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12 November 2009 @ 03:06 pm
Geekery (babbling about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis)  
papersky's Tor.com post Like swords, but awesomer: Made up words in science fiction and fantasy is very cool, and the comments are verra interesting.

But I have to say, I feel pretty sorry for poor old Sapir*. I have a sense the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has turned him into a perpetual motion machine, spinning forever in his grave.

Because the strong version, that eternal straw-man, is completely, unfixably silly. You can't think of things you don't have words for? RLY? However did you learn what the words meant in the first place, since you couldn't think of the thingy until you knew the word? According to the straw man, my nephew can put objects together and demonstrate pretty sophisticated spatial reasoning about them without being able to think of them. Because he's not talking yet, and doesn't recognize all the words.

It's as mystical as Chomsky's language module wot didn't evolve.

Pity Whorf didn't have a prelinguistic nephew, I guess. Or, shall we say, the linguistic sophistication Sapir did. His writing is actively brain-hurty, the way sensible observations and total WTF run together in gleeful abandon.

Now, the weak Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (where "weak" means "not ridiculous") makes a lot of sense, is useful to writers, and has at this point a great deal of empirical evidence backing it up. But it's called "weak", and that's just not sexy :) So y'can't even talk about it without starting with "No, really, I don't think unnamed eskimos have a bajillion-gajillion words that all mean the exact same thing as the English word snow, and no, really, I don't think English-speaking people who happen to ski do, either, but I do suspect both groups distinguish between powder and slush."

Fact is, you can inclue a lot about a culture, and make it resonate, by thinking about how kinship terms in a fantasy setting's language are structured (whether or not you make up funny words for 'em), or whether the speakers use relative directional terms (left, right) or only absolute ones (North, south; or more likely something like uphill, downhill, depending on setting), or which color terms are basic, or whether the language specifies whether movement crosses a boundary, or or or.

It'd be so nice to be able to talk about that without starting for the words for snow or the fact that the Hopi did, actually, understand the concept of time.


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* Not to mention Mary Haas, I think(?) it was, who's never mentioned at all.

ETA: Also to note: I don't feel sorry for Sapir 'cause of anything Jo said, but the fact that she too has to dismiss the strong version before talking about the weak version got me thinking about the fact that it's not just linguists and cog sci people -- everyone seems to have to.
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Kari Sperringla_marquise_de_ on November 12th, 2009 11:19 pm (UTC)
I sometimes wonder if part of the trouble is that English can be overly precise as a language. Certainly there are many words that are susceptible to multiple meanings, but overall it's a language that tends to create more and more technicalities. Useful in some ways, but in others... There is a place for words that are meaningfully slippery, like Chinese guanxi can be.
I ski. I can attest to the coining by me and my beloved of a number of new descriptions of snow ('crud', 'real crud', 'clinker', 'demerara sugar', 'kendal mint cake'). And my friend maeve_the_red has a whole taxonomy for mud. More of that English language need to define...
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on November 12th, 2009 11:49 pm (UTC)
Uh.

I am generally disturbed by generalizations about "The English Language's tendency to X", because they're almost always true of most or all languages, and seem special about English because we live in an anglophone-privileged world.

Every language gets very precise, where there is a social need or desire for precision. Many languages get far more precise than English (consider "aunt", which is four different words in Tamil: mother's elder sister [or father's elder brother's wife], mother's younger sister [or father's younger brother's wife], father's sister, and mother's brother's wife).

And every language is vague or ambiguous slippery where there is either a social use for vagueness or ambiguity or slip, or where context will almost always disambiguate. And in general native speakers don't find these things slippery, or even notice them at all; it's non-native speakers, who can't translate 'em, who find 'em slippery.

Consider, for example, the various meanings and usages of the English word "on".

(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ on November 13th, 2009 11:12 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on November 13th, 2009 11:26 am (UTC) (Expand)
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(no subject) - redbird on November 13th, 2009 12:13 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on November 13th, 2009 12:19 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ on November 13th, 2009 11:13 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - rose_lemberg on November 16th, 2009 03:20 am (UTC) (Expand)
Itinerant hacker adventuress: odd handthewronghands on November 12th, 2009 11:43 pm (UTC)
I can never think of the Eskimo-snow debate without recalling the scene from Forever Knight where Lacroix says something about the Eskimos, and Nick turns around, full on vampire scary, and says in a freezing voice, "Inuit aboriginals!". (Clearly, what discussions about terminology need are more Canadian vampires.)
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on November 12th, 2009 11:52 pm (UTC)
(Clearly, what discussions about terminology need are more Canadian vampires.)


Hee! Yes.

Also, I am so not clear on the Inuit/Eskimo terminology issues. Last I checked, the best I could find was... maybe some Canadian tribes preferred the term "Eskimo" and some prefer "Inuit", while the Greenlandic Inuit prefer "Inuit" without exception... or maybe I have that backwards, I just ended up with the sense that it was a tribe-specific or individual preference.
(no subject) - thewronghands on November 13th, 2009 12:01 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on November 13th, 2009 12:11 am (UTC) (Expand)
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(no subject) - shweta_narayan on November 14th, 2009 12:04 am (UTC) (Expand)
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(no subject) - shweta_narayan on November 14th, 2009 01:24 am (UTC) (Expand)
asakiyume: nighthawk flyingasakiyume on November 12th, 2009 11:45 pm (UTC)
Oh, that was an interesting article! The thing I was thinking was how you can do a lot with idiom. One of the things I love even in the realm of English is how idioms can tell you whether the speaker's from Australia or northern England or the US south, and so on. I think you can create interesting strangeness by creating idioms for your not-this-world, place. Too many of those could be annoying, too, I'll grant, but I like the technique. I'm not coming up with a good real-life example now, but I know that (since we were talking about her books earlier) Sherwood's had some. Like "feeling a breeze" for getting a beating from the chief of the dorm (she had a term for this position, and it wasn't called a dorm, but you know what I mean?) when you're a kid at the Marlovan military academy.
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on November 12th, 2009 11:53 pm (UTC)
Yes :)
I think if the idioms enrich the culture, rather than just seeming weird, they're not going to bother readers. It's always the clunky ones we notice, just like the clunky adjectives and adverbs, and the clunky dialogue tags...
Rachel Swirskyrachel_swirsky on November 13th, 2009 12:34 am (UTC)
I find color particularly interesting. If you have only two words for color in a language, they're always white and red, if I recall correctly. (Three, and you get black, white and red.) This implies interesting things to me about consistency in human vision, and about the primary of red (which we seem to have eroded a bit, given our strong cultural dichotomy between black and white).

...this contributes little to the discussion of fantasy terms, but I find it interesting. :-D
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on November 13th, 2009 12:50 am (UTC)
I find color particularly interesting. If you have only two words for color in a language, they're always white and red, if I recall correctly. (Three, and you get black, white and red.)

No, that's backwards. If you have two, they're light-warm and dark-cool; that is, a category that includes white, yellow, red, and light colors in general, and one that includes green, blue, black, and dark colors in general.

If you have three, you get light, warm, and dark-cool. (Using English basic color terms here is also misleading.)

There is absolutely a primacy to red; it's the prototypical example of the third term to show up, and iirc people see red objects as closer than others (and note that these are basic terms; a culture might have only two basic color terms, but totally have terms meaning blood-color, sky, color, grass-color, etc). But the basic experiential dichotomy for humans, in terms of color, seems to be light/dark.

You can never have enough color story, IMO. It's the sort of thing I can natter about indefinitely; Berlin & Kay did the first cross-cultural "Color Story" project, and Rosch did some of the original fieldwork, and I've met and talked to Kay & Rosch, and know some of the people doing the modern work on this (including, for example, showing hemispheric differences in processing the categories, and verifying that the original research is statistically significant).

And IIRC I first met Paul Kay when I was explaining the Color Story stuff to someone else in an elevator, and this old guy was looking rather amused...
(no subject) - rachel_swirsky on November 13th, 2009 12:54 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on November 13th, 2009 12:57 am (UTC) (Expand)
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(no subject) - shweta_narayan on November 13th, 2009 01:18 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on November 13th, 2009 01:20 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - aliseadae on November 13th, 2009 01:32 am (UTC) (Expand)
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(no subject) - shweta_narayan on January 10th, 2010 05:11 am (UTC) (Expand)
Becca Stareyesbeccastareyes on November 13th, 2009 12:35 am (UTC)
I figure it's like any English-speaking subculture. I mean, 'aeolian bedforms' as a phrase for 'hills of stuff created by wind' (what normal English-speakers call dunes) became a bit of a meme in my Planetary Surfaces class because 'dunes' and 'ripples' are different (not to mention sediment sculpted by water). A geologist on Earth, Mars, Titan or Venus needs to be precise about what they are studying. Your average beachcomber or surfer doesn't need to distinguish what the pile of sand on the beach is called. (And geologists have plenty of different ways to say 'rock'.)

(Heck, look at the damn planet thing -- the dynamicists, solar system formation people, geologists, exoplanet hunters, and the general public all had a different definition, and a different set of categories for 'stuff in space'.)
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on November 13th, 2009 12:52 am (UTC)
Yehp :)

Which level of specificity people have changes with expertise, of course -- and so does which level people find "basic", that is, easily accessed, best-simple-description, significantly different from other categories and with item within-category being more or less the same...

"Dog" may be a basic level for most people, but it's most certainly not for dog breeders :)
Brackett: thoughtful gargoylealiseadae on November 13th, 2009 01:16 am (UTC)
Ooh! I love this. Why doesn't my college offer Linguistic Anthropology? I may have to go bother one of my professors as her background is actually in Linguistic Anthropology although we don't have many classes in it.

I wonder which Sapir-Whorf hypothesis I read in Society and Culture. I remember disagreeing with portions of it but agreeing with other bits.

My group of friends at college is a gaming group. We often run LARPs and have hand signals for "out of character" and "speaking in a foreign language". One of my friends pointed out that during a game of charades we had a tendency to use these signals to say that we were going to ask a question about the rules (out of character) or that the title was in French (foreign language). It is fascinating to see these out-of-context uses of terms that only our small group understands.
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on November 13th, 2009 01:21 am (UTC)
Oh! We do things like that with "OOC" signs too. In the middle of serious discussions, to denote a tangent, even :)
(no subject) - aliseadae on November 13th, 2009 01:23 am (UTC) (Expand)
badgerbagbadgerbag on November 13th, 2009 03:00 am (UTC)
shweta_narayan: happyshweta_narayan on November 13th, 2009 04:57 am (UTC)
HEART
Athena Andreadis, aka Helivoyhelivoy on November 13th, 2009 03:50 am (UTC)
English is probably the most ambiguous Indo-European language, because it's largely uninflected. Except for pronouns, it has no case or gender endings and its number suffixes are minimal. Vocabulary-wise, every language has areas of detail and areas of murkiness, depending on its worldview/environment.

There is no question that humans dislike the dark unless trained out of it. We're diurnal animals, and things that went howl in the night did dine on us as recently as each culture's Industrial Age.
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on November 13th, 2009 04:57 am (UTC)
Well, English is more ambiguous about number, perhaps, though singular/plural is clear and not many languages have a dual. But grammatical gender is not really disambiguating anything (though it has cognitive effects) and case and gender-assignment-of-entity is generally pretty clear in English syntax (and pronoun usage).

So it is not actually any more ambiguous than most languages on any of those axes in *effect*.

And it's waaaay less ambiguous than most languages about, say, manner of motion. Much more ambiguous than Spanish about boundary crossing. But it's only signed languages that get in boundary crossing *and* manner of motion, afaik.

Most comments about English being weird come down to English has privileged status so we stare at it a lot. Far as I can tell.
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shweta_narayan: mangatarshweta_narayan on November 13th, 2009 11:51 pm (UTC)
Nothing to be sorry about -- your need to mention it was sort of what got me thinking about it, because I have to do the same thing. We all do. Because the strong version has been turned into such a straw man. And it's Whorf's fault dammit :)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on November 13th, 2009 11:53 pm (UTC) (Expand)
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shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on November 13th, 2009 11:56 pm (UTC)
It makes sense! And yeah, words/sentence patterns are a type of thought, one we all do a lot of the time (even people who don't "think mostly in words" really *do* think largely in relation to language), and thinking within the models we already have is always easier than finding new ones.

But we can define new words fairly easily, as cultures. We have a lot more trouble noticing or dealing with the thought patterns that grammar leads us into.
Kenyessod on November 14th, 2009 05:51 pm (UTC)
I apologize for brainless comment, but I must.

"Dude, that hypothesis is totally weak"
shweta_narayan: igglesshweta_narayan on November 14th, 2009 09:32 pm (UTC)
Thing is? This is precisely why the weak form of hypotheses (actually generally more nuanced and better empirically justified) are, like, never popular.

*siiigh*
(no subject) - yessod on November 14th, 2009 09:51 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on November 14th, 2009 09:54 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - yessod on November 15th, 2009 01:32 am (UTC) (Expand)
Ashniashnistrike on January 12th, 2010 04:30 am (UTC)
I also love this post--may I friend you? I do my own research in reconstructive memory biases, but I totally geek out over Sapir-Whorf research.
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on January 12th, 2010 04:48 am (UTC)
Absolutely! And hi :)

Memory biases are awesome. Well, yeah, potentially horrible. But like so many scary things about cognition, fascinating :)
*checks your lj* Oh, ANOVAs, how I do not miss doing you...
(no subject) - ashnistrike on January 12th, 2010 05:27 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on January 12th, 2010 10:34 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on January 12th, 2010 10:49 pm (UTC) (Expand)