F#@%* The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

I'm going to give Guy Deutscher's new book Through The Language Glass: Why The World Looks Different In Other Languages a perfect ten gender neutral pronouns out of ten; first of all, I love how worked up Deutscher gets about things like linguistic relativity-- otherwise known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis-- which is the idea that the "character" of a language somehow indicates the philosophy of the culture that uses it (and he quotes from the American Journal Philosophy Today . . . "if English thought is in some ways more open to ambiguity and lack of system, it might be attributed in part to the relative variability and looseness of English syntax," and then he comes down heavy on this idea; here is Deutscher's rebuttal: "It might. . .  It might also be attributable to the irregular shape of hot cross buns. More appropriately, however, it should be attributed to the habit of English language journals to allow the likes of Mr. Harvey free range. . . ") and Deutscher also refutes the venerated Stephen Pinker in several places, but the main reason I like the book is it really does live up to its title in some very specific ways: you learn about the Guugu Yimithirr, a tribe who use no egocentric directions (right/left/behind you/in front of you) and instead only refer to the directions of the compass-- as in: "Can you pass the butter to the North?" and they learn this from an early age because that's the only way to speak, so they always know which way everything is facing-- whether they are in a dark room with no windows or recounting a story several years later, and they do not rely on the sun, they use other clues (and the children master this long before our kids master left and right!) and Deutscher also explains how nouns with gender (as in Spanish and Italian and French) have an influence on our associations about the object and he also answers that age old question: "Do you see the same blue that I see?" or at least he sort of answers it, and the answer is that you might see it slightly differently if you don't have a word for green . . . if you have a word for green then greens are greener, and if you don't then you might refer to the sea as "wine dark," like Homer did, but what is important is that it is the language influencing the sensory perceptions and not vice-versa . . . if you start making generalizations in the other direction then he's going to go Sapir-Whorf on your ass!

2 comments:

zman said...

Hot cross buns!

Igor said...

There are far better passages to borrow from Homer, such as "Weaseling out of things is important to learn. It's what separates us from the animals! Except the weasel."

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