuscript are specimens of the pathology of cryptology. As such, Proudhon's submission is as important to our understanding of the development of linguistics as are all the other reasonable essays. Different essays will appeal to different readers and repel others. Some will certainly be exasperated by Proudhon's muddle, which had me entranced. So these volumes cannot be recommended to everyone, but any linguistics library without them will be the poorer.

The Prix Volney has fallen into oblivion. Awarded only every five years now, its value has shrunk to £500. The 2001 prize was given to Francisco Queixalós of Brazil for two monographs on Sikuani, a Colombian language.

Jacques B. M. Guy is a French-born computer scientist interested in natural language understanding. He holds a PhD in linguistics from the Australian National University.

Prix Volney Essay Series :

  • Vol 1: Its History and Significance for the Development of Linguistics Research. ISBN: 0 7923 2505 2
  • Vol 2: Early Nineteenth-Century Contributions to General and Amerindian Linguistics: Du Ponceau and Rafinesque . ISBN: 0 7923 2506 0
  • Vol 3: Contributions to Comparative Indo-European, African and Chinese Linguistics. ISBN: 0 7923 2508 7


Prix Volney Essay Series

Editor - Joan Leopold
ISBN - 0 7923 2508 7 (3 volume set)
Publisher - Kluwer Academic Publishers
Price - £700.00
Pages - 995, 340 and 518

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