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.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Ibn Khaldun: Arabic dialects are independent languages

In Part 39 of the Muqaddimah, written in 1377, Ibn Khaldun discusses Arabic dialectology and language contact, reaching substantially correct conclusions marred only by the lack of attention to the role of purely internal developments in language change. The section is worth reading, if you haven't already come across it; it gives some idea of just how divergent the different Arabic "dialects" already were in his time. Like a lot of his work, if he had written it today, it would get many Arab nationalists up in arms! The translation is my own, and needs double-checking - appropriately, the Arabic of Ibn Khaldun is often difficult for modern Arabic readers.

"That the language of the city dwellers and townsmen is a language independent of the language of Mudar [Classical Arabic]

Know that the customary medium of discourse in the towns and among the city-dwellers is not the old language of Mudar, nor the language of the people of the generation (of Arabs). Rather, it is a different language, independent, and far from the language of Mudar and of this generation of Arabs in our time. Indeed, it is further from the language of Mudar (than the language of modern Arabs is).

The fact that it is an independent language is obvious; witness how many changes it has which grammarians consider as solecisms. Nevertheless, it varies in its expressions depending on the town. The language of the Mashriq is somewhat different from that of the Maghreb, and likewise that of Andalus from both. Yet each succeeds, with his own language, in realising his purpose and expressing what is within him. That is what is meant by "tongue" and "language". The loss of case-/mood-suffixes is not a problem for them, as we have already said regarding the Arabs of the present day.

As for the fact that it is further than the language of this generation (of Arabs) from the original language, that is because distance from the language depends on mixing with non-Arabness. The more one mixes with non-Arabs, the further one gets from the original tongue, because habits are acquired by learning, as we have said, and this (linguistic) habit is a mixture of the original habits which the Arabs had and the secondary habits which the non-Arabs had. So the more they hear it from non-Arabs and grow up with it, the further they get from the original habit.

You may observe this in the towns of Ifriqiya and the Maghreb and Andalus and the Mashriq:

  • As for Ifriqiya and the Maghreb, the Arabs there mixed with the non-Arab Berbers as they spread their civilisation among them. Hardly a town or a generation was isolated from them. Thus non-Arabness came to predominate over the Arab tongue which they had had. It became a different, mixed language, within which non-Arabness predominated for the reasons outlined. So it is further from the original tongue.
  • Likewise the Mashriq. When the Arabs prevailed over its nations, the Persians and the Turks, they mixed with them. Their languages then spread among them through the labourers and farmers and captives whom they took as servants and nannies and wet-nurses. As a result, their own language was corrupted by corruption of their (linguistic) habits, until it became a different language.
  • Likewise the people of Andalus, with the non-Arab Galicians and Franks.

All the people of the towns from these regions came to have a different language, specific to them and distinct from that of Mudar [=Classical Arabic], and distinct each from the other - as we shall recall. It is as if it were a different language due to their generations' mastery of the linguistic habit of it. And God creates and decrees what He will."