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Linguist: Further thoughts on how agency is embedded in language


Retired linguist Noel Rude writes to offer further thoughts on language and agency*:


English is, of course, quite capable of describing random and deterministic states and events. It is because the origin of life and its history are neither random nor deterministic that the materialists have such trouble.

As for ambitransitive verbs, languages do differ. At one extreme is a Liberian language, Loma, that I once worked with. All its verbs are ambitransitive. In English, not all verbs are. Consider ‘eat’, for example. The Loma, however, can say (I don’t remember the words),

He ate the food
The food ate

Where 2) is best translated by our passive: ‘the food was eaten’. At the other extreme are languages like Sahaptin here in the US Northwest that have no ambitransitive verbs.

Consciousness and agency are central distinctions made within the clause in all human languages. I blathered on this recently in a volume edited by Jonathan Bartlett and Eric Halloway. Nothing I said there is new. We do not need to commission research in this area–it was a major project of the seventies and eighties–there are a great many articles and books on the subject–it’s variously referred to as the study of grammatical relations, ergativity, and alignment. The problem is that almost no one outside the field has ever heard of it. ID can talk biology and honest folks will understand. People instinctively know what “evolution” portends. That’s why it’s such a hot-button topic for both the materialist deep state (politically, intellectually, and otherwise) and for local yokels like me.


Sometimes philosophy is bound up with the way people understand agency. Ancient Greek, for example, had a middle voice, which covers things one does to oneself, like “warming oneself up.” English gets by without a middle voice but one can surely see the logic of it. Similarly, some languages have a dual number, as opposed to just singular and plural, which is handy for describing the actions of, say, hands or eyes. In theory, there are two of them but in practice, their actions are co-ordinated. It’s quite clear that our ancestors thought carefully about the question of agency.

See also: *Note to Darwinists: Language itself is “anti-science.” Another friend writes to remind us of Jerry Fodor’s careful distinction in What Darwin Got Wrong (2010) between “selection” (which does not imply purpose) and “selection for” (which does). Much popular Darwinism depends on confusing the distinction.

News Ok, I guess it wasn't here that I saw it but thanks! RodW
Jon Garvey at 4, In North America there was (is) a slogan for a rich soup: It "eats like a meal." But that's very colloquial, which is why the slogan succeeded in the context. News
In English, not all verbs are. Consider ‘eat’, for example. "Eat" can be ambitransitive, if you're an English street trader. I remember hearing one selling apples in Guidlford High Street: "'Ere y'are - four for a pahnd! They eat a treat!" Jon Garvey
Much popular Darwinism depends on confusing the distinction
Reminds me of an exchange I had with Liddle a few years ago. https://uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/the-demands-of-charity/#comment-395508 Barry Arrington
Hi from News. What post are you talking about? I am not aware of a post being intentionally removed but maybe we can figure it out. News
Does anyone know how to write to News? I was hoping to get a reference on a post made during the weekend that has been removed for some reason. It was about trying to simulate protein evolution in a test tube RodW

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