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« The Longest Eclipse | Main | College-as-investment (Joe) »

July 22, 2009


Thank you, Ruchira! Your blogging rhythm seems up-tempo. What on earth have you been drinking--I mean speaking!--lately?

Still haven't read a word of Whorf or Sapir, largely because I'm friends with a maniacal devotee of their ho-hum notions, and I've tired of hearing about one hundred words for snow or linguistic determinants of our perception of the borderlines between colors on the spectrum (I think you'll find this in Lakoff's Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things). Take, for instance, "language is not merely a means of expressing thought, but a constraint on it, too." I can't fathom what it is to be "merely a means of expressing thought." Sleep, perhaps? Language has a material presence in the world. Of course it constrains.

On the other hand, among the most wonderful aspects of language, the feature that keeps me coming back for more, is its utter and complete ineffectualness, its inability to do anything. It is the paradigm of quietism.

I always assumed that language is actually the medium of thought. So I'm with Dean on this one -- what could "language as a mere means of expressing thought" possibly mean?

Hmm. How many languages are you fluent (I mean, really comfortable) in, Dean and Joe? Perhaps, the notion of language affecting our thinking cannot be explained to someone who hasn't thought the same thought in more than one language. The conundrum may be similar to what Narayan said about a total solar eclipse.

Yes, language is the vehicle for our thoughts. But which vehicle, among many, you use to carry the idea does have an effect on our perceptions and associations. For example, when I think of the words red, pink, blue or yellow (and many others) in Hindi, Bengali or English, the images associated with the colors are different in each case. I don't know why. They just are.

A more interesting case. I speak a mixture of English, Bengali and Hindi with all my close relatives. But with my mother as long as she lived, I used exclusively Bengali. I also tend to write almost everything in English. Inside the door of the kitchen cabinet where I store my spices are three sticky notes with the list of spices required for three different Indian recipes. I have used the Indian names for the spices in each list. But two of the lists are in English script with the spice names spelt phonetically and one is written in Bengali. I myself had never noted the distinction. But some years ago my husband (who doesn't know Bengali) noticed them and asked, "Why is one note written in Bengali?" I didn't know the answer immediately. On thinking back, it occurred to me that two of the recipes were dictated to me by my sister and my mother-in-law, people with whom I use a mix of English and Indian languages commonly. So, even though they described the spices to me in Bengali and Hindi respectively, I noted down the names using the English alphabet. The third recipe was from my mother. In her case, without thinking, I used Bengali to both listen and write! All this was totally unconscious. My mother in my mind is entirely and intimately associated with the Bengali language.


I like your spice story and will try to work with it myself. First, is there anything specifically Whorfian about your spice-language experience? I've only ever bought vegetables in Hindi as a child, and so instinctively name them in my mind in that language. This isn't yet quite the same even as saying that hindi and tamil speakers experience okra in distinct ways.

Now it is true that tamil and hindi speakers will tend to experience okra differently, by virtue of inhabiting different cultures. How you cook okra, which spices are added, what it's eaten with, all this differs dramatically between say Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu. When I think of vendakai I think immediately of the yummy okra raita I miss eating so much, while bhindi immediately calls to mind the rich, dry vegetable served in mughlai restaurants.

To get the true whorf experience though, the implications must go the other way - the language itself needs to armtwist people into parsing reality differently. This the bridge example certainly shows, but I find the examples given relatively mild: the grammatical genders of inanimate objects soak in the perceived characteristics of real-life genders; related frequencies of light are seen as the same or as different colors according as whether they are marked by different words in the language; if your language emphasizes absolute coordinates instead of relative, you'll speak of east and west hands instead of working with left and right ones.

I see nothing here even as dramatic as the observation that speakers of Chinese, by virtue of speaking a tonal language, are much likelier to acquire perfect pitch. Meanwhile, how grandiose have been the claims of this school! Hopi understand time in vastly different ways from everyone else, the worlds of different languages are incommensurable, if you haven't a word for a concept you can't think the thought, and on and on and on...

I actually think the smallness of such effects may be used to calibrate our sense of the extent to which the intuitive view that words and their combinations refer to "things" needs to be modified...not too much, is my answer.

I am fluent only in English, and even then only barely, I often figure. I have the usual dilettantish talent for ordering beer in French, Spanish, Latin, a little Attic Greek, Igpay Atinlay, what have you. I don't doubt that a true polyglot enjoys different experiences within each language, although I wonder why a reference to a color must conjure an image, rather than some other sort of cognitive episode. When I say or think, "red," I don't see red. But as D points out, the Whorf theory is supposed to go in the other direction. The Newsweek story illustrates this in the paragraph beginning, "Language even shapes what we see. People have a better memory for colors if different shades have distinct names—not English's light blue and dark blue, for instance, but Russian's goluboy and sinly." The sense data are objective, their linguistic expressions culturally specific.

The call for more empirical study in this area is hard to fault. But I find it ironic that the call for rigor is so often accompanied by the "Gee, whiz!" tone of remarks like "Language even shapes what we see." How ridiculous. Gosh, how come I never think "can opener" when I look at a telephone? Could it be that language is shaping my view of the object? Folks scoff at Jacques Derrida for his "Il n'y a pas d'hors-texte," which surely doesn't mean exactly what the neo-Whorfians are promoting, but nevertheless shares with their proclamations a notion of being locked into (constrained by) one's linguistic milieu. But Derrida is now perceived as a loopy French pseudo-philosopher (and I wonder how much of that perception has been shaped by language...), while Boroditsky at Stanford is regarded as a careful gleaner of evidence. Good for her. She (or her journalist translator Begley) nevertheless needs to learn how to translate her findings into language that doesn't spiral out of control into absurdity.

Dean and D, I am not going "Gee Whiz" about anything here. Nor am I subscribing to a Whorfian world view. All I am bringing up is my own thought processes being slightly altered depending on the language I use.

There is a chicken and egg scenario unfolding here. I do not buy that language is THE tool to create thoughts in the first place or that a concept cannot exist without a corresponding word for it. Our language is part of our culture which in turn is the result of our physical environment. Hence the 100 words for snow among Eskimos and 220 for sand in sub-Saharan Africa ... or whatever. But I do believe that once language is in place and we use it to translate our thoughts in words, our cognition is to some extent influenced by it. Nothing dramatic but enough for us to recognize.

I do see the color red when I say "red." And here is a good example. Most men (except artists or designers) I know tend to use only basic words (red, blue, green, yellow, black etc.) for colors to describe the world. Most women usually go into greater details like mauve, aqua, sienna, cobalt blue, egg yolk yellow, cherry red etc. in their narrative. Guess which group is likely to make a bigger mess of home decoration. Is language influencing thought here? To some extent, I am sure.

The spice cupboard example I gave is not whorfian either. My feelings about my mother were not shaped by language. Also, I did not associate my mother with "No English" because she was proficient in English; only that my interaction with her had been solely in the medium of Bengali. That influenced my thoughts enough to alter an action which is otherwise a long time habit, ie. writing in English.

I agree that there is no earth shaking disclosure here in the order of whether the tonal nature of the Chinese language should make Chinese speakers perfect of pitch or if Tamil bestows a superior ability for math on its speakers. But I would like to see research to prove or disprove such correlations, preferably without any pre-conceived notions.

Your remarks, Ruchira, never betray a "Gee, whiz!" superficiality. I was aiming at the story itself, and the fact of its being delivered as news, when a little bit of skeptical pondering reveals how distorted it is.

Your herb story actually made me think of a phenomenon involving children and language use, albeit one I know only anecdotally. Youngsters who are learning multiple languages--Spanish and English are the typical two in my neck of the woods--demonstrate a careful exclusivity about their use of language with certain interlocutors. If they speak with someone who speaks both languages, but who is more fluent in one than the other, they will refuse to communicate with that person in the language in which the person is less fluent. This is the case even if the conversation is engaged by another whose degrees of fluency are the reverse. With that person, the child will speak in the language in which that person is more fluent. A child with a native Spanish speaking babysitter will converse in Spanish. When the child's native English speaking parent joins the Spanish conversation, the child switches to English. The question of proficiency in multiple languages is irrelevant, if these anecdotes are accurate. Somehow, the child identifies a person with the language he or she has best mastered.

I know about multi-lingual children. I was one. So was my daughter for the first few years of her life. She used to switch between two languages routinely while addressing her parents - Hindi for her dad and Bengali with me. But what I would like to know is if her thought processes and perceptions of objects and actions switched too in doing so.

For example, in Hindi like in English, there are two separate verbs (eat and drink) for consuming solid foods and liquids. Bengalis on the other hand, "eat" everything (also, unlike Hindi, common nouns denoting inanimate objects and all verbs in Bengali are gender neutral). One day I said in Bengali, "I need to eat some water." My husband, who understands Bengali but doesn't speak much of the language said to me in Bengali, "I need to eat some too." My three year old daughter piped up in Hindi, "No, no, Papa. You are Punjabi. You cannot eat water; you must drink it." What was going through her head?

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