A blogoland retreat for undercover linguists

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Sun Language Theorists and Nikolay Marr

A couple of days back, in response to Priscilla Dunstan's "discovering" the primary syllables of a universal baby language, linguablogger Tensor playfully suggested Dunstan incorporate her theory with prior work on proto-syllables by not-so-well-esteemed soviet "linguist" Nicolay Marr. I was surprised I'd never heard of him, because his half-baked ideas reminded me of the fabulously absurd ones comprising the Turkish Language Institute's Sun Language Theory. And I found myself wondering, "Could these two thoroughly unscientific, shamelessly political, whimsically imaginative linguistic masterworks (of sheer ridiculousness) be related in some way?" And so I dug around a bit and discovered that they, um, might be. But before I go on, let me offer a summary of both.

Japhetic Syllables
Nikolay Marr was a creative, original mind, and his theories about language reflect that. In fact, they sound as if they might have be lifted straight from (mediocre) science fiction. During the 1920s, he came up with the theory that tribal names form the basis for vocabulary in all the world's languages. He also believed that tribal names could be derived from a simple set of primitive syllables: first 12, and then later on, 4 elements: sal, ber, yon, and rosh. But if you were paying attention to step one, vocabulary is derived from tribal names, so all words in all languages come from sal, ber, yon, and rosh. Pretty cool huh? This is known as Japhetic theory named for Noah's son Japheth, whose descendants passed down the 12, oh wait, 4 sacred syllables.

Sun Syllables
Now around 1935, Mustafak Kemal Atatürk's Turkish Language Institute (TDK) produced a similar theory. It goes something like this: The proto-language of human beings was developed by a sun-worshiping tribe in Central Asia. Their language formed out of a set of sound "archetypes" encapsulating the essence of various psychological as well as physiological relationships. The tribe's most important was with the sun, and so their word for sun was actually first ever to be uttered, and sounded something like this: [a:]. And if you haven't figured it out, that's why their language is the Sun Language.

You might not be surprised that the Turkish language that was discovered by the TDK to best preserve archetypal sounds from the Sun Language. Take the sun sound itself, [a:], and you get the Turkish ağa, meaning landowner (also used as a title for addressing lords and other bigwigs in Ottoman Turkish). All other languages consist of sounds form the Sun Language, but none to such an amazing degree as Turkish.

Because Turkic languages are closest to the Sun Language, the words in all languages derive from what is essentially taken to be proto-Turkic; that includes all Indo-European languages. This was useful to Atatürk and TDK because of the massive language purification project in which they were concurrently engaged. Purification was pretty difficult, as the TDK had previously taken it upon themselves to rederive all foreign loans from native roots. But with the Sun Language Theory, all they had to do was come up with a Sun Language etymology for borrowings (and only if anyone asked about them). Cool huh? For more check out Geoffrey Lewis's terrific The Turkish Language Reform, a Catastrophic Success.

Are They Related?
But back to my question. Might there have been a relationship between the Turkish Sun Language and Marr's Japhetic syllabic universals? Well, not that I can show. But I did happen upon an excellent article by İlker Aytürk (Turkish Linguists Against the West: The Origins of Linguistic Nationalism in Atatürk's Turkey, Middle Eastern Studies 40:6) that sets the Sun Language theory into historical context. Aytürk does show that (some) TDK members were at least reading Marr. Here is Aytürk quoting Professor Abdülkadir İnan, an Ankara University Turkologist, writing during the time of the reform, introducing a Turkish translation of Nikolay Marr's work:
Marr’s important service in the field of language is his revolt against
the fanaticism of the classical Indo-European school and against this
school’s negligence of and condescension toward languages other than
those that are related to Latin, Greek and Sanskrit. ‘Indo-Europeanism’
in Marr’s view, is a sickness that hinders the progress of science like
the fanaticism of the Catholic priests in the medieval period. It is a
vicious circle set by formalists, who refuse to acknowledge the share of
the nations who played the greatest role in the cultural history of the
world (for instance, the Turks). . .[According to Marr] the blunders of
the Europeans are not the fault of every single scientist; it is
predetermined by the ideology and the principles of the school that
they belong to. It is not enough to present evidence that disproves these
blunders. It is necessary to demolish the school to its foundations and to
establish a new school in place of it. (Aytürk, 16)
It's interesting to point out that there were members of the TDK who were familiar with Marr's work and appreciated it. Like Marr's "revolt" against Indo-Europeanism, the Sun Language theorists appeared to be reacting in large part to a historical tendency in (some) western scholarship to portray non-Indo-European languages as either inferior, or just irrelevant. Aytürk points to influential German Philologist and Sanskritist Friedrich Max Müller as a leader when it came to this tendency. According to Aytürk, "Müller identified agglutination with nomadism and referred to the Turanian and specifically Turkic languages as ‘nomad languages’" (Aytürk, 5) Apparently Müller's outrageous beliefs on language are numerous, and they definitely deserve their own blog entry.

1. According to Marr, the Japhetic language is the universal language of the proletariat. Pretty crazy stuff.
[Edited Mon. Dec 11]
[Edited again and retitled post, removing sloppiness. Felt slightly out of my element, and still getting used to the blogformat. Thurs. Dec 14]


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your kind words. I'm glad you liked it, ilker.

Anonymous said...

reiGot a book coming out soon, if it sells volume 2 will include Marrs. (it's a shit wierd book) Fancy telling me more as I don't make mistakes...
Thanks, RON.

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