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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.

* 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.
Current Mood: geeky
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...
Rachel Swirskyrachel_swirsky on November 13th, 2009 12:54 am (UTC)
Either things have changed or I was taught wrong in my linguistic anthro class. Either is possible! Thanks for the correct information. Very interesting!
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on November 13th, 2009 12:57 am (UTC)
Probably the latter, I'm afraid. I think the original studies are still the ones we mostly talk about -- but there is every sort of misunderstanding/miscommunication/twisting-for-agenda possible in this area. Among other things it's a "clearly universalist" or "clearly relativist" finding, depending on who's talking.

So it's sort of more surprising when people get taught it right (at more than one remove from the original scholarship) than when they get taught it wrong. SIGH.

(This is why academia can't have nice things XD)
Rachel Swirskyrachel_swirsky on November 13th, 2009 01:02 am (UTC)

My prof was very much on the liberal side of things and at a very liberal institution, so it's at least unlikely that his agenda (I'm sure he had one) was overtly problematic, but that doesn't mean that something didn't go amiss somewhere.

I realized I should have mentioned that it's always possible the the getting it backward happened in my brain, not during the lesson. The only reason I don't think that's true is I remember being very excited about tying the primacy of red and white to an ethnographic paper I'd recently read about a people who saw red and white as a fundamental dichotomy.
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on November 13th, 2009 01:18 am (UTC)
My prof was very much on the liberal side of things and at a very liberal institution, so it's at least unlikely that his agenda (I'm sure he had one) was overtly problematic, but that doesn't mean that something didn't go amiss somewhere.

I'm not so sure. Liberal certainly doesn't mean unbiased :)

If your prof. got it wrong, misremembering is of course always more likely than deliberately skewing the data, no matter what the agenda. But humans have a tendency towards confirming rather than denying what we already believe, called "confirmation bias". So it's quite likely that he'd have remembered it in a way that made sense in the context of his beliefs.

And -- the notion that we don't think in terms of light/dark inherently, and it's culturally imposed, is one that is mostly important to liberals. The reasons are generally really good ones based on not believing that racial prejudice is based in Human Truth. But the position misses the fact that while the importance we put on skin tone is culturally imposed, the whole skin tone thing is not our primary experience of light & darkness. The importance we put on being able to see if the scary things are after us is a pretty basic monkey thing.
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on November 13th, 2009 01:20 am (UTC)
And yes, it's always possible you misremembered -- but I agree that getting really excited about it at the time suggests you're remembering it as you learned it.
Brackett: thoughtful gargoylealiseadae on November 13th, 2009 01:32 am (UTC)
Do either of you have any recommendations on something to read about cultural interpretations of color? Any linguistic anthropology recommendations in general? My college sadly does not offer linguistic anthropology and I'd like to read what I can on my own.
(Deleted comment)
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on January 10th, 2010 05:11 am (UTC)
Absolutely :)
I'm always extra-happy to have an introduction, if you're okay giving me one, but it's not necessary or anything.