Chicken or the Egg or an Omelet

chicken egg omelet“There are those who see things like this (that Navajo uses verb forms to show how things are handled) as meaning that speaking Navajo makes its speakers more sensitive to the shapes of things that we are. I am skeptical of that school of thought, as I devoted a chapter to in Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue. This aspect of Navajo is one of the countless reasons why. For example, one study showed that Navajo-speaking children were more sensitive than white American ones to the shape of toys rather than their size or color. But then another one showed that in New York, white middle-class kids were even more sensitive to the shape of toys than Navajo kids had been show to be, and also more than black ones from Harlem. The researcher concluded that the reason was likely that the white kids simply had more toys. Both the white and the black kids spoke English, and obviously white American English has no verbs meaning things like “to wield a rope-like object” that are unknown to black people. What made the difference was cultural experience, not grammar channeling the way the children think.” (65 footnote)

In Berik (a Papuan language) “the soul happens to be in the gall bladder. Nice to see you in Berik is My gall bladder is really warm today. But bracing as this is, alone it implies that languages are different only in terms of words and expressions.” (204)

Berik -> the verb must “specify things like how big an object is, whether it’s high or low, how far away it was and the specific time of day!”

kitobana -> gives three big things to a man in the sunlight

golbifi -> will give one big thing to a woman in the dark

gwerantena -> put a big thing down low near by

tosonswetna -> put a big thing up high way over there

(204-5 emphasis mine: these are two different verbs but look how different the two forms of give are from one another and put are from one another)

What a fascinating book. Very thoughtful but easily accessible (except for a few long, somewhat awkwardly phrased sentences). I’ve always thought (or at least been enamored by the idea) that different languages produce a different concept of time (that is, language = culture) so it is interesting to note these experiments in which language is less an issue than physical experience. Indeed that’s the main premise of the book in some ways. Language is ingrown. That is, left along, a language will begin to do strange things like the verbs do in Berik. McWhorter postulates that this is less then a way that language changes our ideas or understanding of the world than it is an excess of language (a Darwinist tentacle). Adults learning new languages (a notoriously difficult thing to do) simply start chopping off these difficult parts thereby changing the language. Does it change the way people think? Perhaps I’m just a romantic.

Another interesting thing to consider in this vein:

Creative writing. The best writing/writers make the reader think differently. There are many tools to do that but the building blocks are words (I’m glossing over sounds here obviously). Neologisms (certainly not confined to creative writing — technology is a super generator) and metaphors help us make connections, see things differently, understand the world in a new light (not like that hackneyed metaphor). People who have a grasp of their language beyond that of the layperson must understand things different. So too, different cultures, predicated partially on language, must have some vital, if small, differences.

Or what about the ossified metaphor that shapes the way we see the world (I Is an Other by James Geary). Surely those are language specific. Though I suppose the argument could go that those metaphors were brought about by specific experiences which were then solidified in the language through usage, the words and culture already in use must have formed that.

All the same, McWhorter makes a very clear, well-argued point. Absolutely worth the read.

n.b. from “Does Our Grammar Channel Our Thoughts?” in Our Magnificient Bastard Tongue by McWhorter:

Old English had a “bunch of verbs that referred more to how things ended up than an event happening. Apparently to us today, ‘states, schmates’ — everything is an action” (148). This actually seems true even in this state of consumption or perhaps especially in this era of consumption (more, more, more things equals no things in things, only the act of buying).

And “In some cases, there is a chicken-and-egg issue that makes it hard to see the study as telling us that language channels culture rather than vice versa” (163).

“Neo-Whorfians reveal the truth [about the extend of how language affects culture]: perceptual distinctions of a subtle, slight, and subconscious nature, not ‘world views'” (168).

“The truly enlightened position is that, by and large, all humans … experience life via the mental equipment shared by all members of our species. No one is ‘primitive,’ but just as important, no one is privileged over others with a primal connection to the The Real.” (169) A slap in the face to my above statements. Am I thinking about the bums at the library? Perhaps. It is a love/hate relationship. Do we ever have an original idea?

His argument is, once again, cogent and persuasive here.

Juxtaposition: from “Sing for the Moment” by Eminem: “I guess words are a motherfucker, they can be great or they can degrade, or even worse, they can teach hate … It’s all political, if my music is literal and i’m a criminal, how the fuck can i raise a little girl? I couldn’t. I wouldn’t be fit to … They say music can alter and talk to you but can it load a gun for you and cock it too?”

Eminem. “Sing for the Moment.” Curtain Call: The Hits. Interscope, 2006. Spotify.

Geary, James. I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World. New York: HarperCollins, 2011.

McWhorter, John. Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue. New York: Gotham Books, 2008.

———. What Language Is (And What It Isn’t and What It Could Be). New York : Gotham Books, 2011.

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