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Intellectual impotence and the re-arrangement of information

By Domenico Pacitti

Le lingue come rappresentazioni formali della conoscenza [Languages as formal representations of knowledge] by Riccardo Ambrosini. Published in 1995 as Studi e testi XXXVII, Accademia lucchese di scienze, lettere ed arti, by Edizioni S. Marco, Lucca, 216 pages, €19.61.

This confused and confusing book marks Riccardo Ambrosini's umpteenth unsuccessful attempt to fulfil what appears to be a frustrated lifelong ambition to make some sort of original contribution to linguistics. Mr Ambrosini has in fact notched up over 250 publications, most of which are boringly repetitive, none of which seem to contain anything that is genuinely new and all of which together suggest a kind of intellectual impotence.

The title implies a novel perspective on natural languages as formal representations of knowledge but the book offers nothing of the sort. The reader is instead swamped with a deluge of linguistic data that together add up to little more than an untidy and jumbled re-arrangement of known information.

Part of the confusion may be explained by the impression that Mr Ambrosini lacks genuine direct knowledge of most of the 219 languages and language groups he refers to and that he has rather culled, collated or summarised "second-hand" information, at times imperfectly. For example, on pages 58 and 59 his examples of transcribed Chinese reveal ignorance of the elementary changing tonal features of the negative, which foreign students of Chinese learn in their first few weeks of study. Mr Ambrosini's ignorance of basic Chinese tones is confirmed in subsequent nonsensical examples. Yet, curiously, Chinese appears to be one of Mr Ambrosini's favourite languages to quote.

This is perhaps best seen in the light of the traditional Italian academic need to appear highly erudite at all costs. Such writing often involves referring to authors one has not read or understood, concepts of which one has no direct knowledge and languages one has never studied purely in order to impress the reader. The basic idea is that if the reader cannot understand grotesquely complex sentences then that must be on account of his own failing and inferior intelligence. However, careful readings usually show that such grotesque complexity and erudite references together mask  the author's own ignorance. Needless to say, the resulting loss of common sense and clarity can be quite remarkable.

The following typical sentence on pages 32-33, for example, illustrates Mr Ambrosini's aversion to full stops:

"Tuttavia, in un quadro pur così complesso, alcuni tratti depongono a favore dell'ipotesi di un proto-afro-asiatico, tra i quali: il vocalismo è composto in assoluta prevalenza da a, i, u; le radici di tutte le parole sono formate da un numero fisso di consonanti, che, come vedremo, sono due in camitico - secondo lo schema fonologico che si ritiene quello originario dell'afro-asiatico - , tre in semitico - ove le radici bilittere originarie hanno teso ad ampliarsi in trilittere ed inversamente alcune radici sono solo apparentemente bilittere, perché derivano da radici trilittere di fasi precedenti del semitico; il femminile è formato con l'aggiunta del suffisso -t; per il fenomeno della "polarità" la desinenza del plurale femminile, anch'essa in -t, viene usata con i plurali di sostantivi maschili e, assai più raramente, la desinenza del plurale maschile viene usata per il plurale di sostantivi femminili; prefissi, infissi e suffissi svolgono funzioni ben determinate nella coniugazione del verbo; sono distinte le forme di maschile e femminile sia nella seconda e nella terza persona del verbo (ma questa distinzione, nelle lingue dove è rimasta, è conservata solo al singolare, mentre al plurale non si fa più distinzione di genere grammaticale nelle seconde e nelle terze persone, oltre che, ovviamente, nelle prime nelle quali, come nella prima singolare, non c'è mai stata) sia nei pronomi personali corrispondenti (tra i quali sono suffissati con -k molti di quelli di seconda persona)."

While it is no doubt true that it is difficult to teach an old dog new tricks, the following advice from Bertrand Russell could profitably be considered by Mr Ambrosini and Italian academics generally:

"There are some simple maxims which I think might be commended to writers of expository prose. First: never use a long word if a short word will do. Second: if you want to make a statement with a great many qualifications, put some of the qualifications in separate sentences. Third: do not let the beginning of your sentence lead the reader to an expectation which is contradicted by the end."

Given Mr Ambrosini's apparent interest in the Orient, he might find the following succinct formulation attributed to Confucius more palatable: "It is enough that one's language gets the point across". But that, of course, presupposes that one has a point to get across in the first place.

Mr Ambrosini recently retired from a senior post in linguistics at the University of Pisa's faculty of modern languages where his long career included two terms as faculty dean.

Note: This review was first published by JUST Book Reviews on July 9 2003.