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The Return of Whorf

This guy

Guy Deutscher revisits Benjamin Lee Whorf’s 1940 scientific article that suggested the language we speak influences the way we perceive reality and, in fact, constrains our ability to think in certain ways.

Whorf’s theories have long since crashed on the jagged rocks of empirical evidence. Deutscher isn’t trying to revive Whorfianism, but he does raise some interesting points about how language influences how we think.

Deutscher points to studies that have observed that Spanish-speakers tend to imbue things like bridges with more stereotypically masculine attributes than do German-speakers, who tend to see stereotypically feminine attributes. Is this because in Spanish el puente is masculine gender while in German die Brücke is feminine? French-speakers think an anthropomorphized fork in a cartoon should have a woman’s voice (la fourche, feminine) but Spanish-speakers opt for a man’s (el tenedor, masculine). (I’m reminded of the story of the militant Islamists who insisted on segregating the vegetables in an Iraqi market based on their gender. Maybe they were on to something after all!)

NOT this guy

His discussion of the Guugu Yimithirr language of Australia, in which people always describe spatial relations in terms of the cardinal directions rather than left, right, behind, or in front, is fascinating. I couldn’t help but think of the few times Connie and I have visited the home of her best friend (in another state) or they have visited us. Connie and Leslie would talk on the phone, discuss the ETA, etc., and then dutifully hand off the phone each to her respective husband for the giving of the directions! That’s not a slam at women and directions but rather an observation about how men (or at least Dave and I) used a different sort of language in order to convey meaningful information about how to get somewhere.

Anyway, this is an interesting article for language buffs, and when the folks at Language Log get around to dissecting it (and I know they will), I’ll update this post with their link. Here’s Deutscher’s concluding paragraph, but go read it all:

For many years, our mother tongue was claimed to be a “prison house” that constrained our capacity to reason. Once it turned out that there was no evidence for such claims, this was taken as proof that people of all cultures think in fundamentally the same way. But surely it is a mistake to overestimate the importance of abstract reasoning in our lives. After all, how many daily decisions do we make on the basis of deductive logic compared with those guided by gut feeling, intuition, emotions, impulse or practical skills? The habits of mind that our culture has instilled in us from infancy shape our orientation to the world and our emotional responses to the objects we encounter, and their consequences probably go far beyond what has been experimentally demonstrated so far; they may also have a marked impact on our beliefs, values and ideologies. We may not know as yet how to measure these consequences directly or how to assess their contribution to cultural or political misunderstandings. But as a first step toward understanding one another, we can do better than pretending we all think the same.

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