January 11th, 2006

ozarque figure

Linguistics; semantics; rhetoric; the abortion issue

I don't often comment on what's going on in politics, because there is an overabundance of political blogs on the Internet; there's certainly no need for me to try to add another one. However, I've been paying careful attention -- as a linguist -- to the rhetorical duelling between the senators and Judge Alito as they try to ask him "Do you support the Roe vs. Wade decision?" and he tries to answer without saying either yes or no. In that context (and in the context of the recent discussion here of reincarnation) I thought it might be worthwhile to post a brief excerpt from my book, The Language Imperative. Most of the chapters in that book have a section that is a case study relevant to the chapter's topic; this excerpt is on pp. 64-68 of the chapter titled "Language and the Perception of Reality." [Not to worry -- I don't plan to quote the whole thing here.]


"Case Study: The Japanese Water Babies"

I first came across the water babies concept when I read this sequence in Kittredge Cherry's elegantly titled and irresistibly interesting book Womansword: What Japanese Words Say About Women: "Thousands of Japanese women visit temples every year to bring babyclothes, cookies, toys, and other offerings to their mizugo ... The mizugo is a fetus, removed from the watery warmth of the womb by nature or abortionist before it sees the world. 'To make a water baby' (mizugo ni suru) means to have an abortion." (Cherry 1987, page 79)

I was literally thunderstruck... by Cherry's account. I thought that surely this was either folklore or a description of a custom from long ago. I tried to imagine two American women talking to one another about what they planned to buy as a gift for their aborted fetuses this year, and found the image impossible. So I proceeded to check it out.

With the help of respondent Fran Stallings (English/Japanese) and her friend and colleague Hiroko Fujita (Japanese/English), I learned that the water babies not only aren't folklore but are very much a part of contemporary Japanese life. Hiroko Fujita was kind enough to send me a postcard of one of the most famous temples... showing row after endless row of the little statues that Japanese families put there to honor their water babies, both those that result from miscarriage and those that are the result of abortion. Hiroko Fujita sent pages of detailed information, and Dr. Stallings directed me to a book by William R. LeFleur, Liquid Life: Abortion and Buddhism in Japan, where I found a thorough account and discussion.

LaFleur explains that it's not just mothers who go to the temples. Children -- the water babies' siblings -- go along; often whole families join in the visits. ... Often amulets signed by family members are hung in the temples, inscribed with messages to the water baby expressing the family's debt of gratitude. There is no attempt to hide what happened or to make it disappear from the family memory. ... Many Japanese families have a household shrine. The aborted child (baby? fetus? fetal tissue? product of conception?), although not an ancestor, is often honored at the shrine...

The real-world difference that makes this example so important is (in painful contrast to the terms we have available in English for discussing it) easily stated: The water babies are not part of this world, but they remain part of the family; they have a distinct role within the family.

Now you might object that this is not a difference of language but "a cultural difference" or "a religious difference." Many Japanese believe in reincarnation, and believe that the fetus (child? baby? product of conception?) will have another chance, even many other chances, at life on this earth. ... But language is what we use to express cultural differences, and language is the mechanism we use to transmit information about those differences to others, including our children and our grandchildren. ... [I]t makes a real-world difference whether you call this entity a fetus or a baby or something else entirely. ... [I]t makes a difference that the process of government certification for abortionists in Japan makes them members of the Motherhood Protection Association. ...

The word or phrase we choose when we refer to the "product of conception" commits us, as the linguistic relativity hypothesis would predict, to certain attitudes and certain potential actions -- not only with regard to the "product" but with regard to its mother and father (notice how hard that is to process in English!) and other aspects of the situation. Whether we choose a single word or phrase to refer to both abortion and miscarriage, as many languages do, or use two separate words as English does, commits us to certain attitudes and potential actions. Whether the naming we do makes it possible to give the "product" in question a role within the family or not drastically changes our commitments.

End of excerpt

Cherry, K. 1987. Womansword: What Japanese Words Say About Women. New York: Kodansha America.
Elgin, S. H. 2000. The Language Imperative: How Learning Languages Can Enrich Your Life and Expand Your Mind. Cambridge MA: Perseus Books.