I took a linguistics test on Friday and, surprisingly to me, did fairly badly on it. I managed a 79% score. I had prepared about as much as one would be expected to prepare for that sort of thing — not too extremely little and definitely not too much.
But then, it was a fairly silly test, full of tricky questions from the guileful mind of our cunning professor. I could imagine his voice as I read through each question. I tried to guess which syllables he would accentuate, to know which side of which fence the answer would fall on:
C) A and B;
D) neither A nor B;
E) either one or the other;
F) sometimes one, sometimes the other;
G) all of the above;
H) some of the above;
I) none of the above."
…And some questions even had a "J" answer. Maybe I exaggerate in specific content, but you understand the essence of my difficulty. Clearly, one will not feel very bad about oneself if one scores 79% on a test designed to deceive. (In fact, one will never really feel bad about oneself no matter how one does at school, unless one has realized no innate identity and thinks their life’s purpose is to get high scores to appear on little papers.)
By suspicious coincidence, I’ve noticed that another of my professors uses a similar sort of tactic in his quizzes. This is my religion class. A third class, my English grammar class, has straightforward, respectable quizzes, and my fourth class (also linguistics) hasn’t had a test yet. I don’t know about my non-graded language classes.
Anyway, I think I can guess now why BYU is considered so much "harder" than my old school, LDSBC. Not really harder to learn things at, or harder to keep up with the material of, but just harder to get a good grade from, because some of the teachers seem to have a more literal interpretation of the traditional grading scale, where "C" is average, and where average represents success instead of failure, and is thus the grade that students are supposed to be getting — if not by their own ineptitude, then by active intervention from the teacher in the form of non-intuitive (indeed, anti-intuitive) test questions.
That’s still fine, though, because this school, and others too, I assume, have a somewhat high entrance requirement but a somewhat low academic performance requirement (the grade that must be maintained to be able to stay at the school). For those who need to get into competitive graduate schools, well, I hope their biology and chemistry classes do not have trick-question tests, and I hope they can get their A grades. As for me, I’m happy getting my 79% scores and things, because this school, I believe, is my last stop. All I really need to do is pass.
There’s a "grading curve" for that test, anyway, so I might creep up into a higher grade; or, who knows, down to a lower grade.
A word on… words.
Outside of explicit written history itself, I think we have at least three very useful tools for tracing the historic descent and movement of people. These are, in order of reliability: their race, their language (including scripts), and their religion (that is, culture). Excepting macroscopic breaks in continuity such as conquest and conversion, these three branches will tend to overlap with and corroborate each other.
1. Race is obvious; we think we understand quite a bit about genetics, and we think they’re more or less immutable.2. Religion and religious ideas do last quite a while owing to their sacred nature; eventually they become "cultures", or the ways a society intrinsically views the world and ethical obligations. Even religious "innovations" that may displace former beliefs tend to rely very heavily on previous religious concepts.
Now, religion is very difficult to trace in the absence of written or oral descriptions. We can dig up lots of idols and things, or find pictures carved in stone, and conjure up fantastic interpretations of bizarre rituals and beliefs, but we really know nothing definitively about those old religions because the symbolism is foreign to us [see Truman Madsen for more on symbols]. But for the descriptions that do survive, we can very easily find trends. Take for example many of the aboriginal founder myths [I use "myth" here in its more original sense to mean any ancestral story], people’s stories of their first progenitors. Many of them contain one or both of these two themes: (1) a "first parent" (usually deified male and female entities) who had three sons, and (2) a "first parent" who had two children, one of whom fought with or killed the other. Sometimes the themes are merged into one. These and other themes, of course, fall in tandem with some of the old Hebrew traditions which were well preserved from antiquity; and without such bizarre, imaginative interpretation as is frequent in archaeology, we can easily postulate that the tales were passed along in lines of descent — that is, they are related.
Of course, when tales match too precisely without showing so many deformative effects of time, skeptics are quick to retreat to the "Christianization" argument, that native beliefs were appropriated directly from wandering Catholics or something. That of course is a good possibility in some instances, although in general, far too much credit is given to the old missionaries, and far too much inferiority and gullibility ascribed to the "heathens", as if none of them cared a bit for their own cultures, but entirely discarded them the instant they saw a funnily-dressed Western European. But a better possibility still, in those cases, is that the Christian concepts were adopted to fill niches or bent to fit specific patterns that already existed in the native religion. Maybe the best-known example of this is the Mexican "Quetzalcoatl" becoming Catholicized into God or Jesus instead of abandoned (even before we LDS came along). So, rather than insist that everything about the Feather god came from the church, a skeptic instead should try to deconstruct the myth and find the parts that are clearly independent, and then ask himself what similarities enabled the two concepts two merge.
I will mention that this picture of religious descent (which has been common to us in this Church for many decades already) throws out the very popular, oversimplified folklore taught in most high schools and colleges, and spread anecdotally online by crusading atheists, that the religions of man without exception sprang up from anthropomorphism of the elements ("primitive man saw lightning strike, and thought it must be a god!"). Comparing the traditions, it seems rather the opposite: that mythic characters, themselves perhaps real people, were transformed over time into elemental beings due to vivid story-telling and so-called "epic" or legendary symbolism [see Hugh Nibley on the epic style]. (We see this commonly demonstrated even in more recent history, with national heroes, real people, becoming mythicized and supernaturalized.) So in the religions, we frequently find "gods", who are understood to be our earliest parents, forming the earth or forming man out of their own body parts. (Well, that’s not such a stretch, I guess. Even today we create people out of our own body parts; we just don’t picture those parts as arms, legs, tears, or drops of blood any more.) The point, anyway, is that they were real ancestors once, and that their stories spread religiously into different parts of the world, and can be evidential of historic descent.
3. Language naturally has some resistance to change. Writing systems, on the other hand, do occasionally change very dramatically, especially in places and times where few are literate. They can be adopted from unrelated sources and can obliterate whatever existed before them. But languages themselves, in their grammatical structures, are fairly durable. Vocabulary comes and goes with each generation; pronunciation shifts, especially certain vowel and consonant sounds; but grammar forms, when they change at all, take centuries.
Now, my intention in bringing up these facets is only to suggest that when linguists try to classify and categorize a language, they should not blind themselves to what exists outside of the language: they should be more aware of cultural and especially racial relationships. It’s anti-climactic to see ideas argued like "Japanese is not related to Korean" and "Japanese is an Austronesian language" just because it’s spoken over on an island, while everything else about "Japaneseness" — race and culture — puts it it in relationship with its neighbours to the west — and through them, with Central Asians. I won’t mention them here, but the language itself has quite enough evidences to that effect that, in this case, you could just stick with examining the language. But before even delving into internal language features, one can already turn their thinking and their research in a fairly reliable direction by widening their scope beyond their field.
I guess that’s all for now.