Sunday 27 April 2003

Relatively speaking

Like Stavros, I’m not “a full-fledged linguist (like languagehat)” but rather “an enthusiastic dabbler.” And a linguistic relativist it seems, in the sense that Stavros explains in his essay, Linguistic Relativism and Korean:

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which is variously referred to as the ‘Whorfian Hypothesis,’ ‘linguistic relativism,’ and ‘linguistic determinism’ (a description of the strong formulation meant by implication to be a bad thing, I think) concerns the relationship between language and thought, and suggests in its strongest form that the structure of a language determines the way in which speakers of that language perceive and understand the external world. This formulation is generally understood by many to be untenable, but the hypothesis also exists in a weaker form: that language structure and content does not determine a view of the world, but that it shapes thought to some degree, and is therefore a powerful impetus in influencing speakers of a given language to adopt a certain world-view.

Is it only those of us with, as Stavros puts it, “little knowledge of Hardcore Linguistics” to whom the weaker form of Sapir-Whorf (i.e. linguistic relativism) seems self-evident?

I doubt I’d ever thought about linguistics until I was in my mid-twenties, when I saw Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her. There’s a conversation in the film between Juliette, the protagonist, and her child, Christophe, who comes to the doorway of her bedroom to tell his mother about his dream the night before: walking along a narrow path next to a precipice he encounters a pair of twins and wonders how they will manage to pass. Suddenly the twins merge into a single person and he realizes that they are North and South Viet Nam reuniting. Godard cuts to a close-up of Juliette and we hear Christophe’s voice asking: “Mummy, what does language mean?”

Juliette replies: “Language is the house in which man dwells.”

I remember being absolutely entranced, and I suppose I still am, by the beauty of this idea: that we live within language rather than language living within us. Not that language determines our thinking but that each language encourages its speakers to perceive the world in a particular way.

I didn’t realize until tonight—thanks to Google—that Godard was probably paraphrasing Heidegger:

Language is the house of Being. In its home man dwells. Those who think and those who create with words are the guardians of this home.

Yet Heidegger’s viewpoint would appear to contradict Sapir-Whorf, in the sense of the counter-argument that Stavros poses:

A possible opposite claim, from a sociolinguistic viewpoint, is that the thought (and thus culture) of a linguistic group is mirrored in the structure and content of their language, that because they behave and understand things in a certain way, their language reflects those behaviours and understandings - the idea that language is molded, if not determined, by culture.

Heidegger seems to be suggesting a far more active role in the construction of language (and therefore) culture for those who think (philosophers?) and those who create (writers and poets?). Hopefully, a fully-fledged philosopher will clarify Heidegger’s intention.

After providing us with a concise yet thorough introduction to the origins of the Korean language, its distinguishing grammatical features, and the influence of Confucian ethics on the language, Stavros states that the question which most interests him is this:

Do structures and forms like these in the Korean language shape the way in which Koreans think, particularly in terms of their relationships not so much to the world but to the people in it, to such a degree that we can say that language has given them a world-view substantially different than, for example, my own, as an English native speaker? It certainly seems so, to me.

It certainly seems to me, too, that the structure of the Japanese language has given the Japanese a world-view substantially different to that of an English native speaker (or, for that matter, a Korean speaker). This difference in how the world is perceived has always been, for me, one of the great attractions of learning Japanese. Not in the sense that it has radically changed my world-view, since the level of my Japanese is such that I only occasionally “think” in Japanese (though I do more often dream in Japanese). It’s rather that communicating in another language is such a direct way of making the familiar strange (Shklovsky’s ostranenie or Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt).

Given that linguistic relativism seems self-evident to Stavros and myself, a couple of questions immediately present themselves:

What kinds of people accept or reject linguistic relativism, and for what reasons? (I noticed that I quickly skipped through the section about Chomsky and Pinker in Stavros’s essay, wanting to get to the material about the Korean language.)

If an English native speaker achieves a high degree of fluency in another language, do they perceive or behave differently in any substantial sense when speaking one language rather than the other?

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A wonderful and insightful twist for me on how we live with language.

As I read your words I realized that anyone who has been in a relationship (marriage in my case) should realize how language becomes the home we live and interact in.

Posted by Jeff on 28 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Isn't Two or Three Things a great movie? (It should really be translated "A Thing or Two I Know About Her," but it's too late to do anything about that.) I wanted the video for years, and finally got it. (Do you realize there isn't a single decent screening print left in the world? Of one of the great films of the '60s? When they showed it last year at the American Museum of the Moving Image, they had to use a crappy 16 mm. print they'd borrowed from Harvard. Movies still aren't taken seriously as an art.

The funny thing is that as I read your post I had my video of Comment ša va? on the tv. I find it helps with Godard to not always watch intently but also to just have the movie going, picking up bits here and there that I might not notice watching in a more connected way. You're never going to get everything in a Godard movie, after all. And the more I see the movies, the more I realize that a huge percentage of the dialog is a quotation of or reference to something else, poetry or philosophy or other movies. Tout se tient. (Somebody should really do an Annotated Godard; happily, there is such a book for Two or Three Things -- it's expensive, but worth it.)

I find I definitely think differently, feel like a different person, when I'm speaking a different language. I don't know how, or if, that relates to the S-W hypothesis. But you don't miss anything by skipping over Chomsky/Pinker; they think all languages are the same, which is silly and makes them incapable of saying anything worth hearing in this context.

Posted by language hat on 28 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

There is a very interesting look at S-W on CultSock at

Posted by The Dynamic Driveler on 28 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Sorry - forgot that site is in Frams - you can get it here it will open in a frame.

Posted by The Dynamic Driveler on 28 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Twenty-five years ago, I lived in Gambia where Woloff ruled. "Hello" was "Jama nga'am?" -- "Do you have peace?"

The reply was "Jama rek" -- I have peace always.

All day, people saying that to each other. And they were and did and do.

In 1965, upon Gambia's independence from Britain, a freelancer went there for three weeks and wrote a remaindered book called "Enter Gambia."

I read it before I went there, and read it again when I returned, cracking up this time. He recorded the "Jama nga'am?" greeting as "Jamba nga'am?" which means "Do you have any marijuana?"

The answer he recorded, "Jamba rek," means "I always have marijuana."

There was no word for time in Woloff. But big shiny watches became popular, and then people asked each other what time it was all the time. Nothing was scheduled for any given time, but the time was nevertheless reported regularly.

"What time is it?" was "Nyaata nga'am time bi?" -- literally, "How much time do you have?"

In a marriage shot through with good will, "feeling tone" seems far more important than the content of words.

Posted by Sheila Lennon on 28 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Jeff, I absolutely agree that in a (mixed-language) relationship, language becomes the home we live and interact in.

Language Hat, I had no idea there wasn't a screening print of Two or Three Things... it's one of my favorite Godard movies so I'm happy that I bought the video a few years ago. Le Gai Savoir is another of my favorites and I'd love to see that again. It's sad that Godard, who is one of the most important filmmakers of all, seems to have fallen out of favor. Glad to see you put the kibosh on Chomsky/Pinker -- one less thing for me to worry about.

DD, thanks for the pointer to the Sapir-Whorf essay on CultSock. I've already found something really useful in it -- but that can be the subject of another post.

Sheila, great story. It reminds me of the time I arrived late at a Japanese friend's birthday gathering and someone asked me where I'd been. As it happened, I'd been helping someone paint his new house, so I replied: "Tomodachi no atarashii uchi de nuide tetsudatte imashita." (meaning "I've been helping my friend with painting his new house.") Except I'd used the verb "nugu" instead of "nuru" so what I actually said was "I've been helping out at my friend's place by taking my clothes off."

Posted by Jonathon on 28 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

ROAR - that's a good one Jonathon - I remember well my fumblings with Japanese - I'm absolutely certain that I made some horrific blunders but my friends were too polite to laugh, so I'll never know :-)

Posted by The Dynamic Driveler on 28 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I'm one of those heretics who is against the S-W hypothesis.
Maybe its because I'm an engineer, but I'm used to thinking of some things in a non-verbal way, and possibly having to invent new words, or extend the meanings of existing words, to describe them clearly. The long English tradition of appropriating suitable words from other langauges is also an indication that language flows from thought and not vice versa.

I'd go along with Pinker's diluted form of S-W that Stavros quotes.

I don't speak any foreeign languages well enough to think in them, though I can hold a conversation in French after being in France for a week or two. I do translate English into English sometimes:

Posted by Kevin Marks on 28 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Sheila said : "Twenty-five years ago, I lived in Gambia where Woloff ruled. "Hello" was "Jama nga'am?" -- "Do you have peace?"
The reply was "Jama rek" -- I have peace always.
All day, people saying that to each other. And they were and did and do."

I laughed at this, for all the wrong reasons (no offense meant to Sheila, of course). In Korea, "Hello" (more or less) is "Annyong haseyo?" (more or less) which means "Are you at peace?" (more or less).

All day, people are saying that to each other. But they aren't, and they weren't, and they probably won't be in the future. So it's not really ha-ha-funny so much as another kind.

Posted by stavrosthewonderchicken on 29 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

fwiw, a couple of cents on this over at my blog -

Posted by tom m on 29 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I wonder whether anyone else recalled this piece of research in the light of this debate. This press release gives the outline of the findings, which the researcher says demonstrates the divergence of mode of thought between east and west. He ascribes this to "cultural" differences. There is no specific reference in the press release to the role of language, but maybe the paper itself has more details on that aspect of cultural difference.

Posted by qB on 29 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Of course, media studies folks know that most of this dialectical verbiage is totally moot. Language is THE medium, the ubermedium in which the primary media in culture encode themselves. When McLuhan said "The medium is the message" after Harols Innis before him said "the medium is the culture"...verb sap; ibid.; QED. No more is really needed, nor warranted, than that fact to make the point that this whole "big discussion" seems to be wandering around.

Posted by boyhowdy on 5 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Look, all this can be settled with a simple experiment. Try this. Arabic lacks the verb "to be," using a verbal noun from a particle denoting time prior to the utterance to translate our ungainly concepts of "existence" and "essence," both derived from the Latin verb "esse." Therefore, if there exists an Arabic speaker who doesn't speak an Indo-European language (or another language-family that uses a verb to couple the subject to the predicate) the S-W hypothesis is false.

Alternatively, invite a Navajo to lunch at noon at the Gramercy Tavern. Your treat. If he doesn't show up on time (and he'd be a fool if he didn't), the same result: Sapir claimed that Navajos do conceptualize events in terms of time. Come to think of it, Arabic lacks verb tense as well. Ask that guy to lunch, too.


The whole discussion reminds me of the old toilet-stall graffito:

"To be is to do" [Heidegger]

"To do is to be" [Sartre]

"Do be do be do" [Sinatra]

Posted by blogal villager on 12 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour