Over at Language Log, John McWhorter discusses the idea that the kinds of polysemy encountered in “indigenous” languages are somehow deep and philosophically interesting, much more so than our denatured English:
Abley listens to a Mohawk speaker talking about the word KA’NIKONRIIO, “righteousness.” The speaker says “You have different words. Something that is nice. Something coming very close to—sometimes used as a word for—law. The fact of KA’NIKONRIIO is also—beautiful. Or good. So goodness and the law are the same.” Abley muses “I had the impression that a three-hour philosophy seminar had just been compressed into a couple of minutes.”
Abley’s intentions are good, but I can’t help wanting to ask him “OK—explain precisely how the semantic range of that word will illuminate your life, and/or please delineate for me just how you would construct a seminar on KA’NIKONRIIO that would stand alongside one on Kant?”
He shows comparably interesting semantic ranges in English, and says “what is mere polysemy in English is not a philosophy seminar in Mohawk. It’s just polysemy.” This, of course, is in part an attack on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which takes polysemy as evidence of irreducible differences in the way speakers of different languages view the world.
Mark Liberman follows up with a post making an astute observation about change in linguistic fashion:
In the first half of the 20th century, most linguists were friendly to the idea that different languages divide the world up in fundamentally different ways. In the second half of the 20th century, most linguists became deeply hostile to that same notion. The primary motivation in both cases was the same: respect for “the other.”
For anthropologically-minded linguists after Boas, who saw language as a cultural artifact, this respect meant examining other languages and cultures carefully, on their own terms, without European preconceptions. Being open to finding out that things might be very different, in content as well as in form. Even things that look the same may be deeply different, as Whorf argued about Hopi.
For generative linguists after Chomsky, who saw language as an instinct with a universal biological substrate, this same respect led to the view that all people and all languages are basically the same. Even things that look deeply different must turn out to be the same, if you analyze them the right way. At least, anything important about language (and language use) must be that way.
As he says, linguists tend to get really worked up about this. Like him, I find “most efforts of both kinds unsatisfying” and wish more substantive work would get done, and I look forward to reading the papers he links to and “wholeheartedly recommends.”