Un paradigme perdu: La linguistique marriste. Ed. Patrick Seriot. Cahiers de l'ILSL, no. 20. Lausanne: Institut de Linguistique et des Sciences du Langage de l'Université de Lausanne, 2005. 392 pp. Appendixes. Notes. Bibliography. CHF 20.00, paper.
This collection of twenty-two articles is an attempt to analyze Nikolai Marr's work and contributions from a neutral standpoint, as outlined in the introduction to the volume written by Patrick Seriot and Ekaterina Velmezova. The end result is a thought-provoking collection that helps shed light on one of the most debated linguists of the twentieth century. The controversies surrounding Marr and his legacy make it extraordinarily dificult to examine his contributions without thinking of them in terms of the political landscape within which Man operated. They also point to the difficulties of reading Marr: his stye is difficult and does not translate easily; many of his works are archived but not published; the five-volume set of his collected works is poorly indexed and cumbersome to use.
Each article begins with an abstract and a list of key words. The articles in the volume are arranged alphabetically by author, not thematically, but could be regrouped, loosely, into five overarching and overlapping categories: linguistic paleontology; Marr's "new theory" of language; Japhetic theory; the origin of language (or glottogony); and sociopsychological approaches to language. Certain topics recur throughout the different articles in this collection, and there is a broad consensus about certain aspects of Marr's work. First, the authors agree that his writings are not only difficult to read but often contradictory. Second, they concur that his conclusions and methodologies are both questionable; he often operates with complete disregard to linguistic methodologies.
Two key and somewhat conflicting themes emerge from this collection. On the one hand, Marr was an innovative thinker who was able to identify and expand upon the important ideas of the time. Both Seriot and Monique Slodzian make this point quite clearly in their contributions to the volume, highlighting the fact that Marr did not exist in an intellectual vacuum but rather as part of an intellectual milieu that fostered his theories. Serguei Tchougounnikov situates Marr's contributions to the paleontology of language within existing work of his time; as Sébastien Moret discusses, it was the proponents of Esperanto who protested Josif Stalin's 1950 denunciation of Marr's theories, sharing with Marr the belief in the need for a single language for all people. On the other hand, Marr's methods are lacking in rigor; his reconstructions and etymologies "sloppy"; his theories poorly explained and even more poorly justified. As Roman Jakobson points out in Marr's obituary, provided in the appendix in French (translated from the original German), his most significant contributions are his studies of Armenian and Georgian ancient literatures, spiritual and material cultures, and the languages of the Caucasus. More questionable are his attempts to construct a proto-language for north Caucasian, Basque, Etruscan, Semitic languages, and Chuvash.
A number of controversies surround Marr's works, not least of which is the fatal end
his opponents met, which is outlined at the conclusion of Kamil Abdulaev's article "Marr et 1'Azerbaidjan." The controversies surface throughout the articles in this collection in various ways. A good starting point is the article by Alexandre Dulicenko, "N. Marr à la recherche du sens du langage," which neatly outlines some of Marr's foundational claims and contradictions with regard to the paleontologv of language and linguistic primitives. These include the assertion that four syllables (sal. ber, yon, and rosh) are the foundation of languages' sound systems. As Dulicenko points out, it is unclear why precisely four syllables, and why these four particular syllables. This is symptomatic of much of Marr's work: in his search for the underlying origins of language, he ignores the linguistic knowledge and methodologies of the time. This point is made indirectly by Elena Simonato, in comparing the competing alphabets proposed for Abkhaz. Marr's phonetically based alphabet needs 76-78 letters, while the phonemically based one by Nikolai Iakovlev has approximately half these letters. Moreover, Marr's attempts at creating a unified alphabet for all (Caucasian) languages speak to a profound misunderstanding of language. One of Marr's most debated and perhaps most famous contributions is the so-called Japhetic theory, which is addressed directly or indirectly in most articles in this volume. One of the foundational components of this theory is the Caucasian basis of Basque; Marr began focusing his attention on the relationship between Basque and the Caucasian languages in the early 1920s (see the article by Mikhail Zeiikov); Robert Triomphe discusses Japhetic mythology, the Bible, and Greece. Frederic Bertrand considers the role of ethnography in Marr's theories, highlighting his theory of the staged evolution (stadial'nost') of language.
A few mechanical changes would have made this volume more user-friendly. An index would have been very useful: the articles cover a wide range of topics and languages, but it is difficult to find things; only a real enthusiast will read all of the articles. Even an index that included only the key words for each abstract would have been helpful. Better referencing is needed. For example, Seriot and Velmezova write about the importance of V. I. Abaev's article on Marr but fail to provide even the title, let alone the full reference. Only when one reaches the first appendix (a French translation of Marr's foundational 1927 article, "K proiskhozhdeniiu iazyka") does a footnote direct readers to the digital archive of some of the original version of that article, although in fact that archive includes a range of useful related works and provides a nice companion to this volume. These are, however, relatively minor issues. Anyone interested in the history of ideas or the climate that produced a figure like Marr will find this a fascinating collection.