15 feb. 2007

The problem with Whorfianism is ...

Consider a series of authors. Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Faulkner and Hemingway, Auden, Gertrude Stein, Thomas Hardy. Frank O'Hara and Barbara Guest. Ezra Pound. Lorine Niedecker. Samuel Beckett. Add your own favorite or least favorite authors, all writing in "English." Now obviously you can attribute the difference in the relation between language and thought in all these writers to the fact that they are not writing in the same *English.* Differences in epoch, dialect, place and time will make them different enough from one another.

Yet they are similar to each other in the language they speak that any kind of lingistic determinism becomes improbable. Put another way, what we call *English* is flexible enough to accomodate worlds of difference.

Now when we look at other languages, since we don't know these languages as well, we tend to think of them as more homogenous, or reduce them to a cultural stereotype.

Take the difference between Brazilian Portuguese and Portuguese of the Iberian peninsula. These differences are more "institutionalized" than those between Spanish American Spanish and Peninsular Spanish. That is, there is a clearer separation between the official norms of the language. (This may or may not correspond to more differentiation at the linguistic level. Since there is as much diversity within Spanish America, arguably, as between Spain and Spanish America, that question is quite complicated.) Would you want to attribute cultural differences between Brazil and Portugal to mostly linguistic causes? I would think not. These languages are more alike than they are to any other third language.

With a language spoken in a limited geographical region by a limited number of speakers, there is an easier identification between language and culture. After all, those are the only speakers that there are! But this seems a historical accident. If Irish were spoken on five continents by several culturallly diverse groups, then Irish would have as much cultural malleability as English does. It is not the syntactic structure of a language that makes people think in a certain way.

10 comentarios:

Henry Gould dijo...

What if the original issue here was not how people think but HOW THEY WRITE. What are the characteristics of the medium of expression? (Doesn't this get back to the idea that translation is the lifeblood of poetry?)

In other words, one can get lost in chicken-and-egg questions of cultural determinism & power relations - and never actually grapple with the issue that this (anonymous?) Turkish writer brings to the fore : the varying expressive capabilities of various languages.

Jonathan dijo...

How can languages have various expressive capacities? How do you know a priori what a language can or cannot express? All you can know is what has been done *so far.* Is there something "inherently" in "English" that allows for Faulkner to exist? How would you know that, before Faulkner does actually exist? Then once Faulkner does exist, that gets added to the store of what one thinks English can do. You can't just go back and say, of course, we always knew English could do that, because actually we didn't know that.

Thomas Basbøll dijo...

Henry, I also think we should keep Jonathan's real point in mind: our own evidence for the expressive capabilities of various languages is the various expressive facility of particular writers with those languages. I agree with him that all this author was saying is that she faces different problems when working in different languages. My experience, generally, is that people are more sentimental about their first language, and more analytical about an aquired one. Also, people who speak two or more languages fluently are less likely to "orientalize" even their own tongue.

In my own case, the emotional differences I register between Danish and English (the two languages I know well) cash out in differences in linguistic mastery. My "culture" (or "personality") comes out differently depending on which language I use. But these are not differences in the language. In any case, I have no basis for thinking they are. They are differences in my mastery of them.

I haven't met anyone who spoke both English and Danish so convincingly that I would accept their judgments about the objective "expressive capabilities" these languages.

If Nabokov has said something along those lines about Russian and English ... that would be interesting.

Henry Gould dijo...

Both of you make valid points here. But you seem be ruling out of order even asking the question : do the varying grammatical structures of different languages offer different opportunities for expression & communication?

Jonathan dijo...

I don't think I've ruled it out of order. I think I've demonstrated why it isn't true except in a very trivial sense.

It would be easy to point to a line in Catalan and say, "you can't do that in English." That might be true, in fact. You can't do that exact thing in English, what that line in Catalan is doing. There are different possibilities for expression, seemingly. On a larger scale, however, there are at least two major problems:

Any attempt to characterize those differences in terms of cultural meanings or ideological trends is going to fail. In other words, once you start attaching labels--Catalan is more poetic, more analytical, more sentimental--then you run into the troubles I've already described. Especially back-formations from cultural stereotypes.

The total possibilities of a given language's expression are so close to infinite that it doesn't really make sense to speak of differences between languages on the larger scale. Usually people making these comparisons have limited experience of both languages, with not enormous linguistic sophistication.

Intralinguistic differences refute Whorf-Sapir-style determinism. If I took three Rhode Island poets of the late twentieth century, Clark Coolidge, Henry Gould, and Ted Berrigan, I would not be able to draw any conclusions about how their language determines their thought, or only allows certain thoughts to be voiced. What expressive qualities are allowed or disallowed by *English* in these three cases?

Henry Gould dijo...

You seem to be addressing this from the perspective of critical analysis, and certainly there are a lot of pitfalls in trying to ogeneralize. But the Turkish author in question was saying something about her particular praxis - her experience of shifting from on mode to the other.

Thomas Basbøll dijo...

Puns depend on accidental similarities between words. One plays off the fact that two words may look alike but mean very different things.

That obviously means that a pun may be available in Turkish or Catalan that isn't available in English.

Now, imagine a language where no two words looked alike at all. A language that rendered puns impossible.

A good deal of Heidegger's philosophy would arguably be untranslatable into this punless language.

I haven't thought this through; this thought experiment may be unthinkable. In fact, a system of expression that allowed no puns might not be a language at all. I'm not a linguist, but there may be no theoretical way of making sense of the diachronic development of such a language.


Thomas Basbøll dijo...

If a language that was incapable of sustaining a natural history appeared (by magic) it would soon go extinct.

Rocco DiStreitlmahn dijo...


Rocco DiStreitlmahn dijo...


http://books.google.com/books?id=-6RCJfgZRaEC&pg=PA344&lpg=PA344&dq=%22whorf+sapir%22+hypothesis+eleanor+rosch&source=web&ots=Yox22ejkJ1&sig=3zPcOHB50S1J8nKf4C1KXq5Gpa0#PPA346,M1 (pp. 342-346)