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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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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.
Itinerant hacker adventuress: polite raventhewronghands on November 13th, 2009 12:01 am (UTC)
That is also my understanding -- I believe it's a "when in doubt, ask" thing. The only Inuit guy I've known personally prefers Inuit, but a sample size of one is hardly something to generalize from.
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on November 13th, 2009 12:11 am (UTC)
Yes, it's definitely a thing where I would ask. In general, I like to know how people self-identify.

Though, we all seem to do so in multiple sometimes inconsistent ways, so perhaps a better phrasing is "how people would prefer me to refer to them" rather than "self-identify".

(Deleted comment)
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on November 14th, 2009 12:04 am (UTC)
The problem with asking is that it can be intrusive. It gets into that whole "where are you from?" issue.

Yeah, absolutely.
But I think in the situations where asking is intrusive, there's seldom a good reason to be referring to someone's ethnicity at all; if one is really interested in a friend, or else has a good reason to be referring to ethnicity and is asking in order not to get it wrong, it's much less intrusive than "Hey you're not like me I must ask nosy questions now".
(Deleted comment)
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on November 14th, 2009 01:24 am (UTC)
I want to paint that.