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Conlangery #92: The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

We go over the basic premise of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and it’s (limited) usefulness to naturalistic conlanging, with a couple of tangents here and there.

Top of Show Greeting: Danish (translated by Samuel Kilsholm)

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15 Responses to Conlangery #92: The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

  1. Good podcast about Sapir-Whorf, and especially about explaining what it is *not*. A lot of the crackpottery surrounding linguistics in general, and unfortunately conlanging in particular, seems to stem from a misunderstanding of that hypothesis.

    That said, the opposite hypothesis, i.e. “culture influences language”, needs to be handled with care too. While it is obvious that the lexicon of a language will be influenced by what the people think is relevant to talk about, some people go much further and believe that grammar is also influenced by culture, and pretend to identify cultural traits through grammar (like the people who think that tables being feminine in French means that French people put tables, culturally, in the female sphere of influence, when it’s just an accident of etymology). Those will typically be the same people who will believe that “primitive” cultures (whatever that may mean) will necessarily have “primitive” languages (whatever that means, again). This way of thinking can lead to very problematic results.

    OK, one more thing I want to mention, especially for the listeners that may not quite believe that always knowing where North is is just a learned skill that anyone can acquire: distinguishing one’s left from one’s right might seem obvious to you, but it’s just as much a learned skill, something that children have to learn and don’t know by instinct. And some cannot keep track of them even into adulthood.

    Finally, a funny anecdote about how people consciously modify their language to handle things like what they consider to be gender-inequality in the language. The French considers grammatical gender to be woman-empowering. The Dutch have the opposite attitude. What I mean is that to show that all jobs should be available to women just as well as to men, French people have decided to give all possible job descriptions a masculine and a feminine version. Sometimes it just involves changing the article (as with le ministre vs. la ministre, with ministre being traditionally masculine only), sometimes it involves making new lexemes (like déménageuse, the feminine form of déménageur: “mover”). It did help that many professions had such pairs already. Some cases led to issues though, like how to call a male sage-femme: “midwife”. This was solved by creating a new term: accoucheur (literally “birthgiver”), and naturally a feminine version accoucheuse :).

    The Dutch, however, took the opposite direction to remove what they felt was gender-inequality in the language: they basically stopped using one of the terms in pairs of profession names, and kept the remaining one as an epicene word (suffixing it with (m/v) –meaning “man/woman”– in writing if necessary). The interesting part is that they didn’t always keep the male version of the profession name. So while we now speak in Dutch of a female acteur (the female actrice is just not really used any more), one also speaks of a male secretaresse, a term which used to be feminine only. Here again, new words and expressions were invented when it would otherwise lead to issues, and the word secretaresse, which still feels too marked for gender, is not used much nowadays. Terms like administratief medewerker: “administrative colleague” or persoonlijk assistent: “personal assistant” are preferred. Sometimes the masculine and feminine forms have split: werker means “worker” in general, both male and female, while its originally feminine counterpart werkster has come to mean “cleaner” in general, both male and female.

    Now, naturally, Sapir-Whorf supporters will say that the difference is due to French still having grammatical gender distinctions, while Dutch has mostly lost them in favour of a common/neuter distinction system. The supporters of the strong “culture influences language” hypothesis (does it have a name, BTW?) will claim that the Dutch culture which precipitated the loss of the masculine/feminine distinction is also the reason for making all profession names epicene. Personally I just find it funny that two cultures can look at the same perceived “issue” and find diametrically opposite solutions :).

    • Jyri says:

      It’s a fair point that being able to tell left from right isn’t such an obvious skill. For example for me it’s never become a fully automatised sense. Usually naming relative directions comes easy but in situations like pointing someone else’s left and right or when doing something that requires higher than average consentration I often find myself stopping for a while. Moreover, I don’t find it especially difficult to form a mental map of a new place and it’s usually also not that difficult to keep track of the directions. As a result, when driving I might find it easier to say “we’ll take the next turn north” than “the next turn right”.

      That said, there is nothing instinctual in keeping track of the direction and when you loose your reference points you can end up comically wrong. I got once nearly 180° wrong when cycling in a patch of woods I hadn’t visited before. The tracks were constantly turning back and forth and the trees shaded the sun enough so that I wasn’t sub/preconciously taking directions from it. In the end I found myself where I had left when in my mind I had only turned a bit.

    • ChristianKl says:

      Programmers shouldn;t have that much interest in base 8. If you make a language for programmers base 16 is much better.

  2. AlucardNoir says:

    Could we maybe get an episode regarding Lakoff’s cognitive linguistics as well?

    • wm.annis says:

      I have some interest in cognitive approaches, especially Construction Grammar, but so far we’ve tended to avoid theory-specific topics.

  3. Michael from TN says:

    Thanks for another stimulating and entertaining episode.

    I just wanted to humbly point out that there is at least one new 5 star review to read on the show.

  4. Muke Tever says:

    Regarding sexism, I’d point out that while the counterexamples of Chinese and Persian may show that gender-free language is not sufficient for a fully non-sexist culture, it may still be necessary. (And it might not even be necessary, but whenever I think of gendered pronouns in particular I’m always reminded of Hofstadter’s “Person Paper”—and the pronoun difficulties people outside the gender binary have.)

    • admin says:

      It’s difficult to determine what a wholly non-sexist culture would require linguistically, as we don’t really have a truly gender-egalatarian culture to point to (there may be subcultures, but there aren’t really good mainstream cultural examples). I really think that, to some extent, what you’ll have is language following culture. If a language with gendered pronouns is spoken by a culture where it becomes sufficiently taboo to offend people of ambiguous or unstated gender, and said culture finds shoehorning these people into binary gender categories offensive, then some accommodation will probably found. In English, singular they is a likely candidate for this role, though it’s not quite natural yet for many speakers to use it for a known individual (It certainly still feels wrong to me). In any case, there are probably a variety of strategies that can be found, including losing or merging pronouns, borrowing pronouns (known to happen, though unusual if pronouns are a closed class), or coining new pronouns (highly unlikely to catch on, given our experience with English).

      English, for the most part, has undergone major lexical reshaping due to (conscious) efforts to be gender neutral — with the famous -man suffix dwindling in popularity and terms like mankind and collective man being more and more replaced with terms like humanity and human (Set aside, for the moment, the etymological arguments — synchronically, the default definition of man is “adult male human”, which is sufficient to make it at least appear to be sexist language). Pronouns and grammatical gender are stickier than that, though — they are embedded in the grammar and not as consciously changeable as the above-mentioned lexical items. There would probably be some time lag between the wonderful egalitarian utopia being achieved and its language reforming itself to conform to the new social mores.

  5. Matthew says:

    There’s a great example of verb frame v. satellite frame when you compare French and English. As a satellite-framed language, English encodes manner in its verbs “punch” and “kick.” But the equivalents in French – a verb-framed language – are “donner un coup de poing” and “donner un coup de pied” (literally “give a fist-strike” and “give a foot-strike”).

    • Interesting. I’ve never thought about verb framing in areas other than verbs of movement.

      That said, I’m not sure how clean cut things are here. While the examples you gave are correct, they are not the only way to say “to punch” or “to kick” in French. You can also use “frapper”: “to hit/strike”: “frapper du poing”: “to punch” (“to hit with the fist”), “frapper du pied”: “to kick” (“to hit with the foot”). Although both are still verb-framed.

      But then we come to Spanish, which is just as verb-framed as French. And it does have the expressions “dar/pegar un golpe” (“to do/strike a hit/punch”) and “dar/pegar una patada” (“to do/strike a kick”). But it also has the verbs “golpear” and “patear”, which I believe are just as common (if not more) than the expressions above.

      In any case it’s an interesting comment. I wonder whether there are studies about verb framing that looked at it in other areas than verbs of movement. It’d be nice to know how verb-framing may (or may not) have an influence on other things in a language.

      • admin says:

        Spanish also allows other verbs to signify kicking where that isn’t their primary meaning, such as lanzar or tirar. Granted, those are used in similar circumstances to English shoot “to kick a ball with the intention of scoring a goal”, but we generally don’t say “shoot with the foot”, whereas Spanish will use “lanzar de pie”.

  6. la gusek. says:

    Yeah, I felt that was quite biased. I mean, sure, it’s a controversial topic and there isn’t much support for strong Sapir-Whorfianism today. But, they do acknowledge certain different thinking patterns (like the way you memorize an describe experiences or knowing which way is north), but they are very clear with that everything related to Sapir-Whorf is stupid and ridiculous. It seems more of a bashing than a discussion, but that’s my five cents. I don’t believe in Sapir-Whorf as originally hypothesized though.

    Also, Lojban is (of course) mentioned. But they are not discussing it very positive, and somewhat thinking that it’s an impossible and ridiculous language to try and learn. Like that they’re not seriously believing it could be fun or useful in real life, but a cute attempt of nerds over-believing Sapir-Whorf (and trying to gain “magical abilities”). Laadan seems to be preferred, for some reason.

    Yeah, that’s what I got from it! Worth a listening, but I do not fully agree with them. Seems too much like a contra-cultural reaction to people believing Sapir-Whorf to a extreme level and irritating people with the classic Eskimo-snow-myth.

    • admin says:

      Much of our discussion was in highlighting the pitfalls of putting too much stock in Sapir-Whorf, hence the Eskimo snow myth, the warning that language can’t give you magical abilities (unless, say, you have a fantasy world and it’s a magical language), and the general flaws in strong Whorfianism are all relevant.

      As for Lojban, I have no doubt that it can be fun and I have no issue with Lojbanists. How “useful” it is depends on your goals and results. As a Whorfian experiment, it is at best inconclusive — it’s hard to control such experiments, and Lojban has grown beyond the initial purpose of its predecessor Loglan. I suppose we could devise some tests to see if Lojbanists think differently because of the language, but I so far haven’t heard of such experiments.

      • Jacob O says:

        Long time listener, first time poster.

        The folks at Conlangery come across as pretty anti-theory in at times. It’s a great program, but the hostility to theory in general deserves more scrutiny.

        Those who give the linguistic relativity a bad name are those who forget that language exists in and for its context of human action. Anyone who strips away that context can expect to be construed as ridiculous when they say something like: “Speakers of English conceive of time as a line, while speakers of Hopi* conceive of time as one’s relationship with an event’s having begun, being currently in progress, or having ended.”

        This sort of expression of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is not only laughable, but also self-refuting. If proponents of the thesis that “language limits thought” took their claims seriously, they would realize that telling people how the Hopi think about time in English isn’t possible.

        How do you explain that something will always be lost in translation, when your very explanation takes whatever it is that you claim is lost and puts it back in? Even deploying Hopi-style structures in English wouldn’t necessarily prompt a wholesale shift in a speaker’s perception of temporal events because we lack the accompanying patterns of human activity that would give those structures meaning.

        Talk of “magical abilities” seems like a bit of a straw man, as does the myth of “x Eskimo words for snow”. Who actually believes either of those? The first seems to be in line with 16th century European beliefs about Hebrew, or the notions some YouTubers have gotten into their heads about Sanskrit; while the latter is one of the most commonly refuted myths that I’d be surprised if it was nearly so often brought up by its proponents than by its would-be debunkers.

        Having a more sophisticated way of speaking about some subject does allow us to do something. “Abilities” conferred by language are by no means magical–the example of direction in Australian languages is pretty convincing (not to mention falsifiable), and I recall a study about speakers of tone languages having a higher incidence of perfect-pitch (although this is perhaps less strictly ‘linguistic’). Mathematics is also differently expressed in various languages, and this makes certain mathematical operations easier in some languages than in others.

        tl;dr
        Language influences thought as part of a system of human (inter)action.
        The idea that things are lost in translation can’t be shown simply by translating things.
        Every conlanger who learns to recognize linguistic structures as a result of learning the language to describe them has first-hand proof of a form of linguistic relativism.
        *Though I’ve seen conflicting evidence about whether Hopi language actually functions this way.

        • admin says:

          Keep in mind that this podcast is about conlanging, and our audience has varying degrees of linguistic training. This episode really gave the standard Intro to Linguistics spiel about Sapir-Whorf, plus a couple points on what it does not entail. We keep away from theory partly because getting too theory-heavy would scare the newbies and partly because, while many theoretical frameworks are excellent for describing languages (we won’t get into the argument of which one is best right here), they are generally not designed for and not well adapted for aiding in language creation. For the most part, we think conlangers can create a language and provide a decent descriptive grammar without going crazy with more advanced theoretical frameworks. At times we have pointed out some theory or insights from theory that can be useful, but this is not a podcast about linguistic theory.

          To address a couple of your points:

          1) By “magical abilities”, we’re basically talking about abilities that humans couldn’t normally achieve through other means. We gave a couple of examples of non-linguistic means of achieving the directional awareness that speakers of languages that lack or make little use of egocentric directions attain through knowledge of their language. Basically, it is possible you could use language learning as a training tool for some other skill, though it’s a rather inefficient way to go about things.

          2) You would be surprised — I have heard tales of the Eskimo Snow Words myth being repeated more than once at conferences, and I have encountered one telling of it in a linguistics class myself.

          3) The perfect pitch argument is interesting, though I’m not entirely sure of the causation. There is some evidence (albeit rather circumstantial) that tone languages are more likely to develop in populations with certain genetic markers*. I’m willing to entertain the notion that linguistic tone could make someone more sensitive to pitch changes more generally.

          We have gotten a lot of feedback in this vain, and we may revisit Sapir-Whorf sometime in the future in order to dig deeper, but for right now I stand by our approach here.

          (On an unrelated note, I apologize that it took so long for your comment to get approved. I have been quite busy recently and unable to dig through our mountains of spam comments by hand. I have made some changes that will give me proper spam filtering so that this doesn’t keep being a problem in the future.

          If anyone has a legitimate comment that never showed up on the site, let me know. I may or may not be able to retrieve it.)

          * You can find the paper here. Note that this is primarily proposing a hypothesis that should be tested with experimentation. The evidence presented is, as I said, circumstantial and doesn’t prove anything on its own.

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