Saturday, May 06, 2006

Whorf meets warmongering

Pop Whorfianism (usually in forms that Whorf would have been the first to laugh at) is something I usually associate with a slightly hippy-ish multiculturalism. However, it seems to have a certain appeal to Islamophobes as well.

The thesis they find so appealing is summarized in one James Coffman's question: "Does the Arabic Language Encourage Radical Islam?". Apparently, he did a survey in 1988 in Algiers which confirmed a number of fairly obvious facts - notably, that the younger students that year, who were the first cohort of students whose secondary education had been mainly in Arabic, were more "Islamist" than their predecessors who had gone through a partly or wholly Francophone educational system. From this, he concluded that the Arabic language encouraged "radical Islam" - not, for example, that Arabic-literate students had much easier access to "Islamist" literature (and Islamic literature in general), or that the transition to Arabic had been accompanied by a vast expansion of the school system to cover more conservative rural areas, or that many of the imported Arabic teachers who helped tide Algeria over the transition period were Islamic Brotherhood members fleeing crackdowns in Egypt, or indeed (most importantly) that the collapse of the Algerian economy in the late 1980's was encouraging the growth of anti-government ideologies. It's an old, old saw, but one that apparently still bears repeating: correlation does not equal causation.

Mind you, like most people who cite the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, he doesn't seem to have a very clear idea of its content. On my reading of Whorf, his core idea is (plausibly enough) that a language might make its speakers more conscious of some grammaticalized categories by forcing its speakers to mark them, or less conscious of them by not providing any simple way to describe them; it would thus render some ideas more intuitive than others. For this sort of deep influence to be plausible, the speaker has to do most of his/her thinking in the language in question. But both classical Arabic and French in Algeria are only ever used by most speakers in writing, or in highly formal contexts - scarcely the sort of situation Whorf had in mind...

(PS: It seems Language Log have also just done another post on "No word for X" fallacies. Another example of ham-handed anti-Arab efforts at Whorfian analysis is alluded to on Linguistic Life.)

7 comments:

bulbul said...

I submit to you the final argument of the article at Linguistic life:
"If you're going to use "linguistics" to support your arguments, either bother to learn something about the actual field, or consult someone who does know."
You would think this should be obvious, wouldn't you? But somehow, it isn't. Noone bothers to ask experts on anything and by noone I mean noone. Just recently, I came across a book on cognitive linguistics published by the Math and Physics faculty of my alma mater. The chapter on comparative linguistics - written by a double PhD in mathematics, mind you - was full of mistakes, errors and outright BS. All the guy had to do was dial his phone - internal line! - and ask me or any other coleague of mine. Did he? No. And he was a fellow scholar, who should know better. Unbelievable.

rob said...

There are, unfortunately, people who call themselves scholars though have an undeniable ideological motive behind their work. This is a perfect example. Unfortunately, neo-con pundits are going to pick up on this and run with it. We don't have experts running our policy these days...

Antoine Cassar said...

Congratulations for a very interesting blog, Lameen, and thanks for the link.

With regard the title of your blog, I am aware that jabal means 'mountain' (ġebel in Maltese means 'stone'), but can you tell me what lughat means? Does it mean 'languages' (I take it the final -at is plural)? 'Language' in Maltese is either lingwa or (i)lsien.

Thanks (jew bil-Malti, ħajr)

Antoine.

P.S. With regard to this particular post and the comments of bulbul and rob, I think it was the German poet Goethe who said that "Because everybody uses language to communicate, everybody thinks they can talk about language".

Lameen Souag said...

Antoine: Yes, lugha = language - but lingwa and ilsien are certainly familiar...

Bulbul: I only wish I could be surprised - it seems like most non-linguists don't even realize there is such a science as linguistics. Don't suppose you'd be willing to name the book?

Rob: Yes, that is no doubt precisely why they posted it. Mind you, if this was the worst they were doing I'd be glad - most of their propaganda efforts focus on fields like history or sociology or politics.

bulbul said...

Antoine: as for Goethe, truer words have never been spoken :o)
U ghandek ragun, "-at" hu s-suffiss ta l-plural shih fil-femminil.

Lameen: the book is a local (Slovak) thing and it's called "Kognitívne vedy" (Cognitive sciences). It is full of the kind of silly Chomskyian ideas most of which Chomsky himself abandonded long time ago and, perhaps symptomatically, it was edited and compiled by the good folks at the Math & Physics faculty.
Some of the more general chapters are quite good, but the whole section on linguistics is simply horrible.

Anonymous said...

This week's New Yorker (mainstay of US East Coast Liberal coffee-tables), in a profile of a Jewish-Iraqi-American who translates jihadi sites, has the following quote, “An Arabic word can have four or five different meanings in translation”. We can imagine what the speaker means, moreover he goes on to criticise SITE for picking the “most warlike translation”. But the way the author / editor has framed this seems dangerously close to the old canard, “every Arabic word means itself, its opposite, and a kind of camel”. There is a germ of truth about meaning and translation that even a lojban adherent would have to admit. But it is only baby steps away from a racist stereotype of backward duplicity. And their language makes them that way.

The internet attributes the quip to Richard Francis Burton. I have never seen a proper citation. I don't know that Burton the competent linguist would have said that. But Burton the imperialist braggart might well have.

alle said...

I just found this old post ... as I remember it, there is an original source for the camel quote in John Keay's "Sowing the Wind". An excellent book on the making of the modern Middle East, by the way, so by all means read it.