ozarque (ozarque) wrote,
ozarque
ozarque

This journal has been placed in memorial status. New entries cannot be posted to it.

Linguistics; Sapir-Whorf hypotheses; what does it all mean (if anything)?

On New Year's Day I posted a note saying that one good way to start the new year would be to read John McWhorter's crotchety post titled "Mohawk Philosophy Lessons," at http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/000128.html . And intuition_ist commented:
"I think that it is rather marvelous and interesting that other languages arrange the set of concepts conveyed by a single word differently than English does. I think that the author of the essay you mentioned is being a bit of a curmudgeon in refusing to see the wonder of it. Those other words in other languages mean that those people think in different ways."

That is precisely the question: Do they, in actual fact, think in different ways? Do they, in actual fact, perceive the world differently?

There's the famous example of the two sets of parents bouncing a ball for their toddler. One set, native speakers of English, says "Look! Ball!" The other set, native speakers of a Native American language, says "Look! Bouncing!"

There's the set of sentences I gathered (for a conference paper) from a variety of languages, all of them the equivalents of the English sentence "I was riding a horse" when said in response to the question "What were you doing yesterday afternoon?" The Navajo equivalent is "A horse was animaling-about with me"; the Hopi equivalent is "I was using a horse to move about with"; the French equivalent is "I was being at a horse." Does this mean that English speakers perceive the horses they ride the way they perceive the dog in "I was bathing the dog," while the Navajo speakers perceive their horses as courteous companions, and the Hopi speakers perceive them the way they perceive shovels to dig holes with, and the French speakers perceive them the way they'd perceive a restaurant or a bus stop?

Then there's the fact that when native speakers of English look at a telephone pole standing upright they describe it as "thirty feet tall" or "thirty feet high," but when that same telephone pole has been knocked down by a hurricane and is lying flat on the ground they have to describe it as "thirty feet long." Same telephone pole; same physical specifications; different descriptive word required. And the Martian linguist, having completed a fieldwork assignment, goes into the following warble at a colloquium:

"Can you imagine? The native speaker of English, down on Terra, cannot choose a descriptive word for the telephone pole without first checking to determine the physical orientation of the horizon with respect to his or her or its perceptions! Isn't that exotic? What a different way to perceive the world!"
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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...

    I have to re-write the new novel, in longhand, from start to finish -- which will take a while. It does have to be done in longhand, and there's no…

  • Monday; the new novel...

    I'm pleased to report that the writer's block has come to an end. Apparently, all it took was a blogpost to the Magic Live Journal, and I was…