Saturday, March 14, 2015

Sapir-Whorf is no shortcut

Lately the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis - that the language you speak influences the way you think - has had a bit of a revival; investigators such as Boroditsky or Levinson have finally managed to demonstrate small Whorfian effects on colour perception and sense of direction. Unfortunately, these successes only underscore how difficult it would be to make a convincing case for the version of this idea that perennially fascinates the public: the idea that language determines aspects of our worldview. Well before Sapir or Whorf, Nietzsche summarises it in Beyond Good and Evil:
"The strange family resemblance of all Indian, Greek, and German philosophizing is explained easily enough. Where there is affinity of languages, it cannot fail, owing to the common philosophy of grammar - I mean, owing to the unconscious domination and guidance by similar grammatical functions - that everything is prepared at the outset for a similar development and sequence of philosophical systems; just as the way seems barred against certain other possibilities of world-interpretation. It is highly probable that philosophers within the domain of the Ural-Altaic languages (where the concept of the subject is least developed) look otherwise "into the world", and will be found on paths of thought different from those of the Indo-Germanic peoples and the Muslims [...]" (Walter Kaufman's translation)
If a community's grammar really does affect its worldview, two centuries of speculation have hardly brought us any nearer to proving it, much less figuring out how. The commonsense converse, that a community's worldview affects its grammar, is rather better supported. But this idea's attraction for intellectuals, I think, is basically technological: it holds out the promise of being able to change the way people think "just" by changing the way they talk, as envisioned for Newspeak and Láadan. Ironically, it's observably true that imposing a new language on a previously monolingual community usually implies major changes in the way they think - that's what happens when you introduce compulsory schooling - but that has less to do with the language than with the institutions diffusing it.

The technological question remains, then: can we redesign some aspects of our language to help us think more effectively?

For grammar, the answer is not obvious. For the lexicon, however, the answer is yes, and we do it all the time. If something seems to need a name, we give it one - "mouse" or "selfie". Sometimes we choose a name that transparently encodes an property of this item that's particularly important to remember - "henbane" or "fool's gold". Ask any taxonomist whether the existence and form of a name matters, or any mathematician whether all notations are equal.

But this isn't actually the shortcut that some science fiction would have us believe. Many readers probably know that "henbane" is some kind of plant, but couldn't identify it if it was sitting in front of them, much less take advantage of knowing the name to prevent some unfortunate fowl's death. Understanding a given domain requires you to have words for the items signified by its technical vocabulary, but the most important part of that is learning to identify and think about the referents. Hundreds of New Age texts attest to the fact that you can use the vocabulary of quantum mechanics without understanding the first thing about it.

This points the way towards a solution, but not a very linguistic one: If you want to make your language better for thinking with, then first learn to perceive and think about the world more clearly yourself, and then share what you learn (and the labels you've given to it) with other interested speakers. Make a point of spotting and labelling relevant differences between things or situations, and involve yourself in a wider range of situations than you're used to. A sign is a link between word and world - between the set of all possible combinations of phonemes, meaningless in themselves, and the set of everything the speaker has some idea how to recognise. Expanding the former is meaningless unless you're expanding the latter.

11 comments:

petre said...

In its weakest form, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is obviously, even trivially true: my couch is for my francophone friend a kind of armchair (fauteuil), and an armchair is for me a kind of chair, but for neither of us is a couch a chair (une chaise).

When I was still a very young student, my teacher told me that what we called then the "Whorfian" hypothesis was something that went in and out of fashion. It seems you are confirming his view.

"Exo-linguists" (the people who devise Klingon and Romulan) could have made much better use of this. If you allow me a moderate number of deictics, I could, on a wet Sunday afternoon, construct for you a language with no nouns at all which kind of describes the world we live in. But, unless you believe Whorf's wildest claims about native American languages, no human beings have ever attempted to do so in reality.

Entirely off-topic, but dragging us back to dull reality, WHY does the American expression "I could care less", meaning "I couldn't care less" annoy me so much, when I happily accept (and use) "t'inquète" in the sense of "ne t'inquiète pas"?

Jim said...

"If a community's grammar really does affect its worldview, two centuries of speculation have hardly brought us any nearer to proving it, much less figuring out how. "

Indeed. all that speculation hasn't explained why Salishan languages can grammaticalize intention on the verb, but SAE languages, in cultures where mens rea is so foundational in the legal systems, don't have any such mechanism.

"In its weakest form, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is obviously, even trivially true: my couch is for my francophone friend a kind of armchair (fauteuil), and an armchair is for me a kind of chair, but for neither of us is a couch a chair (une chaise)."

Seems like so many of these examples of Whorf-Sapir have to do with the way languages lexical/semantic categories.

petre said...

Jim, a shame you focused on my trivial and trivializing "couch and chair" comment, and not on what I naively imagined an "exo-language", with no nouns at all.

Awaiting more detailed analysis, the "nounlessness" of the Salishan languages seems fairly convincing, though, as always, one has to take into account the artefacts of analysis.

Analysis not first made by Whorf, indeed, but by a certain Edward Sapir.

Jim said...

"though, as always, one has to take into account the artefacts of analysis."

And the tools as well. In the controversy about nounlessness in Salishan languages one of the hurdles is lack of agreement on what makes something a noun or not. One researcher calls the "s-" prefix a nominalizer, but can't explain how any why it interacts with the other nominalizers (demonstratives) and another researcher calls it a verb aspect - in other words a noun is a "verb made to stand still". the second explanation explains the data better. It was really not such a wild claim on Sapir's part.

I get the feeling(!) that the resistance to the nounlesness of Salishan languages is emotional rather than rational, that it comes out of an essentialist mindset set that insists that thing is a thing and not a doing. That's my guess.

I didn't think there was anything trivializing at all about you "couch and chair" comment, I think it goes to the heart of the question. Lexical items and the categories they represent are very real to speakers, and they make a difference between languages. There are even jokes about this WRT to lects of the same language used by various sub-cultures.

petre said...

The definition of a noun as a "verb made to stand still" is cute. One could similarly describe a verb as an "adjective on wheels".

"I get the feeling(!) that the resistance to the nounlesness of Salishan languages is emotional rather than rational, that it comes out of an essentialist mindset set that insists that thing is a thing and not a doing. That's my guess.

I could easily be persuaded to make the same guess. I probably meant something similar when I spoke of the "artefacts of analysis". Linguists are overwhelmingly native or very good second-language speakers of (arguably hypernominalizing) European languages.

petre said...

P.S. to Jim

"Lexical items and the categories they represent are very real to speakers, and they make a difference between languages."

Thanks for reminding me of this. Linguists and other "language-workers" typically speak (with varying degrees of fluency) several different languages, and I think this "de-sensitizes" us to monolinguals' (false but strongly felt) perception that their own language in some way encapsulates reality.

P.P.S. What kind of a beast are the Salishan "demonstratives". If they're anything like the deictics I postulated in my imaginary example, that would seem to support nounlessness.

I musn't write any more, as I seem to be arguing myself into deeply heretical Whorfism (-:

Jim said...

"P.P.S. What kind of a beast are the Salishan "demonstratives". If they're anything like the deictics I postulated in my imaginary example, that would seem to support nounlessness."

Deicitcs is the correct word, and thanks for that.

The way it works in Lushootseed, there are three forms - ti, ti?e? and ti?ilh (with an -s infix for semantically feminine entities). The last two are proximal and distal, so people thought the first one was just for definite reference, and often that's how it translates into English. But often it doesn't, and this isn't just an effect of translation. Often there is no definite reference at all. So people started calling it a nominalizer, because that appeared to be its only real function.

The problem with that analysis is that there is also a clearly nominalizing prefix -s, but it only appears on some nuns and not others. So one analysis of this is that it is a disambiguating nominal aspect of the verb when it is used as a noun.

So the question is still open.

A better example of this verb/noun thing is in Classical Chinese where there is no formal distinction between most nouns and most verbs, as in the distinction being completely unmarked syntactically - there is no nominal or verbal morphology and where a verb (or usually a verb phrase) is nominalized, that is clearly marked by various nominalizers - and the reader has to determine the structure of the sentence semantically.

petre said...

Jim, there are several things in your comment that set my "noun-dar" not yet bleeping but at least vibrating. The first is the existence of a specific infix for "semantically feminine entities". Does this refer to human, animal and plant life correctly or mistakenly identified as biologically female, or to a wider set of entities culturally regarded as "feminine"? In either case, but more especially in the second, this seems to me to point to "nominalization as we know it, Jim", Jim.

I'm a bit shaky about your Classical Chinese comparison. You say the verb/noun distinction is not marked syntactically, but go on to speak of "various nominalizers". Did you mean "not marked morphologically"? One could say almost as much of modern English, where the reader also has often "to determine the structure of the sentence semantically". And in the case of Classical Chinese, we are necessarily talking about readers now, not listeners.

I suppose the Salishan people have (had?) personal names. If you can unpick any morphology from them, that might or might not shed some light.

From where it petres to where it jims, it thanks.

John Cowan said...

Petre: There's a constructed language called AllNoun that's just that. A sentence is a list of pairs of nouns, where the pairs specify a role and a role-player. So for example "Joe:whole Rover:dog" means that Joe plays the "whole" role and Rover plays the "dog" role, or in SAE: "Rover is Joe's dog."

Peter Norman said...

That's fascinating, John, though rather than "just that", it's exactly the contrary. (But we can gloss or glossarize over that.)

I googled AllNoun, and read "AllNoun does, however, use four operators as part of its grammar." I assume "whole" in your example is an "operator". "Operators", hmmm... I sniff verbs. The "operators" described on the AllNoun website do not include "whole", but rather punctuation marks, so (on the face of it) it can only be a written language. The punctuation could easily be conveyed by intonation, when speaking, but I would contend that the intonations (and the punctuation marks themselves) therefore qualify as "verbs" (or pre/postpositions?), or something very similar.

For verb-minimization, I could challenge AllNoun with an (almost) natural language. In Modern Irish, if you absolutely systematize expressions like "I'm after going", "I'm at going", "I'm before going" you can eliminate (finite) verbs altogether (apart from the copula). Easy to reinterpret the infinites/gerunds as nouns. You need a quite modest number of prepositions: just like the "operators" of AllNoun.

My verdict on AllNoun: Don't call us... DO let me know if you find something like an AllVerb. I'm not buying what AllNoun is selling, but show me AllVerb, I'll at least inspect the goods (I'm not buying Salishan).

P.S. to everybody: "petre" and "Peter Norman" are both me. Just an accident that I have had a double identity here.

Peter Norman said...

Hold on to your hats, gals and guys, you're the first to read Peter's Postulate (patent pending). Any human language, natural or contrived, requires at least two grammatical categories: AllNoun, with its nouns and operators, my imaginary AllVerb, with its verbs and deictics, or my horrible distortion of Irish, which (I think) I could whittle down to nouns and prepositions.

When I get my Nobel Prize (do they give one for linguistics? Probably not, that's Norwegians for you), remember you read it here first!