Thursday, 15 January 2015

Language Doesn't Make The World

It's often said, by linguists and philosophers for example, that language is such a strong influence on us that when we speak a language, we can only think of the world in a particular way.  This is called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.  I could be splitty about this and say it's not so ever, but in fact I don't think that at all.  Nor do I think it's completely true to the extent some people do.
An example is colour.  Here's a spectrum with silly bits on the right, really a flattened out colour wheel:

Quick experiment by the way:  look at that and decide where you think the colours are definitely one thing or another.  I wonder how different your view and mine are.

To make things a bit easier, here's the same kind of thing as blocks of colours which don't blend into each other:

I personally don't really believe in indigo.  It's there to make the number of colours up to seven because Newton saw the number as special, as it does in the Bible.  I don't think the orange is right either - looks more like mustard to me.  Nonetheless we have names for each of these colours and the ones in between sometimes too.  However, not all languages have the same number of colour words as we have.  The Mandarin Chinese version of the spectrum looks like this:

This is not what a Mandarin speaker sees, but it does represent the three main words for colour, usually translated as "red", "yellow" and "blue", and they also have words for black and white of course.  There are no languages as far as I know which have no words for black or white, although there is at least one language with only black and white and no true colour vocabulary - it's a dialect of the south Indian language Malayalam.  I've chosen ambiguous colours here to indicate that the words refer to a whole range of colours just as they do in any other language.

Notice that I said, though, "this is not what a Mandarin speaker sees".  I might be referring to a very crude version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis here but when I look at a rainbow I generally see three colours unless I look carefully, and I also see an odd stripy effect on either side which I presume is seen by everyone but I just want to mention because of that whole purple blotches thing a few years ago.  If I were an artist, I would probably see something else.

Nonetheless, when we in English talk about "making" and "doing", it really feels like we're talking about two different things even though many languages lack that distinction, but when we talk about "knowing", we don't feel the lack of the words "savoir" and "connaitre", even though we used to have the words "wit" and "ken", which are very similar to the French words in meaning.  As Anglophones we certainly seem to live in a world which at a glance has people doing and making things.  We do the washing up but we make the dishes we put in the sink, for example, and we know our friends in the same way as we know that it's a sunny day, but for speakers of German and French there is a sense that the reverse is true.  We also tend to think of aubergines, tomatoes and cucumbers as vegetables and oranges, apples and bananas as fruit, when we could think of all of them as vegetables or all as fruit.  This is a very firm distinction for some people.

Nonetheless I believe the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is false.  It has an element of truth in it but it is not all there is, for two reasons.

Firstly, if language constructs reality, that seems to mean that the absence of language implies that the individual concerned does not experience.  That would mean that a child who has never been exposed properly to language, as with neglect, or has not managed to acquire language, as with learning disability, is not conscious or so out of touch with others' reality that she does not suffer or feel pain.  This also applies to other species, suggesting that a farm animal or a pet is not able to suffer and matters a lot less than many people seem to think it does.  To me, this is not only absurd, but also amounts to the idea that if you can't speak up for your needs you don't have them.  It centres everything so much on language that it seems to ignore everything else.

Secondly, and I'm afraid I'm going to talk about gender yet again, there are many languages with absolutely no grammatical gender but they are used in a wide range of cultures, some of which seem to be more gender-blind than others.  Finnish, for instance, has no gender at all unless you could the distinction between animate and inanimate objects, and its society is sometimes seen as quite egalitarian in that respect.  It was the first European country to give women the vote, for example.  However, here's a list of other languages with only gender-neutral pronouns:  Swahili, Persian and Malay/Indonesian.  None of these have different pronouns for female and male humans in any form which divide along gender lines.  All of them are spoken in societies where there is a very definite strong gender binary regarding roles.  They are also of course spoken in societies where the Arabic language is important too, and Arabic divides gender so strongly into feminine and masculine compared to most Western languages that its word for "you" and its verb forms are gendered.  Therefore it may just be that the existence of a second language with such firm gender demarcation means it doesn't need to be strongly marked in the vernacular.  However, I look at it differently.

There are probably still people for whom the word "nurse" will conjure up an image of a woman, and for who the word "doctor" will bring a picture of a man to mind.  This is of course no longer the case.  Suppose, though, that it not only still was but that this extended beyond such roles to encompass the entire culture, so that all roles were universally assumed to be either female or male.  A language spoken in a culture like that wouldn't even need gendered pronouns because every role would be assumed to be gendered.  It'd be like having a gender for bears which move their bowels in the woods or Popes according to the church they belong to - actually there would be a point to that because in fact not all popes are Catholic.  Polar bears, hmm.

Anyway, what I'm saying is that the culture is so gendered that gender in language is unnecessary.  This happens in English with the word "animal" to some extent.  We tend to assume that word doesn't refer to humans when we use it, because humans are seen by most people as significantly apart from all other species.  I say "other species" on the whole.

To cut a long story short then, I don't believe in the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.  Our language doesn't make the world because it's embedded in a culture and doesn't exist in isolation, and because it sounds like an excuse for abuse.