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.”


  1. You can’t read the second paper (apart from the abstract) unless you’re registered with ScienceDirect, which costs $30US. However, at least part of its subject matter (Li & Gleitman’s debunking of Pederson et al.’s conclusions regarding influence on perception of Tzeltal spatial terms) is described here.

  2. Thanks! That’s just the kind of experiment I wanted to try in college, and the paper does make it look bad for Whorf.

  3. I’ve done stuff with English vs. Chinese terminology and you will often find parallel polysemy on both sides (based on similiar metaphorical extention). For example, Chinese has ethical terms derived from geometry like “right, just, straight, square” — very similiar to English. The parallels between virtue/vertu and Chinese Te (both meaning rightness but also power or active ingredient) and “way”/Tao are other examples. A less-known one is the Chinese pair “Hua” and “Tu”, both of which can mean either “To draw or portray” and “to intend”. But in English “plot, plan, map, picture, design and chart” all can have those two meanings.
    Insert as needed: “””””””””””””

  4. zizka: Are you by any chance emulating Timothy Dexter?

  5. Doesn’t the fact that we can discuss certain differences between languages in a single language indicate that the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis is flawed? That is, I can use English to describe Hopi thought patterns. Thus language would be more malleable, not determining thought, but elastically adapting to changes in thought.

  6. Aaah, the old Romantic notion that Indian [sic] languages preserve that pristine state of thought when there was no time (everything being in a sort of atemporal, Dream Time-like flux) and sublimely fail to distinguish between actions and things (lacking the verb-noun distinction). Notice that the description also suits Australian Aboriginal languages, Amazonian languages, etc.
    Of course, that is the same view that holds the that poor, noble savages, with their beautifully primitive languages, were too good, by virtue of their cultural and linguistic hardwiring, to be able to cope with the complex and destructive modern world. Hence Wounded Knee, hence the reservations, etc.

  7. Yeah, it’s very hard for most people to realize that we’re all unimaginably distant from the creation of language and the “primitive” stages thereof, and that the language of a Bushman or a Hopi is as “modern” and sophisticated as English or French, barring a little vocabulary.

  8. The best salvage job on Sapir Whorf was to say that “Things easy to say in one language might be hard to say in another language”.
    I also think that linguistic forms affect metaphysical-type thinking and the development of poetry.

  9. Dexter was a man ahead of his time

  10. What zizka said, & I really do think that’s much closer to what Whorf himself believed than the so-called ‘Sapir-Whorf’ thing. More like ‘languages encourage people to explain, describe, & understand things certain ways’ than ‘languages make it impossible to explain, describe, & understand things certain ways’.
    But then there’s the Theosophist stuff, so …
    (I think I discussed this in a bit more detail in an earlier thread.)
    And LH, I was wondering whether you’d be weighing in on this:

  11. impossible or necessary, that is.
    & I’ll make that link easier

  12. You betcha; it’s become part of a post I’ve been working at for weeks. Maybe I’ll actually get it posted tomorrow.

  13. A. C. Graham has written a lot of stuff comparing Greek and Chinese metaphysics based on differences in the languages. Even though it’s somewhat positivist and somewhat Whorfian, I don’t think that it can be dismissed at all.

  14. “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.”
    The fallacy of that argument would be well-illustrated by applying it to English words that are their own antonyms.

  15. Self-antonyms: where I grew up all the parochial schools were Catholic, and all the Catholic schools were parochial.
    “Parochial” from “parish” means something like the most local, smallest unit of the universal Catholic church. But the universal Catholic church’s schools are administered by the church’s smallest, least universal units.
    Usage is not really contradictory, since the schools in question, as local representatives of something universal, are both Catholic and parochial. And in fact some Catholics have a Catholic attitude, and some have a parochial one; and sometimes the American church is the universal church, and sometimes it’s just the largest single American church.

  16. Sapir/Whorf vs. Chomsky, Particularist vs. Universalist, it all depends of your weltanschauung, a point which can be readily demonstrated mit dem folgenden Gedankenexperiment…

  17. I had proved the hypothesis with a lovely Gedankenexperiment, but my brain was too small to contain it.

  18. To the list of papers suggested, I might add Spelke’s work on language and numerosity (with more implications for the pro side). In particular, Language and number: A bilingual training study discusses some relevant experiments and includes a section on language and thought.

  19. Thanks, and welcome!

  20. I had proved the hypothesis with a lovely Gedankenexperiment, but my brain was too small to contain it.
    LanguageHat’s last theorem (not).

  21. McWhorter’s claim that no-one would find a miniature philosophy lesson in STAND seems wrong to me: surely this (well, not actually this English word, but) is what Derrida is on about with his “metaphysics of presence” stuff?
    More seriously, McWhorter’s piece completely begs the question by assuming that the Mohawk word is polysemous. Perhaps neurology might one day resolve this poly/mono-semous debate, but I don’t think bald assertion will.
    My pet example of this is the French word “farouche” (disclaimer: I’m not a particularly good French speaker) which means both “timid” and “savage”. Usages suggest to me that this word is monosemous and means something like “not domesticated” – which is nicely French in its urbanity.

  22. Yeah, the William Diver (“Columbia School”) approach is to assume a single form has a single meaning and try to figure out what it is rather than lazily assign a separate meaning for each context it appears in; I think that method should be tried more often than it is.

  23. Thanks! That’s just the kind of experiment I wanted to try in college, and the paper does make it look bad for Whorf.
    But then again, perhaps not. My attention having turned once more to the linguistic encoding of spatial relations, I found this recent article by Levinson et al. while trawling through the MPI website. The bibliography notes a paper by Levinson et al. responding to Li & Gleitman’s criticism of Levinson, Pederson etc., and refuting L&G’s claims. This, at last, I actually found online. The claim is that (a) L&G fail to understand the distinction between certain types of reference frame and (b) their experiments were poorly designed, allowing their subjects to second-guess them. It’s interesting reading, and in my mind this debate remains open.
    (Lucky that this thread wasn’t closed yet – I was expecting to have to post this in a recent one with directions to move it. You know, the odd open thread would be useful for that kind of thing.)

  24. Yes, I try to leave the more interesting ones open, for just this sort of update. Thanks!

  25. And then, last night, I found Li and Gleitman’s paper “Turning the Tables”, which Mark Liberman originally linked to and which the above Levinson et al. “Returning the Tables” is in response to, accessibly online here. So it’s now possible to read them side by side.

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