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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".

Kari Sperringla_marquise_de_ on November 13th, 2009 11:12 am (UTC)
It is a generalisation and it is very loose -- I'm not sure I believe it, it's simply something I wonder about from time to time. There are certainly words with multiple meanings (27 for 'set' in UK English) but what I was getting at I think was that we tend to try and avoid ambiguity and 'weasel words', at least in certain arenas.
I certainly did not mean that other languages weren't precise -- kinship words are a very good one (and thank you for the Tamil ones. In my academic mode, kinship terms are something that interest me greatly). Chinese has many sophisticated gradations, too, and so does Welsh.
As I said, not a theory. More a query.
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on November 13th, 2009 11:26 am (UTC)
I think all languages have areas where they try to avoid ambiguity and areas where it's either beneficial or everyone knows the intended meaning in context and people don't even think about the ambiguity (family, above, is a great English example of this...)
uuesti_ajutine on June 6th, 2010 08:10 am (UTC)
Well, if one has to jump between languages, then the ambiguities are felt keenly surprisingly often.

My language uses gender-neutral pronouns. Onle might think it would be no problem, but we also believe names are personal and private (well, the American way will kill this difference soon*), so we talk - again, in gender neutral words - of people by their role in action as abot a co-worker or a doctor or an official and so on.

So, I have found surprisingly often that when I try to tell about something I have read or heard about in English I do not know what pronoun to use, as I never knew what gender the person about whom I want to tell is.

This also means I do not feel need to know gender of each hero/heroine I am reading about - it is not that important for me (especially if I read about aliens or foreigners, in whose case I cannot make any gender based assumptions anyway).

* being Englsih speaker is a privilege and these privileged persons kill the future of small languages without meaning. Take Rowling - her actions killed more than one potential reader of fiction in my native langage.

I understand Rowling was NOT sitting there, thinking how to make English language more prevalent and opress native languages of smaller nations. Rowling was thinking only of her bread when she did not allow any translators to see her books before the Englsh version was out.

But what it meant for readers of Harry Potter was that there was period when English speakers could make fun of the slow-witted natives who did not know how the story went. More than one child made the effort to read Harry Potter in Englsih ... and never went back to reading fiction in their native language.

I have lived outside my lanuage for some periods and I can understand, as after a while one gets used to different language and so the native language text feels all wrong and not comfortable to read.
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on June 6th, 2010 03:57 pm (UTC)
I had that when learning American Sign Language -- no need to know the gender of the person, but you had to know where they were physically and when storytelling you had to know how tall they were and such.

I loved it. I'm really unhappy that I don't have a community of signers to join here and that my thinking has reverted to English again (but of course again that's the hearing privilege -- to me it's an inconvenience, to Deaf signers it would be total social isolation, especially since people here don't even *try* to communicate past difficulties. So my whining is very privileged-pout.)

Probably, re: Rowling, that decision was her agent's, whose job it is to watch her back financially. But that doesn't disagree with your point -- it's the system that makes the powerful stay powerful and does not think about the not-so-hidden side effects. As someone who's lost her heritage language in part due to other kids' teasing, I very much empathize.

And of course we discuss all this... in English.

A Wandering Hobbitredbird on November 13th, 2009 12:13 am (UTC)
We can be quite precise about some things, but consider the ambiguity of the word "family." Not just in things like whether "father's brother," "mother's brother" get the same word, or that "father-in-law" used to mean both "spouse's father" and "mother's husband," but more broadly, in who counts as family. The word is slippery because different people have different answers.

From a Spanish perspective, it may look odd that we use the same word for "conocer" and "saber" ("know" in the sense of "I know her" and in the sense of "I know how to make an omelet" or "I know the price of tea"). (Is there a language that uses distinct simple verbs for "know a fact" from "know how to do something"?)
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on November 13th, 2009 12:19 am (UTC)
(Is there a language that uses distinct simple verbs for "know a fact" from "know how to do something"?)

Y'know, the closest that comes to mind at this point is actually English :) Because there is a sense of "can" that means "know how to do" and not any other type of knowledge (Like, I think it's right to say that I can ride a bike, even if I am asleep or having an asthma attack and am not physically able to do so right then.)
Kari Sperringla_marquise_de_ on November 13th, 2009 11:13 am (UTC)
It's not a hard and fast theory, just a thing I wonder about sometimes, particularly in technical arenas.
Dr. Kvetchrose_lemberg on November 16th, 2009 03:20 am (UTC)
Russian: znat' "to know", umet' "to know how to do something"