The revolution now under way in linguistic studies could easily overthrow long-held assumptions that bear on many related fields. Noam Chomsky’s insistence in the 1960s that the universal structures of language reflect innate human factors rather than an empirical evolutionary derivation has brought swift theory reconstruction and a great deal of controversy. Analysis of cognitive and conceptual aspects of language has increasingly disputed claims long made by many anthropologists that language is a human invention in an evolutionary context.

Dr. Kenneth Pike of the University of Michigan and Dr. Robert E. Longacre of the University of Texas/Arlington are two significant contributors among a solid core of linguistic experts long engaged in the study of language communication. Longacre’s An Anatomy of Speech Notions, an extensive attempt to catalogue the notional categories underlying language, has recently been issued by The Peter de Ridder Press (Box 168, Lisse, Netherlands). Completed under a grant from the Institute for Advanced Christian Studies, Longacre’s 358-page work (references and index extend it to just under 400) rejects not only the notion that language is a human creation but also the insistence of Victoria Fromkin and Robert Rodman (An Introduction to Language, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974) that it is merely an evolutionary emergent and no “gift of God.”

Longacre discusses in great detail the cognitive-conceptual apparatus that characterizes the human species. Much of his argument is too technical for nonspecialists, but certainly clear enough is his emphasis that human beings are uniquely endowed for talk about everything on earth or sea, and even on planets and universes not yet visited. Human language is, moreover, inescapably involved in logical activity. It organizes data according to implicational relationships and causal explanation; that is, it functions in rational-verbal activities that daily make possible human communication and behavior as we know them.

Longacre sees in this panorama of language and its categories an incentive to ask whether meaning and purpose characterize the objectively real world, or whether the human psyche is only “a raft of rationality adrift on a sea of meaninglessness.” In effect he challenges the good faith of those who champion the latter view, depicting them as smugglers of “elements of purpose and meaning” that pure chance does not allow.

Longacre rejects the notion that linguists deal only with diverse languages and not with Language per se. “The evidence is coming in,” he writes, “that there are language universals which underlie the surface structure categories of particular languages and that languages differ more in their surface structure than in these underlying categories” (p. 317). In short, some features of a “common architectural plan” underlie all the world’s languages.

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Since we view reality only through these innate language structures, do we therefore (recalling Kant) distort the world beyond? Not at all, Longacre contends; rather than veiling reality, language and its categories are windows into it. To live in the world as viable human beings, he argues, necessitates a belief that “there is a rationality at the heart of things.” Contrary to the pantheistic option in which man projects his own rationality upon the greater Whole, Longacre commends the theistic view that “man and his rationality are creatures of God and his rationality.” He affirms that “the Judeo-Christian God revealed in the Scriptures of those two religions must be central to a satisfactory world-view” because this alone adequately preserves “valid connections between mind and fact and between fact and fact” (p. 321).

In positing a Rationality at the heart of things, a Creator who bestows an ultimate structure upon man and the world, Longacre at times leaves it unclear whether the infinite-personal God for whom he contends is known as the achievement of an essentially anthropological argument or is known on the basis of intelligible divine self-revelation. He does insist, however, that “if there be a God of the sort revealed in the Scriptures, then we have good reason to believe that language is fit to talk about Him” (p. 325). In that event, the infinite personal Creator and encoder of man described in the Bible qualifies man for communication with himself and others. Yet, on broadly Thomistic lines, Longacre holds that God-talk and other language is basically analogical.

It would seem that the forfeiture of the univocal truth borne by language weakens the role of language unnecessarily. To be sure, while describing language as “practical poetry” Longacre insists at the same time on its “truth-revelatory nature” and defends the validity of propositional scriptural statements about God and the universe. But the larger significance of his work on the rational categories of language lies in the fact that it places the biblical doctrine of the imago dei once again on center stage in the discussion of human speech.

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No less significant is the fact that new literary techniques are calling into question almost a century of biblical studies, particularly the JEPD documentary hypothesis, which has brought Bible scholarship to a virtual impasse. The contemporary study of discourse structure, some scholars think, will revolutionize the widely prevalent assumption that the Old Testament gains its unity from editorial redaction of once detached and atomistic units.

Applying recent analytic tools to an analysis of the Noahic flood narrative, Longacre asserts that the stylistic variations serve the pace and mood of the story much more than they identify supposed sources. In a paper presented in 1976 to the Society of Biblical Literature on “The Discourse Structure of the Flood Narrative,” he concluded that “the flood story as it stands has a consistent and plausible discourse structure, that the variations in style found in certain parts of it are appropriate to the distinctions in the subject matter. Even small details of structure such as the presence or absence of resumptive pronouns and variations in the form of quotation formula will probably be eventually explicable here and elsewhere in the Hebrew Old Testament in terms of discourse structure.… Repetitive allusions to the same event—far from being evidence of more than one documentary source—are either (1) cohesive features which contribute to the unity of the discourse, or (2) features of parallelism and paraphrase which mark the prominence of the peak” (Society of Biblical Literature Seminar Papers 1976, edited by George MacRae, Scholars Press, p. 258). Longacre affirms that even variations of the divine names Elohim and Jahweh and references to dates and chronology are more readily explicable not as “the hallmark of a special writer (P)” but rather as an integral part of the discourse flow of the narrative. He expressly concludes that in the Noahic flood narrative “the assumption of divergent documentary sources” not only is unnecessary but also “obscures much of the truly elegant structure of the story.”

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