ozarque (ozarque) wrote,
ozarque
ozarque

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Answers to Questions, part nine -- two related Whorfian questions

Innersamurai commented: "Does language shape our reality or does reality shape our language?"

And hilleviw commented: "I'd be interested in your perspective about naming. So many people attribute great power to names and to naming. In your own Ozark series, I've often wondered about the grannies who do naming: do they find the name which is inherent in the baby, or are they choosing a name which determines who the baby will become? If Troublesome had been named Mavis would she have been the same adult?"

The first of these questions is about the real world; the other is about a fictional world. Both, however, are related to the concept known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the linguistic relativity hypothesis, or (misleadingly) the lingustic determinism hypothesis. We've discussed these concepts previously in this journal, but finding those posts is cumbersome, so I'll review here briefly. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis appears in two versions. The strong one -- linguistic determinism -- would claim that the language you speak determines your perceptions; that is, if your language has no word for "chair" I can put a chair down in front of you and you won't be able to see (or otherwise perceive) it. That version is demonstrably false, and neither Sapir nor Whorf ever proposed any such idea. The weak version -- which is the one Sapir and Whorf did propose -- claims that the language you speak structures your perceptions in interesting and significant ways; there is evidence both for and against that version, and it remains a matter of controversy in linguistics.

It's typical for scholars to behave as if only the strong version exists, and to ridicule "Whorfians" on that basis; that behavior is politics rather than linguistics. If language shapes our reality to any significant degree, working to bring about change in language is worth doing, because it can result in social change. If not, that sort of linguistic activism is a waste of time and energy, because first you have to accomplish the social change, and then the language will change to reflect it. A Whorfian position with regard to English religious language is that the unrelentingly male language in the Bible is harmful to women spiritually -- that women are made to feel excluded and irrelevant by the incessant drumbeat of "he/him/his" and "son" and "father" and "man/men" and "mankind" and "lord" and "king." Non-Whorfians find that idea absurd. I am myself a firm believer in the validity of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I wrote the Native Tongue trilogy on the basis of that position in a fictional real world future United States; I wrote the Ozark Trilogy on the basis of that position in a fantasy world.

In the Ozark Trilogy the grannies were alleged to be able to determine what sort of name a baby should be given -- as hilleview puts it, they could find "the name which is inherent in the baby." For a baby to be given the wrong name in that fantasy universe was a terrible misfortune, since it was every individual's responsibility to live up to the name he or she was given, and trying to live up to the wrong name was certain to lead to negative consequences. Troublesome, had she been named Mavis, would have been unable to fill her role in the Planet Ozark "universe," and the results would have been dreadful not only for her but for everyone on the planet.

Which brings me to an example of the power of naming that's been appearing on various blogs recently -- for example, at http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/%7Emyl/languagelog/archives/002181.html . The original source is "Cognitive Modulation of Olfactory Processing," by Ivan E. deAraujo et al., in Neuron 46:671-679 -- May 19, 2005. The summary goes as follows:

"We showed how cognitive, semantic information modulates olfactory representation in the brain by providing a visual word descriptor, 'cheddar cheese' or 'body odor,' during the delivery of a test odor ... and also during the delivery of clean air. Clean air labeled 'air' was used as a control. Subjects rated the affective value of the test odor as significantly more unpleasant when labeled 'body odor' than when labeled 'cheddar cheese.' In an event-related fMRI design we showed that the rostral anterior cingulate cortext (ACC)/medial orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) was significantly more activated by the test stimulus and by clean air when labeled 'cheddar cheese' than when labeled 'body odor,' and the activations were correlated with the pleasantness ratings. This cognitive modulation was also found for the test odor (but not for the clean air) in the amygala bilaterally."

Suzette
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  • Wednesday; "Gone With The Wind"...

    I just want to mention something here, in case you're not already aware of it. I want to mention the extraordinary craftsmanship that's demonstrated…

  • Saturday; the new novel...

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