SAPIR-WHORF UPDATE.

I’ve written about Sapir-Whorf (e.g., here and here) and about the Pirahã (e.g., here and here, and good lord, has it really been five years?), and there’s nothing particularly new in Joshua Hartshorne’s “Does Language Shape What We Think?” in Scientific American, but it’s a nice short roundup of recent developments, and this is a thought-provoking paragraph:

This suggests a different way of thinking about the influence of language on thought: words are very handy mnemonics. We may not be able to remember what seventeen spools looks like, but we can remember the word seventeen. In his landmark The Language of Thought, philosopher Jerry Fodor argued that many words work like acronyms. French students use the acronym ban[g]s to remember which adjectives go before nouns (“Beauty, Age, Number, Goodneess [sic], and Size”). Similarly, sometimes its [sic] easier to remember a word (calculus, Estonia) than what the word stands for. We use the word, knowing that should it becomes [sic] necessary, we can search through our minds — or an encyclopedia — and pull up the relevant information (how to calculate an integral; Estonia’s population, capital and location on a map). Numbers, it seems, work the same way.

As a side note, Scientific American could use some proofreading. (Thanks, Sarah!)

Comments

  1. John Emerson says:

    Also Oxford Unversity Press. I see a big career opportunity for you here, Hat. Just go through any one of their recently published books, find ten or twenty mistakes of the type that Spelchek (c) doesn’t catch, and explain that you can solve their problem.

  2. Speaking of Piraha, the latest issue of Language is said to have a stunning criticism of Everett’s work, to the point of nearly showing him to be a fraud. Has anyone read that yet? I can hardly wait these last two weeks before I get back to a university library.

  3. Huh. Took me a while to get that he meant “those who study French” rather than “students in France”.

  4. Those interested in Whorf should visit the web site listed below for an overview of The Benjamin Lee Whorf CD-ROM, a collection of hitherto unpublished wrintings of the businessman/linguist.
    The collection has been favorably reviewed by The Journal of American Culture and the magazine of the general semantics association, ETC.
    There is a novel included in this collection, a work of polemical fiction written during the Scopes trial of 1925. Alas, no one would publish this fascinating effort…however, it has been brought to light for cultural historians to assay.
    More at http://www.petercrollins.com

  5. Has anyone read that yet?
    The Language article is a revision (to a non-expert, significant, but without a fundamental change in position) of the one that appeared online a couple years ago. There is also a new reply. In our extended salon, the older versions were discussed at Jabal al-Lughat. An interesting example of dialog going on on the net in real-time with a peer-reviewed echo.

  6. “Fodor argued that many words work like acronyms”: I agree, except that they’re not even acronyms, but tokens. You can use tokens to enter the subway, or to play checkers, or as exhibits in a glass case, or for any number of purposes. They have no value or significance “in themselves”, but only from how they are used. There’s always the essential question of how I can know, using words in given circumstances, whether you are playing checkers with me or are going in and out of imaginary subways. The answer is, I can’t know this.
    Most of the times when I have looked at linguistics-related posts, as I just did with Jabal al-Lughat, I find swirls of words, and what seems to be a good number of non-sequiturs. Of course I don’t seriously expect to plunge into a technical discussion in a field about which I know zilch, and immediately understand what’s going on. Nevertheless, I keep encountering the same old contentiousness about “translatability”:
    [Everett’s] core objection seems to be that such efforts as Nevins et al’s are bound to fail because not all languages “translate fairly well into one another”, and in particular, Piraha cannot be translated well into English; the comprehensible translations they propose don’t have the same truth conditions, and the “literal” “translations” … don’t exoticise the language so much as attempt to render its genuine exoticism into English.
    And then there is the question rhetorical :
    … do [Everett’s] critics need to go learn Piraha before they can question his claims about the meaning of “ba´aiso”?
    which always nonplusses me. There is only one answer: you damned right they do!
    I wonder that linguistics aficionados don’t often apply their reasoning to their own use of language in writing and speaking. Are they multilingual, or just monolingual with scientific trappings? They often seem to be using a special kind of language that is only understood by people who labor under the same “cultural constraints” (see quote from Everett below). Is their speech exotic, or does it just seem so to someone who doesn’t understand them? Have they tried to translate their speech into English, or does it not translate well? Is this due to the specialized subject, or the confused and contentious state of thinking on the subject, or perhaps to both? Is it merely language that is at issue here, or other things of equal importance?
    How many words do linguists have for the same thing, like the Inuit for snow? Must I be a Piraha˜ to legitimately ask these questions? It doesn’t seem common for linguists to ask themselves the questions they ask Piraha˜ folk. They seem to believe in the neutrality and transparency of science. They apparently can’t see themselves as others see them, or as they see others. Very pre-post-modernist …
    Regarding “cultural constraints”, here is the abstract of Everett’s 2005 paper:

    The Piraha˜ language challenges simplistic application of Hockett’s nearly universally accepted design features of human language by showing that some of these features (interchangeability, displacement, and productivity) may be culturally constrained. In particular, Piraha˜ culture constrains communication to nonabstract subjects which fall within the immediate experience of interlocutors. This constraint explains a number of very surprising features of Piraha˜ grammar and culture: the absence of numbers of any kind or a concept of counting and of any terms for quantification, the absence of color terms, the absence of embedding, the simplest pronoun inventory known, the absence of “relative tenses,” the simplest kinship system yet documented, the absence of creation myths and fiction, the absence of any individual or collective memory of more than two generations past, the absence of drawing or other art and one of the simplest material cultures documented, and the fact that the Piraha˜ are monolingual after more than 200 years of regular contact with Brazilians and the Tupi-Guarani-speaking Kawahiv.

  7. I can hardly wait these last two weeks before I get back to a university library.
    I’m surprised your university doesn’t give you proxy access to electronic resources during the summer. But anyway, I now see that that particular paper is available on Andrew Nevins’s homepage at Harvard, if you click to agree to copyright.

  8. Grumbly!!

  9. Everett’s new reply is likewise accessible from his home page.
    “I [Geoff Pullum] published a response that Higginbotham was entirely wrong about the facts (Linguistic Inquiry 16.291-98, 1985), and he replied indignantly in the same issue of LI that I was completely wrong about him being wrong (LI 16.298-304). (These things tend to drag on; in future work, Higginbotham will argue that my eyes are too close together, and I will argue that on the contrary, his head is too round.)” —The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax, p. 137

  10. Grumbly!!
    Those “!!” – are they up-ended baseball bats about to be swung, or are you just glad to see me? I thought I would ring in the end-of-summer season with a suitably cantankerous contribution.
    Here is Everett’s abstract, modified to bring out more clearly the “cultural constraints” on linguistics aficionados [LAs], whoever they might be:

    The language of LAs is another verification of Hockett’s nearly universally accepted design features of human language. It demonstrates that interchangeability of opinions, misplacement of relevance, and sheer verbal productivity are culturally constrained. In particular, the culture of LAs constrains communication to abstract subjects outside the immediate experience of interlocutors. This constraint explains a number of very surprising features of the grammar and culture of LAs: the ubiquity of numbers of any kind … the absence of creation myths and fiction, the absence of any individual or collective memory of more than two generations past, the absence of drawing or other art … and the fact that far too many LAs are monolingual despite regular contact with languages spoken by millions.

  11. : … do [Everett’s] critics need to go learn Piraha before they can question his claims about the meaning of “ba´aiso”? which always nonplusses me. There is only one answer: you damned right they do!
    I say: if the only evidence offered is “Take my word for it”, they absolutely do not. This new reply by Everett is a big improvement, but the tiny handful of examples offered in Everett’s original paper wouldn’t even be enough to convince me of an unsurprising claim, let alone several completely unprecedented ones all contradicting his own previous work. If I come up and tell you that I’ve found a village where nobody ever laughs, at the very least you’ll want to know whether I tried tickling them and how good the jokes I told them were.
    : Very pre-post-modernist …
    Yes, thank goodness! 🙂

  12. Those “!!” – are they up-ended baseball bats about to be swung, or are you just glad to see me? I thought I would ring in the end-of-summer season with a suitably cantankerous contribution.
    The latter, by all means. I’ve been missing your cantankerousness.

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