Linguistic Odyssey: The Hero’s Journey

by | November 5, 2015 |

The hero’s journey

The idea of the hero’s journey is most associated with American mythologist Joseph Campbell and his book Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949). His work was inspired by Austrian psychologist Otto Rank’s The Myth of the Birth of the Hero (1909). Rank was one of Freud’s students and included Freud’s essay “Family Romances” in his 1909 book.

The basic Freud-Rank idea is that there is a pattern of stories dating from 2800 BC in which the hero:

  1. descends from noble, powerful parents;
  2. is exposed in a river, in a box;
  3. is raised by lowly parents;
  4. returns to his first parents;
  5. punishes the first parents;
  6. is acknowledged by the father; and
  7. is honored.

Campbell turned the journey into a 12-step program where the hero:

  1. is first encountered in the ordinary world;
  2. is called to adventure;
  3. refuses the call;568-Odysseus-toetet-die-Freier-q75-500x308
  4. meets with his mentor;
  5. crosses the threshold into another world;
  6. tests allies and enemies;
  7. encounters an ordeal;
  8. faces his greatest fear;
  9. is rewarded;
  10. replays the ordeal at a higher level;
  11. is resurrected; and
  12. returns with the elixir.

Combine these two lists and you have all the plot elements of the original Star Wars trilogy, the great space romance.

Different heroic narratives downplay or enhance different steps.

My linguistic Odyssey goes like this:

  1. I am in the ordinary world of disciplinary linguistics; I teach a course such as Introduction to Linguistics in the traditional way;
  2. I begin to realize introductory linguistics textbooks have lots of problems, and I start to point them out in class;
  3. one day a student suggests I write my own introductory linguistics textbook; I immediately scoff and refuse;
  4. I speak at length about language and language theory with a senior professor who suggests alternative paths;
  5. I leave the discipline of linguistics and cross into other worlds, such as philosophy, behaviorism, neurobiology, evolutionary biology, autopoiesis, developmental systems theory, cultural anthropology, psychology, gender studies, political theory; I wander around these worlds for years and years;
  6. I’m not sure who my enemies are, but when I begin to assemble alternative materials and to teach them, students seem to like them;
  7. I set out to write an alternative introductory approach to linguistics; when I contact Harvard and MIT Press they are interested in my manuscript; my reviewers dismiss my work as worthless nonsense;
  8. I realize my manuscript isn’t ready; I’m fitting lots of pieces together, but I can’t make them all work; my greatest fear is that I won’t be able to pull off what I set out to do, that I’m on a fool’s errand;
  9. I acknowledge the dignity of my effort even in the face of possible failure; I persist and finally encounter the final piece;
  10. I need a publisher but am rejected at every turn, most painfully at Oxford University Press, which decided at the last minute not to send my manuscript out for reviews; my mentor abandons me; one of my closest colleagues belittles my work; I continue to revise my manuscript;
  11. I’m dead in the water for a good three more years; Helen Barton at Cambridge University Press is looking for book projects and contacts me; she is interested enough in my work to send my manuscript out for reviews; the two reviewers she chooses love what I’ve done;
  12. my book is published in 2014 as Linguistics and Evolution. A Developmental Approach.

Stages seven and eight were hard, if not horrible. Even worse were nine and ten because I know the stages of the hero’s journey. I was sure I had the elixir (the solution to the problems deviling introductory accounts of language), and I was frustrated that I was unable to get on the road back (find a publisher).

Here is a more succinct and less heroic account of my journey. British physiologist and philosopher J.S. Haldane has outlined the Four Stages of Acceptance of a Theory:

  1. This is worthless nonsense.
  2. This is an interesting, but perverse, point of view.
  3. This is true, but quite important.
  4. I always said so.

At this point the acceptance of my work is beyond “worthless nonsense” but far from “I always said so.” It might still be hovering at “perverse.”

You might find it illuminating or at least entertaining to outline these stages for any uncertain, slightly scary adventure you’ve undertaken.

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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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