Martin G. Selbrede – bio

Most people think it’s the other guy’s profession that needs reconstructing, not their own field or discipline.1 But Proverbs 21:4 teaches that not even the act of plowing is neutral. “An high look, and a proud heart, and the plowing of the wicked, is sin.” If plowing isn’t neutral, nothing is neutral.

All fields suffer from worldview contamination-especially human language. Linguistics is infected by humanism. The very tool we use (human language) to promote God’s Kingdom is built from parts designed to yield humanistic results.

Linguistics: The Case Study

After sixty years of English language studies, humanism has failed to secure a consensus, splitting instead into three schools of thought: purism, populism, and contextualism.

Purists allow no deviations from the formal rules of grammar. Populists embrace deviations as emblematic of linguistic growth and enhanced expressivity, while contextualists allow purpose and audience considerations to determine the admissibility of nonstandard English. The first two schools argue for meaning at the expense of expressivity, and vice versa. Contextualists don’t resolve that conflict: they merely arbitrate on a case-by-case basis. All three approaches hide their worldview commitments behind lofty, heated rhetoric.

A Biblical worldview provides a fourth position free of false disjunctions, maximizing meaning and expressive range, and allowing for linguistic deviations to enhance expressivity while preserving uniformity. By setting clarity as the summum bonum (greatest good) for language, the place for language anomalies is determined by expressive value. A Biblical worldview (1) preserves meaning, (2) enhances expressive range, (3) accommodates linguistic evolution, (4) limits linguistic decay, and (5) avoids humanistic pitfalls and dead ends.

We encounter a “semantic haze”2 discussing language because “language is the only way to get around the obstacle of language.”3 Despite poisonous exchanges between experts against a backdrop of advancing national illiteracy, we must shun the crisis mentality. A crisis (real or imagined) becomes the pretext for government intervention. English is no stranger to open linguistic warfare. “For the past fifteen hundred years, give or take, the English language has been under attack … it appears that a language crisis has been in effect for the English-speaking world in every decade since the sixteenth century.”4 Yet, “it is often difficult to tell when a language crisis is or is not occurring.”5 Alleged crises may simply reflect the truism, “People talk. Language drifts.”6 Power brokers cry wolf out of self-interest.

Elitists blame the people for the crisis: the people need the critics to save them from themselves! “The greatest threats to the survival of our language [allegedly come] from the speakers and writers of English themselves.”7 The government will step in if the critics fail.

Language and the Policy Continuum

Mainstream critics take up positions along a policy continuum between the poles of doctrinaire prescriptivism and laissez-faire descriptivism. The two poles hurl abuse at their neighbors across the divide, whose idiotic policies ignited the language crisis in the first place. Each claims to be right and to have the only workable solution. The worst sin in their eyes is for their opponents to make these same claims. Consequently, “the critics of language are not a happy lot.”8

Descriptivists prefer a passive, non-interventionist approach to language. They believe that prescriptivists are a major source of the language crisis, because prescriptivist whining about a crisis may become self-fulfilling if interventions ensue. Descriptivists see prescriptivists as doomsayers who “do not doubt for a moment that our English is in a bad way, that the next sentence that begins with hopefully is likely to be its last.”9

Critics in the middle of the continuum (the contextualists) heap contempt on descriptivists and prescriptivists, being “self-appointed critics who flaunt their concern for good English while openly flouting the serious study of linguistics.”10

Linguistic scientists align with the descriptivist side of the continuum, which is the wrong side so far as prescriptivists are concerned. “Edwin Newman and Thomas Middleton had long claimed that linguistics was destroying an otherwise perfectly good language.”11 Prescriptivists don’t just ignore professional linguists, “they actively disdain them.”12 Frank Anshen singles out “John Simon’s slanders of ‘descriptivist linguists,'”13 while Karl D. Uitti cites Jakobson’s warnings against “bigoted linguists.”14 Prescriptivists “declaim the sorry state of the English language and the even sorrier state of its users.”15 Prescriptivists in turn have been derided as “bunker intellectuals [seeking] a fortified position on an isolated promontory where they could hold off verbal laxity … They took pride in leaving excess baggage and abandoning the ordinary linguistic countryside, scorching what they could as they withdrew.”16

An Absolute Standard?

For prescriptivists, “the availability in principle of a right way to say the right thing in some absolute sense was seldom doubted.”17 But their belief in absolutes conflicts with their practice, because prescriptivists differ on countless issues of usage. “The murky realms of correct usage” are encountered even within a single camp.18 As John Frame affirms, “Human language is not an instrument of absolute precision. Only God knows, and can state precisely, all the facts in the universe.”19

Critics decry “the shameless circularity of the prescriptivist’s creed: good usage is the language of persons who speak and write well.”20 Lacking an external reference standard, prescriptivists have no standard but themselves to offer. This leads to raw authoritarianism against perceived internal enemies, insofar as “there are relatively few calls to drive the foreign devils from our lips and pens.”21

Just because prescriptivists uphold a standard does not mean their opponents function without one. Jim Quinn, who derides prescriptivists, “especially that vitriolic, sophomoric poseur, John Simon,” capitalizes Black and not white throughout his book, obviously upholding a standard “more humane, perhaps, than John Simon’s, but no less arbitrary.”22 The reviewer who wrote that runs afoul of his own criticism, since his standard (“more humane …”) reveals a bias contaminating his “objectivity.”

Prescriptivism’s influence on college-level English instruction was unexpected:

Each teacher of freshman composition receives a duplicated sheet beginning, “Many elements contribute to a good theme. The following list of suggested deductions for grammatical and mechanical errors is not intended to suggest that the instructor’s sole consideration in grading be grammar and mechanics.” Despite the disclaimer, the sheet specifies nothing about other attributes … but instead offers … “a firm guideline for grading that will encourage a uniform standard of excellence in [students’] writing.”

The implicit philosophy may be less evident to teachers than to their grade-obsessed students, who are often handed copies of the same list. Here is what they infer: it’s not what you accomplish that counts; it’s what you manage to avoid. Students learn to play it safe by developing a sort of literate baby-talk: simple words, minimal sentences … risking only ideas (if any) that can be thus packaged. Logic, substance, clarity, conciseness, and liveliness are worth next to nothing compared to avoiding run-together sentences.23

The ideal English paper, says Charles Doyle, would be a blank piece of paper: nothing ventured, nothing lost.

Prescriptivism discourages the very thing it seeks to achieve. Absence of errors becomes more important than expressivity because the grading system speaks louder than the instructor’s words. Unless the grading system treats form and expressivity as equally ultimate, nothing will change. A reconstructed linguistics can deliver expressivity without dismantling standards.24

Worldview Contamination of Dictionaries

Lexicographers are entrusted with enormous cultural authority, so much so that theorists refer to “the claim of the dictionary on the language.”25 But public faith in dictionaries is misplaced! John Willinsky’s survey of five dictionary publishing houses did “little to support the concept of a single lexicographical standard”26-a rude awakening that emerges from a “displacement of authority.”27

A dictionary can be comprehensive, unabridged, and easy to use, but if it isn’t authoritative, it won’t sell. Prescriptivist dictionaries smell more authoritative than descriptivist ones. Publisher awareness of public tastes has shifted focus toward prescriptivism.28 As a result, the war between prescriptivists and descriptivists has spilled over into dictionaries. Thus, one reviewer condemned the Oxford American Dictionary’s “cheerful attitude of infallibility” as utterly irresponsible,29 declaring its disguising of prescriptive entries as descriptive ones without a usage note as “just bad dictionary making.”30

The public prefers infallibility from its dictionaries, which is why prescriptivist dictionaries are promoted as ex cathedra tomes (note the Oxford English Dictionary’s claim to being “the last word from the ultimate arbiter”).31 This canonizing trend is reckless and deceiving. As Noam Chomsky puts it, “[T]he most elaborate dictionaries provide no more than bare hints about the meanings of words.”32

Across the aisle, descriptivist dictionaries (e.g., Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage) drop all moral imperatives. There are no “oughts,” merely a rehearsal of prevailing patterns. Such lexicons avoid becoming ersatz bibles by recasting themselves as “depositories of words already legitimated by usage.”33

The shimmering surface of language is the testing-place of innovation: survival of any usage, old or new, is subject to the suffrage of the mass of people … All is flux, the rules are always being made and remade.34

Linguistic change is driven by many forces (language drift, evolving structures, interference with other languages, pidginization, even language death). These forces give birth to the word of flux.

Language Death

Linguists adopt a Darwinian outlook in discussing language death: less efficient languages should die out to make way for more efficient ones. Nineteenth-century linguist August Schleicher, “heavily influenced by Hegel’s philosophy of history,” used efficiency as the canon for classifying languages.35 “All parts of grammar and language in general are subject to decay during language death.”36 A language cannot decay forever without ultimately dying: “[T]here is a limit to decay.”37

Linguists regard Chinese as an example of language decay in its final stages: “Chinese characters are the horrible results if the writing system is allowed to diverge from phonetic reality, and Chinese uninflected monosyllables are what happen to your language if you don’t pay attention to your inflections.”38

Linguists claim that the most decisive factor responsible for killing a language39 is the prevalence of prescriptivism! Apparently, prescriptivists are digging a hole to China for the English language. The diagnosis of language death “seems to depend upon the degree of codification … and upon how irremediably its most influential speakers dug its grave by attempts at once-for-all prescriptive standardization.”40

This is the logic: prescriptivists codify and standardize languages. An exhaustively codified language can no longer grow. If it can’t grow, it’s dead. Therefore, prescriptivism leads to language death.

That logic has been challenged. Norman Denison questions whether “a language must be regarded as dead as soon as it stops developing (that is, changing; in other words as soon as its performance can be generated on the strength of its codified rules alone) … Hebrew would have been judged at least to have been feigning death before it was restored to life in Israel.”41

The Power of the Populace

Dictionaries don’t create new words. The engine of linguistic innovation is the general populace itself. Willinsky makes reference to the “creative lexical force of the street and the spoken word.”42 New terms and structures are tried in the court of public opinion; incorporation in a dictionary is trivial in comparison with achieving wide cultural acceptance. The general public holds the reins of language in its collective hands. This fact has met with resistance from elitists in both government and education.

New terms generally don’t earn overnight acceptance. Willinsky refers to a “rare instance” of a “cultural shortcutting of the normal channels of lexicographical legitimation”-the term “wilding” applied to the brutal beating of a female jogger in New York’s Central Park. “Wilding” was a term borne by the mass media, which accelerated its linguistic acceptance.43

Innovation within the massed crowds implies innovation on the part of individuals. The populace either acclaims or rejects the products of individual creativity. But individual innovators are the ultimate source of the new in a language.44

Philosophy and Linguistic Creativity

Scholars believe there is an indeterminate “something” beneath the surface wording of a proposition. Direct ontological links between words and the ideas they represent are the stuff of mysticism. Cabala scholars adopted such a view, taking a legitimate idea to a heretical extreme. “Hebrew scholars … were faced with the old problem still plaguing philosophers as to how mind can act upon matter. The Jews concluded that there was some intermediate link making this interaction possible, and this step was the spoken word.”45 This intermediate link was termed the logos, which plays a significant role in epistemological linguistics.

Orthodox theologians noted “the way in which names of things are inseparably bound up with the nature of the things so named.”46 Adam’s naming of every living creature led scholars to focus on this innate creative capacity in man. They credited God as the source of Adam’s linguistic creativity. “In other words, right at the very beginning of human history, man was equipped with a power of discernment which expressed itself in the ability to identify the nature of things and sum up that nature in a word-its name.”47

“That there could be so close a tie between a word and a thing is strange in a way. Nevertheless, the language of Scripture reveals that the concept is indeed ancient, for in Hebrew we find but one term for both ‘word’ and ‘thing.’ This is the Hebrew dabar.”48 Scripture grounds man’s creativity in the creative power of the triune God without appeal to the mysticism of the cabala.

Your Worldview Is Showing

Philosophers, in seeking to explain why linguistic deviations are so expressive, have resorted to (1) dialectical analysis, (2) mathematical reductionisms, and (3) other dead-end theories to account for a phenomenon that’s easy to document, but hard to explain. Linguists are continually confronted with the fact that where a standard prevails, its presence can be felt whether it is observed or violated. Well-crafted deviations from the standard language don’t degrade communication, they enhance its power and expressive range.

Dialectic analyses can describe but cannot predict. They cannot provide a mechanism for the paradoxes they purport to explain, nor a usable praxis.49

Mathematical reductionism has been applied to language, care of the information theorists, but the mystery surrounding semantics has only deepened:

[O]rdinary language contains greater than 50% redundancy in the form of sounds or letters that are not strictly necessary to conveying a message … The famous advertisement for shorthand training-if u cn rd this msg …-illustrated the point … Part of the redundancy in ordinary language lies in its meaning, and that part is hard to quantify, depending as it does on people’s shared knowledge of their language and their world. This is the part that allows people to solve crossword puzzles or fill in the missing word at the end of a.50

In contrast to quantitative approaches, scholars opted for qualitative analyses where certain parameters (e.g., relevance or informational content) are maximized. Those holding to a “maximum relevance” principle “assumed that the human central cognitive system works in such a way as to maximize Relevance with respect to communication.”51 They omit to explain how the central nervous system functions as an arbiter of Relevance!

Behind every door that linguists open, there lies yet another door. To avoid an infinite regress, they cling to “innate principles” (biological or neurological) as their starting point. They avoid an infinite regress by leaping into metaphysics, bestowing a priori status on their pet “innate principles.” Karl Uitti doesn’t flinch from this sleight-of-hand, observing that “evidence contradicting the innate principle, as stated, merely leads to the formulation of a better innate principle.”52

From afar, linguistics looks like a neutral, impartial science, but its own experts admit that linguistics is determined more by ideology than by a neutral scientific method:

It would be naïve to believe that we are dealing with a “pure” area of study. Such a view would amount to a “scientific” cover-up of results in our area of study, results extensively determined by ideologies.53

Such cover-ups inhabit the majority of academic journals, as Art Bochner states:

[E]ssays inspiring intense disagreement between and among referees should be published, because they often strike at paradigm conflicts. Whole areas of study and methods of research have been and are being suppressed, because work could not satisfy two editors …54

Paul L. Garvin likewise reveals the worldview contamination behind the scenes:

[T]he process of analysis consists of a series of consecutive decisions on the part of the analyst each of which is based on certain covert assumptions about the nature of the object of study … [T]he underlying reasoning is often unconscious and the grounds on which decisions are made are covert.55

A Time for Presuppositional Profiling

Ken Hale declares that a linguist’s work coheres only “by virtue of a deep seated set of beliefs, however tacit, about the fundamental nature of language.”56 Philip C. Wander documents the existence of “a politically active system for advancing a certain brand of [linguistic] scholarship.”57 These “tacit,” “covert” presuppositions that are “extensively determined by ideologies” and propagated by a “politically active system” completely govern all linguistic research.

Pronouncements of certainty may reflect nothing more than a researcher’s personal philosophical bias. “Both [Dante and Rousseau] illustrate the Western tendency to associate a theory of language with broad intellectual constructs-a world-view, a ‘philosophy,’ a coherent sense of reality.”58 The modern innovation is its openly deductive approach: humanism is read back into the data.

This humanistic bias is pervasive because the intellectual elite steers research into politically correct channels. “Social scientists attempt to change the language game that is the academic system.”59

To work within a paradigm means to have a set of premises about how the work should be done and what the problems are. That is, a paradigm is a frame … and these premises are self-validating because counter-evidence doesn’t mean that the premises are wrong but that there is something wrong with the evidence.60

Such paradigms represent a priori starting points. Linguist David Lightfoot is representative of such an approach:

Lightfoot’s presentation is an extremely a priori and reasoned one … [He] makes a strong case for the need to have a tight and rigorous theory before beginning any serious scientific work … Theory-driven investigations certainly have advantages but, of course, one has to buy the theory first!61

Noam Chomsky repudiates materialistic rationalism as a basis for linguistic theory: “There are two ways of looking at eliminative materialism as far as I can see. One is that it’s total gibberish until somebody tells us what matter is.”62 Dislodging eliminative materialism from linguistics creates a vacuum, so Chomsky substitutes “eliminative mentalism” for it. The only reality remaining is the mental one.

Do worldviews affect the content of dictionaries? “We have Robert Ramsey’s calculation that ‘nearly all college dictionaries agree close to 90% of the time upon choice of words’ … This rough estimate suggests that we might expect up to 10% of the dictionary to arise from differences in the practices of the publishing houses.”63 Philosophy influences linguistics on more than just the theoretical level.

Expanding on the “recent work on presupposition” propounded by “linguists, philosophers, psychologists, and others,” Roger Shuy suggests that “to understand the meaning of a word or an utterance, we must understand what it supposes. A presupposition is some set of propositions that we believe is appropriate background for an utterance … [They] constitute our belief about what is the case.”64 Shuy acknowledges that presuppositions undergird linguistics, that a theorist’s claims are only as good as his presuppositions, and that human utterance is linked to an underlying worldview.

“When persons infer something from a statement, they are often realizing the presuppositions that undergird the statement.”65 Sentences aren’t just ontologically loaded, they’re also worldview-loaded! Ideological presuppositions and biases control the reasoning process of theorists from beginning to end. “That our own ideological perspectives become transparent in a critique of such works is a given.”66

The very conception of “objective” communication scholarship, and especially objective rhetorical criticism, eventually proved unsatisfying because by its very nature the act of criticism cannot comfortably be considered neutral and objective even in its most modernist incarnations. The critical act is inherently evaluative.67

Hollihan observes, “Social scientists are now becoming increasingly aware of the moral choices that both consciously and subconsciously shape their investigations … As often as we (scholars) hail diversity, multiple voices, etc., we legitimate only certain ideas (e.g., power and domination) … [Farrell] suggests that critics must ‘give up on the pretence of being able to step outside of language ensembles sufficiently to encompass them.'”68

Analyzing language is like analyzing a mirror: the image of the researcher dominates the picture. “Our society, our language, and our selves are reflexive.”69

Brute Facts and Reductionism

Within humanism, brute facts are “raw facts that just happen to exist.” Chomsky writes that “we could not have acquired any language unless its fundamental properties were already in place, in advance of experience, as argued in the epistemic naturalism of early rationalist psychology.”70 Such “fundamental properties” are brute facts. Language, too, is a brute fact: “Richard Scholes in effect scorns to marvel or despair naïvely at the brute existence of the process of encoding, decoding, and recoding.”71

Theorists who build these systems have no right to expect order given their starting point. They forfeit order up front. George Farre designed a “universe of discourse” that lacks any intrinsic ordering principle.72 Farre sneaks order back into his system by an ad hoc appeal to (of all things) the doctrine of the logos:

By logos, we mean an ordering and unifying principle which is susceptible of expression through a relational structure. In the case of an object language, the logos is the source of intelligibility from which meaningful states of affairs are definable and by means of which their descriptions may be correlated and ordered.73

Rational thought is rescued from the pit of brute factuality only by abandoning consistency, empiricism, and inductive methodology!

Man instinctively desires a unifying principle. He either submits to a revealed, theological Logos, or constructs an artificial logos to render language intelligible. Farre’s abstract logos is so important he coined the term logostical to describe how words tie to things. Why so important? “In the long run humans do not bear up well without meaning, and meaning passes through language.”74

Humanistic models resort to reductionism to account for the phenomenon of language, but Chomsky rejects reductionism: “Language is far too interesting and important to be left to the old-line philologist or contemporary reductionist.”75 Says he, “[T]here’s no reason to expect that a reductionist account is the true one.”76 In fact, “we may not have sufficient mental capacity to achieve a reductionistic account of the mind.”77

Chomsky savages all biological doubletalk. “When people say the mental is the neurophysiological at a higher level, they’re being radically unscientific.”78 He regards such pseudoscience with disdain: “The belief that neurophysiology is implicated in [human thought] could be true, but we have very little evidence of it. So, it’s just a kind of hope; look around and you see neurons; maybe they’re implicated.”79 Despite Chomsky’s denunciations, this irrational faith among scientific linguists persists.

Chomsky is consistent: he writes “mind/brain” without reducing it. “We have, by now, fairly substantial evidence that one of the components of the mind/brain is a language faculty, dedicated to language and its use.”80 Chomsky derides any finer splitting of hairs:

[Cartesian dogma] is commonly derided today as the belief that there is “a ghost in the machine.” But that conclusion mistakes what happened. It was the Cartesian theory of body that collapsed; the theory of mind, such as it was, remained unaffected. Newton … had nothing to say about the ghost in the machine; he exorcised the machine, not the ghost.81

What’s Hiding Under the Hood?

Linguistic researchers promote theories of language erected on reductionist, biological, neurophysical, or rationalistic grounds because these scholars are totally committed to humanism. Humanistic presuppositions completely dominate academic inquiry in linguistics.

R. J. Rushdoony notes that the Humanistic Education Sourcebook, an anthology “used in training teachers,” contains an essay “entitled ‘Humanism: Capstone of an Educated Person.’ This title is revealing. For our statist educators, a truly educated person is a humanist.”82 Linguist Karl D. Uitti confirms this:

What is the purpose of humanistic scholarship? What, in fact, does the humanist scholar do? The job of the humanist scholar is to organize our huge inheritance of culture … to clear away the obstacles to our understanding of the past, to make our whole cultural heritage … accessible to us.83

Linguistics was targeted for humanistic codification: “In planning the Princeton Studies of Humanistic Scholarship, we determined from the outset to have a volume on linguistics.”84

Rationalism on Parade

A rationalistic worldview permeates linguistics. Lightfoot commends “a defense of and apology for rationalism.”85 Mechanistic explanations alone have academic legitimacy. Leonard Bloomfield was concerned “to put linguistics on a firm scientific foundation and he considered a mechanistic exposition to be fundamental to scientific discourse.”86

The net result? Worldview implosion. “For perhaps the first time in history … large numbers of intellectuals cannot construct a picture of the world.”87 Mechanical reductionism is actually a threat to language: “Another way of devaluing language was to shift faith to apparatus.”88 Human language isn’t precise enough to build the desired intellectual structure. As Chomsky notes, “[T]he problem is not one of vagueness; rather, of hopeless underspecification.”89

Existentialism Up at Bat

There presently exists “a major failing of existentialism: it does not provide praxis for an existential rhetoric.”90 Existentialists borrow intellectual capital to make their case. Communication requires human community and history, while existentialism promotes individualism and living for the moment. Consistent application of existentialist tenets destroys communication, yet existentialist writers are eloquent communicators. How? Inconsistency!

Existentialists don’t deny that autonomy is erosive. They “are rightly sensitive to the charge that their subjective approach can invite irresponsible action.”91 The “relationship between language and culture … relates directly to the issue of autonomy in linguistics and, therefore, to the question of the fundamental nature of language … The question of autonomy is at the very center of current debate and controversy in linguistics.”92

Deconstructivist Anti-Rationalism

Jacques Derrida holds that a “text is not a text unless it hides from the first comer, from the first glance, the law of its composition and the rules of its game. A text remains, moreover, forever imperceptible … Nontruth is the truth.”93 This approach denies to humanistic linguistics even the neutered, abstract logos concocted to tie words and referents together via an abstract epistemological ligament: “Derrida’s differance plays havoc with logocentrism.”94

Gestalt Psychology: A Holistic View

Harry Helson writes that

“[t]he assumption that parts constitute wholes … must be rejected, if we are to remain true to the facts of observation. For wholes are the first data given in perception.”95 Holistic-minded Gestalt psychologists reject mechanistic models that fragment language into pieces.

Although anti-reductionist, Gestaltism was attacked from another anti-reductionist camp: Chomsky counters that the “basic assumption that there is a common store of thoughts surely can be denied.”96 Gestaltism’s primary competition comes from its polar opposite, behaviorism.

Behaviorism Takes the Field

Gestaltism is “holistic and dynamic,” while behaviorism is “atomistic, analytic, and static … Both branches of psychology were attempts to account for behavior.”97

Behaviorism adopts the mechanistic notions orphaned by Gestaltism. “The underlying assumption of the behaviorists is that behavior is made up of objectively observable and measurable elements … built up into a mechanical whole of behavior.”98

What Unites These Five Approaches?

The preceding five humanistic approaches to language are contaminated by ideological bias under the pretense of neutral objectivity. Ideology-worldview-governs academic inquiry. Some scholars retain neutrality as a front, while others reject all pretensions to objectivity. Consistent scholars hold that humanistic premises forbid claims to objectivity: ideology must govern. “Thus there is no ‘objective’ truth, only ‘class’ truth.”99

The Dimensions of Worldview Contamination

Dictionary makers are governed by ideological considerations. Ideological pressure is the reason that “the lexicographical quest is still marked by zones of exclusion.”100 Protests of neutrality and objectivity peal across academia, but these claims merit the gravest suspicion.

Worldviews reorder the facts of experience. Nietzsche developed “grand theories designed to seize control of explanation itself.”101 Language theory is a manifestation of “ideology as praxis-the conversion of ideas into social levers. This is also the language of ideology.”102

Ideology, however, has cultural power. “Ideology was dangerous because it stirred the public passions, and the public’s passions were not to be trusted.”103 Anti-ideology has become quite acceptable. Ironically, opposing ideology is not considered ideological! Therefore, humanistic attacks on Christianity are accorded protected status: the critic is immune from charges of ideological bias!

Ideology forces linguistics into a reductionist corner. Neil Postman warns that:

If a number can be given to the quality of thought, then a number can be given to the qualities of mercy, love, hate, beauty, creativity, even sanity itself. [But] our psychologists, sociologists and educators find it quite impossible to do work without numbers. They believe that without numbers they cannot acquire or express authentic knowledge.104

Linguistic science fell out of grace as educational ideologues embraced a more analytic approach to language. “Linguistics became trapped by its directionality toward holism at the same time that education began to embrace reductionism.”105 Those charting American educational policy rejected the linguists’ research, which conflicted with the educators’ commitment to analytic reductionism.

Language and Education

Educators have started to attack policies and ideologies that are intellectually harmful to students. Charles J. Sykes has indicted his fellow professors in stinging terms:

They are overpaid, grotesquely underworked … They have distorted university curriculums to accommodate their own narrow and selfish interests … They have cloaked their scholarship in stupefying, inscrutable jargon. This conceals the fact that much of what passes for research is trivial and inane … Bad teaching goes unnoticed and unsanctioned, and good teaching is penalized … [T]he professors’ relentless drive for advancement … has turned the American universities into vast factories of junkthink. Mediocrity persists because of the elitist conspiracy between students and professors. The latter agree to certify the former; in return the students agree not to blow the whistle on the faculty.106

As Samuel Blumenfeld notes,

“[P]rofessors of education are probably the most useless, parasitic group in American society.”107 Blumenfeld’s contempt for ideologically based linguistics is equally blunt: “[C]urrent methods of reading instruction in American schools are based on psycholinguistics, which is, in my view, the chief cause of our learning disability explosion.”108

Enter Statist Central Planning

Statism and linguistics are brought together because of statism’s impetus to regulate and control the people’s physical and mental resources. Language is an object of control and a tool of control. This triggers a commitment to language planning:

Language planning is … concerned with official policy formulation by authorities in political control … the point to emphasize is that language planning is a state activity … micro level language planning … is sometimes given the name of language engineering … Language planning is a state concern.109

“As late as the 1960s and 1970s, many public policy decision making experts were continuing to argue that the elite domination of public decision making was not only inevitable, it was desirable.”110 But the state wasn’t always a benign despot! “The great masters of social manipulation … know … that the establishment of a flexible and subtle language for the ruling classes is only half of what’s needed. The other half is the perpetuation of an ineffective and minimal language among the subjects.”111 We are being dumbed down intentionally! Bertrand Russell “broadened his concerns to include the point that science could be subordinated by the state as easily as language.”112

Marxists Are the Purists Here …

Marxists do what Christians won’t: they learn and apply their worldview. Georg Klaus’s “dialectical materialism” and “materialistic epistemology” culminates thus:

“[E]pistemology cannot survive without linguistics, nor linguistics without epistemology. Behind the different usages of words very often stand different or opposing social forces.”113 “When Marx says of theory that it can become a material force, then this is true only when mediated by language.”114 “Marx branded ‘proper’ language as a government informer.”115 The interplay between Marxism and linguistics is not limited to Marxist regimes: Blumenfeld has found aggressively Marxist rhetoric in “the prestigious Journal of Education,” which “provides Marxists with the means to conduct the class struggle in its pages.”116

Contamination Documented

Linguistics is in total disarray. Why? Researchers work from contradictory premises to inflict mutual damage upon each other’s work. The goal of a unified codification has become hopeless. Descriptivists applaud this because they think codification kills languages. Worldview flaws will splinter linguistic theory.

Linguists are immersed within the moral domain by the very act of building their theories. They recognize the existence of a “highest good” or summum bonum. Humanism has transmuted the summum bonum into an easily controlled goal, as Rushdoony notes:

There was a time when the Summum Bonum, the supreme good, was not only the highest and ultimate goal of human conduct but also the major concern of ethical theory by philosophers. The formal consideration of the Summum Bonum has disappeared; the practical concern is more intense than ever, except that it is now a political and sociological rather than a philosophical concern.117

Modern worldviews hijack the summum bonum to redefine it. Since disarray in sociology and politics prevails, no organizing link between words and actions can stand.

Avoiding the Christian Ghetto

Linguistics requires reconstruction, not merely populating the world of linguistics with Christians. There are Christian linguists,118 but they occupy specialized niches. Most Christians drawn to linguistics have limited their work to Bible translation, leaving the humanistic disarray unchallenged.

Adopting the Van Til/Rushdoony perspective means rejecting brute factuality while explaining the ontological link between words and their referents. Van Til sees this as a consequence of the nature of God:

God is completely self-comprehensive … He was and is the only self-contained whole, the system of absolute truth. God’s knowledge is, therefore, exclusively analytic, that is, self-dependent. There never were any facts existing independent of God which He had to investigate. God is the one and only ultimate Fact. In Him, i.e, with respect to His own Being, apart from the world, fact and interpretation are coterminous.

[Man] sees that there is a great variety of facts. The question … is whether there is any unity in this variety, whether there is one principle in accordance with which all these many things appear and occur. All non-Christian thought, if it has utilized the idea of a supra-mundane existence at all, has used this supra-mundane existence as furnishing only the unity or the a priori aspect of knowledge, while it has maintained that the a posteriori aspect of knowledge is something that is furnished by the universe.119

Linguists propose a multitude of a priori organizing principles, often aping Christian conceptions (the logostical principle of Farre, the logocentrism defended by Rushing, etc.) while devolving into idealism:

With all its insistence on the fact that there must be an ultimate a priori aspect of knowledge, idealism at the same time insists that there is an equally ultimate a posteriori aspect to knowledge. This means that for idealist logic … the Christian concept of God is virtually discarded at the outset. It is taken for granted that the universe is just as ultimate as God is.120

Idealism always reduces to unity OR diversity, but never both: “A proper conception of organism has nowhere appeared in non-Christian ethical theory.”121

Most conflicts among linguists stem from false disjunctions. A Biblical worldview sets linguistics on a foundation free of false disjunctions, with the following benefits:

Optimization: reconstructed! By treating meaning and expressivity as co-ultimate, and setting clarity as the summum bonum of language, neither meaning nor expressivity is diminished at the expense of the other, providing a theory of linguistic optimization consistent with the facts.

Language decay: reconstructed! Van Til’s “conception of organism” explains language decay and death. This isn’t biological reductionism, it is a Christian revamping of the principle that language change must be necessary.122 Christian ethics undergirds the notion of a standard based on maximized clarity, introducing a conservative principle limiting unnecessary change (from language erosion among students due to dereliction by educators, etc.).

Unlike purism, a Reconstructed Christian Linguistics (RCL) does not regard formal syntax as ultimate in itself. A nongrammatical utterance could be completely clear to the hearer!

Unlike populism, RCL denies the ultimacy of human autonomy in the very nature of the case. Populism offers no safeguards against linguistic anarchy.

Unlike contextualism, RCL is not a compromise tied to the audience confronting the speaker. Contextualism offers no solution if the audience for standardized English disappears, deteriorating into pure populism indifferent to language standards.

RCL denies the independent ultimacy of expressivity and formal standards arising from the contaminated worldviews shaping purism, populism, and contextualism. There is no descriptivism-prescriptivism continuum if its organizing principle is a myth. That continuum perpetuates a false disjunction that Christian theorists must dislodge.

Drawing the Battle Lines

The breakdown of humanistic linguistic scholarship has been documented from its own literature. Will Christians develop a sound linguistic model before the statists coercively impose their model on us? The statist educational apparatus is in place and elitist policy makers are groping for the reins.

The worldview gap between humanistic public policy and an intellectually revitalized Christianity guarantees ideological war. Humanism has reigned over linguistics since Noah Webster’s Christian lexicon was displaced by today’s secularized dictionaries. Humanists won’t give up conquered territory without a fight.

The time for that fight is now.

1. James Jordan once opined that of all the arts, music was the least affected by humanistic influence. Astronomer Dr. Gerardus Bouw wrote that astronomy is in less need of remediation than other sciences. Mathematician Dr. David Rodabaugh used to think mathematics was a neutral domain, but later came to recognize the need to take even that field captive to the obedience of Christ.

2. Robert Erwin, The Great Language Panic and Other Essays in Cultural History (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990), 82.

3. Ibid., 80.

4. Dennis E. Baron, “Criticizing the Language Critics.” Review of Famous Last Words: The American Language Crisis Reconsidered, by Harvey A. Daniels. American Speech 59.3 (1984), 226, 229.

5. Ibid., 228.

6. Erwin, 93.

7. Baron, 226.

8. Baron, 230.

9. Baron, 226.

10. Baron, 229-230.

11. Roger W. Shuy, “Practice into Theory versus Theory into Practice.” The Relation of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, eds. Olga Miseska Tomic and Roger W. Shuy (New York: Plenum Press, 1987), 100.

12. Frank Anshen, “Amazing Nuggets of Information.” Review of Grammar and Good Taste: Reforming the American Language, by Dennis E. Baron. American Speech 61.1 (1986), 92.

13. Ibid.

14. Karl D. Uitti, Linguistics and Literary Theory (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969), 235.

15. Thomas L. Clark, “Praise for Webster’s Ninth.” Review of Webster’s Ninth Collegiate Dictionary, ed. Frederick C. Mish. American Speech 59.1 (1984), 71.

16. Erwin, 70.

17. Erwin, 67.

18. Connie Eble, “Disappointment with American Heritage 2.” Review of The American Heritage Dictionary. American Speech 59.1 (1984), 73.

19. John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1987), 216.

20. Charles Clay Doyle, “American Language Attitudes.” Review of Attitudes Toward English Usage: The History of a War of the Words, ed. Edward Finegan. American Speech 58.1 (1983), 46.

21. Anshen, 92.

22. Anonymous reviewer, American Speech 58.4 (1983), 371.

23. Doyle, 46-47.

24. “It is a vulgar error to think of a standard language as being somehow less rich and colorful, less warm and supportive, less individualistic, less analytic, less almost anything than any other dialect. The very use of language, that custom on which alone language thrives, creates for the standard language an increase in range, in subtlety, and in value.” Alan Davies, “How Language Planning Theory Can Assist First-Language Teaching,” The Relation of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics (see note 11), 157.

25. John Willinsky, “Cutting English on the Bias: Five Lexicographers in Pursuit of the New.” American Speech 63.1 (1984), 44.

26. Ibid., 47.

27. Ibid., 45.

28. “A generation ago, American dictionaries claimed forthrightly to be descriptive. But since the appearance of Webster’s Third International Dictionary in 1961, the pendulum has swung steadily toward dictionaries that are more and more prescriptive. Now with the entrance of the Oxford American Dictionary onto the standard dictionary market, that pendulum has swung as far as it can go.” Michael Montgomery, “Prescriptivism in Dictionary Making.” Review of Oxford American Dictionary, comp. Eugene Ehrlich, Stuart Berg Flexner, Gorton Carruth, and Joyce M. Hawkins. American Speech 58.1 (1983), 55.

29. Ibid., 57.

30. Ibid., 59.

31. Willinsky, 48.

32. Noam Chomsky, Language and Thought (Wakefield, RI: Moyer Bell, 1993), 23.

33. Frederic G. Cassidy, “A Grand New Usage Book.” Review of Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, ed. E. Ward Gilman. American Speech 67.2 (1992), 200.

34. Ibid., 203-204.

35. Flemming Andersen and Carle Bache, “August Schleicher: Towards a Better Understanding of His Concept of Language Change.” Anthropological Linguistics 18.9 (1976), 429.

36. Wolfgang Dressler and Ruth Wodak-Leodolter. Introduction to International Journal of the Sociology of Language 12 (1977), 9.

37. Andersen, 434.

38. Anshen, 89.

39. Andersen, 431.

40. Dressler, 14.

41. Norman Denison, “Language Death or Language Suicide?” International Journal of the Sociology of Language 12 (1977), 14. Note that Isaiah 19:18ff teaches that Hebrew (the “language of Canaan”) will not only never die, it will be adopted by the Egyptians when their nation is converted to Christ.

42. Willinsky, 54.

43. Ibid.

44. “Otto Jespersen recognized that the central concern of the linguist must be free creation, the ability of each person to construct and understand ‘free expressions,’ typically new, each a sound with a meaning.” Chomsky, Language and Thought, 49.

45. Arthur Custance, The Flood: Local or Global? Vol. 9 of The Doorway Papers (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1979), 182.

46. Ibid., 184.

47. Ibid., 186.

48. Ibid., 181.

49. Uitti, 251. Uitti refers to Edward Sapir in this regard as well. Buber and Preziosi also invoke dialectic analysis in linguistics to try to harmonize philosophical opposites locked in mortal tension.

50. James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science (New York: Viking Press, 1987), 256.

51. Yan Huang, “A neo-Gricean pragmatic theory of anaphora,” Journal of Linguistics 27:2 (1991), 303.

52. Uitti, 253.

53. Jens Ihwe, “Linguistics and the theory of literature,” Linguistics and Neighboring Disciplines, eds. Renate Bartsch and Theo Vennemann (New York: American Elsevier, 1975), 140.

54. Quoted in Philip C. Wander, Introduction, Western Journal of Communication 57 (1993), 106.

55. Paul L. Garvin, “Universals in Linguistic Analysis.” Anthropological Linguistics 18:3 (1976), 112.

56. Ken Hale, “Linguistic Autonomy and the Linguistics of Carl Voegelin,” Anthropological Linguistics 18.3 (1976), 120.

57. Wander, 107.

58. Uitti, 255.

59. Lee, quoted in Thomas A. Hollihan and Patricia Riley, “Rediscovering Ideology,” Western Journal of Communication 57 (1993), 276.

60. Michael Cain, “Edward Sapir and Gestalt Psychology,” Anthropological Linguistics 22:4 (1980), 147.

61. Ann M. Peters. Review of The Language Lottery: Toward a Biology of Grammars, by David Lightfoot. Anthropological Linguistics 26:3 (1984), 356-357.

62. Chomsky, 84.

63. Willinsky, 65.

64. Shuy, 107.

65. Shuy, 107.

66. Hollihan, 272.

67. Hollihan, 273.

68. Hollihan, 274-276.

69. Hollihan, 277.

70. Chomsky, 48.

71. Erwin, 80.

72. George L. Farre, “The Epistemological Function of Language,” Georgetown University Round Table Selected Papers on Linguistics 1961-1965, comp. Richard J. O’Brien (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1968), 65-73.

73. Ibid., 69.

74. Erwin, 75.

75. Chomsky, 9.

76. Chomsky, 87.

77. Chomsky, 70.

78. Chomsky, 85.

79. Chomsky, 85.

80. Chomsky, 34.

81. Chomsky, 38. The “ghost” is evident in two phenomena. A. B. Hooton describes a test given to people who spoke color-shape languages (red triangle) and those who spoke shape-color languages (circle blue) comprising a group of objects of different shapes and colors. Seventy-five percent of the subjects grouped the test objects according to their mother tongue syntax (organized by shape, versus organized by color). Jerwen Jou set up an experiment with special texts to be read out loud that contained various proportions of typographic errors (5%, 10%, etc.). Subjects were to read each text as quickly and accurately as possible. Until the error content became high, the readers would unwittingly correct the text as they read it: an automatic syntax processing system in their mind would kick in. Only when the error count was high was that automated system “short-circuited,” allowing the readers to become more accurate.

82. R. J. Rushdoony, “Education: Today’s Crisis and Dilemma.” Journal of Christian Reconstruction 11.2 (1987), 69.

83. Uitti, vii.

84. Uitti, ix.

85. Peters, 358.

86. Cain, 147.

87. Erwin, 65.

88. Erwin, 74.

89. Chomsky, 19.

90. Craig R. Smith, “Roman Decorum as a New Praxis for Existential Communication,” Western Journal of Communication 56.1 (1992), 68.

91. Smith, 83.

92. Hale, 120.

93. Quoted in Janice Hocker Rushing, “Power, Other, and Spirit in Cultural Texts,” Western Journal of Communication 57 (1993), 164.

94. Ibid., 165.

95. Cain, 146.

96. Chomsky, 18.

97. Cain, 141-142.

98. Cain, 142.

99. Hollihan, 272.

100. Willinsky, 62.

101. Erwin, 69.

102. Hollihan, 272.

103. Hollihan, 273.

104. Quoted in Otto Scott’s review of Postman’s Technopoly in Otto Scott’s Compass 4:46 (1994), 6. Postman was professor of communications at New York University.

105. Shuy, 100.

106. Quoted in Sol Saporta’s review of Profscam, by Charles J. Sykes. Anthropological Linguistics 30.2 (1986), 250-252.

107. Samuel Blumenfeld. “The Fraud of Educational Reform,” Journal of Christian Reconstruction 11:22 (1987), 23.

108. Ibid., 25.

109. Davies, 157.

110. Hollihan, 277.

111. Richard Mitchell, quoted in Erwin, 76.

112. Erwin, 72.

113. George Klaus, “Linguistics and Epistemology,” Linguistics and Neighboring Disciplines, Ed. Renate Bartsch and Theo Vennemann. (New York: American Elsevier, 1975), 107.

114. Klaus, 110.

115. Erwin, 69.

116. Blumenfeld, 24.

117. R. J. Rushdoony, Revolt Against Maturity (Fairfax, VA: Thoburn Press, 1977), 238.

118. Kenneth Pike, Robert Longacre, Vida Chenoweth, John Oller, etc.

119. Cornelius Van Til, Systematic Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1974), 10.

120. Van Til, 11.

121. Cornelius Van Til, Christian Theistic Ethics (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1972), 70.

122. Elaine Chaika, “Jargons and Language Change,” Anthropological Linguistics 22.4 (1980), 77-96. Chaika argues that necessity is the mother of linguistic change; unnecessary changes are to be avoided.

Martin G. Selbrede is Chalcedon’s resident scholar and Editor of Faith for All of Life and the Chalcedon Report. This article is posted with his permission. It appeared in the May/June 2010 issue of that periodical.