Thursday, 14 May 2009

The Wangkajunga have a Word for it

Linguistic determinism, the seductive but batty idea that your native language determines your view of the world and how you think, is a theory that journalists and 'language fanciers' (Steven Pinker's term) are very fond of. The dozens of Eskimo words for snow, the tribes whose languages have no tenses and who therefore have a different perception of time from the rest of humanity, the aptness of language A for purposes language B cannot fulfill - they all provide material for arresting lead-ins or scholarly-sounding meditations on the nature of mind and meaning. They are all complete twaddle, though. I recently came across poet and journalist Mark Abley. Abley has noticed that French and other European languages have different verbs for ‘to know’, depending on whether what you know is a person or a thing. In French we find connaître (person) and savoir (thing) in German kennen and wissen, and so on. Quoted in John McWhorter's Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, Abley goes all precious on us:
‘My language allows me, somewhat clumsily, to get the distinctions across: on the one hand, factual knowledge, on the other, acquaintanceship and understanding. But to a French [and German and Spanish and Italian and Albanian but not Modern Greek] speaker, that distinction is central to how the mind interacts with the world.’
The italicised bit is mine. (I used the mouse to make the italics. Bear this in mind.) How likely is it, do you think, that speakers whose languages make this distinction see it as basic to how their minds ‘interact with the world’? Do those of us whose languages do not make this particular distinction feel baffled when we encounter languages that do? Of course we bloody don’t. Speakers of French might indulge in a little chauvinism when they realize for the first time that English doesn’t differentiate the two usages, but until that point they will probably not have given the matter a second’s consideration. Is there anything ‘somewhat clumsy’ about how know is used in the following quotes? Could an Albanian translation perhaps reveal depths that Shakespeare, trapped in English, could not? First from Hamlet:
'Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio...’
Then from A Midsummer Night's Dream: 
'Through Athens I am thought as fair as she,
But what of that? Demetrius thinks not so;
He will not know what all but he do know.’
Leave me a comment if you detect the clumsiness Abley is on about. Buggered if I can.
On his website, Abley provides us with words from endangered languages which are supposed to arouse our… admiration? Envy of subtle distinctions of meaning denied to us? Or what? I’m not sure.
Onsra - to love for the last time (Boro - NE India and Bangladesh)
Ah, amazing that people should have words for so specific an idea! It’s almost like having a word for ‘to appear overly polite, obliging or contrite in order to sway a superior’s judgement in one’s own favour’ – i.e., ‘to grovel’ in English. Does Abley actually know any Boro? Is it possible that on means 'love', and sra means 'finally'? Or the other way round, or some other analysis? How is it used, anyway? What does 'to love for the last time' actually mean? Is there a more idiomatic English rendering? We need to know before we gasp in admiration.
Nartutaka (Wangkajunga, central Australia) - small plum-like fruit for which there is no English word.
Not yet, at least. Wait until Waitrose catch on, and there’ll be nartutaka fruit salad, unpasteurised nartutaka juice (rich in antioxidants and vitamin C to protect against Today's Diseases) and porridge with sun-dried nartutaka in every middle class kitchen. 'Narts’ will be in the OED along with mango, banana, papaya and kumquat. Presumably the Wangkajunga speakers lack a word for Bramleys. Amazing!
In an article about Abley on the BBC website, Duncan Walker warns us about how meaning supposedly gets lost when English replaces indigenous languages:
'English and other major languages, while often acting as a democratising force, do not always reflect the breadth of meaning in the language they supersede. [Italics added - using the keyboard.] The Inuit language of Inuktitut, for example, has many verbs for the word "know", ranging from "utsimavaa" - meaning he or she knows from experience to "nalunaiqpaa" - he or she is no longer unaware of something.’
Now, this is sweet naivety on Walker’s part. The languages of the Inuit will always appear at first glance to have more words than European languages for any concept you care to mention, because they are agglutinative languages: what in English is expressed as a phrase, Inuktitut collapses into single words that contain all the necessary pronouns, roots, case and tense markers stuck together like so many Lego bricks. Turkish is able to produce as a single verb the following jaw-breaker:


meaning: ‘it is presumably the case that you sometimes were not made to fight'. (Gőksel and Kerlake, 2005:74). Dővűşmek is the root verb, if my online source is correct, and the rest of the verb is a string of widgets that add person, tense, aspect and modality. Walker's two verbs quoted above are simply the Inuit translations of the English phrases he provides as glosses for the supposedly more expressive Inuit verbs. Can he not see that he has just provided two perfectly serviceable English translations of what he thinks are two Inuktitut roots? How, if he can do this, can he argue that meaning is being lost?

Language fanciers go all misty when they find some language (preferably one on the endangered list) has a single word for a concept that English expresses with a phrase, and single words always command their respect, while phrases are seen as second best. They usually ignore, or more likely have never given a thought to, instances where the boot’s on the other foot and it’s English that has more words for a notion than some other language. Greek, thank God, is not endangered, but here's an example of what I'm ranting about: βγάζω, [vgazo] can translate as take off, push out, pull out, stick out, take out, let out, lead to, open out in, come out with and so on, depending on the noun it collocates with. This is either a) amazing English fecundity, or b) amazing Greek economy - take your pick. In terms of communication of the concepts involved, it doesn’t matter a toss. Defending a) over b) or vice versa would be like arguing whether true italics are achieved by using your mouse or your keyboard.
I blogged a while ago about some of the whacky, self-flattering beliefs I encountered in Greece about the Greek language. A common one is that Greek words somehow ‘mean more’ than anybody else’s words. ‘Speakers of Greek are the only ones who have immediate access to the meanings of speech, the only ones who can truly feel what they say’ said a Mr. Zachariou in Greek ELT News in April 2003. (Italics added, using the mouse.) The rest of humanity, Mr. Z says, are really only ‘like dogs [who] respond to mono-syllabic or bi-syllabic sounds’. This is fighting talk, Zach - evidence? Here you are:
  • The Greek έξυπνος [exypnos] means intelligent, and may be analysed as ‘ex + ypnos’, meaning ‘out of sleep’ and thus awake, alert.
  • Then there’s σύζυγος [syzigos] meaning ‘spouse’. This we are told is ‘by far superior semantically’ to the English words husband, wife and spouse as it means ‘one bound in the same yoke’.
So are we supposed to conclude that Greek speakers are somehow more keenly aware of the meaning of intelligence, and of the bond between man and wife, than everybody else? How such an idea could be proven I have no clue. I’m not absolutely sure if this is what Mr. Z would have us believe, but if that is not his point I don’t know why he drew these words to our attention in the first place. The only other conclusion would have to be that Greek speakers understand Greek words. Well, yeah, I’m sure they do.
Some Armenians go beyond even the Greeks in linguistic chauvinism and pseudo-science. I found an article on Grabar, Classical Armenian. For a taste:
‘It is discovered in the language that during the process of development of the sound connection man to man, man to nature the mutual connection is realized by means of natural sounds as two-sound connection.’
Bet you didn’t know that! There is more:
‘Appearance of three-sound (three-letter) connections on the same base can be considered as a quality of reasoning owing to the quantitative recognizing realization of man.’
I’m not sure what he said either, but he has a lot more to impart in the same vein:
'In GRABAR alphabet all the sounds are silhouettic symbols and have a sound quality and cardinal silhouettic character. For the first time in the linguistic science in Armenian dialects and GRABAR the three-sound (three-letter) words are divided into two-sound (two-letter) and one-sound (one-letter) mathematical index, which belongs to the structure of human and animal anatomy.’
So how about that, huh?
I find the idea that the vocabulary and grammar of one’s language limit the thoughts one is capable of entertaining thoroughly depressing, and fortunately, quite ridiculous. One of my students, a native speaker of Arabic whose language level in English is officially pre-intermediate, has the most extraordinary ability to mobilize a very limited knowledge of English vocabulary and grammar in the service of some very sophisticated ideas. He is not an educated man in Arabic any more than English, but he simply has to communicate and he will not let a lack of vocabulary stand in the way of that need. It's not the lack of individual words that matters, it's how you deploy the ones you've got. Any teacher who has taught a multilingual class of beginners will have noted with amazement and delight the ingenuity people exercise in trouncing language barriers, simply because they soon realize that our common humanity means we all understand each other, pretty much. Pity there are so many people who will never be thrown together with others in that situation. It’s a great pomposity buster.

Here and here you may read the excellent Professor Geoffrey Pullum on just the sort of ignorant journalistic / language fancier bollocks I have been ranting about. Here as well.


Fionnchú said...

I know I already mentioned this in my blog when I reviewed last month John McWhorter's assault on Abley and Whorfians in his recent "Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue," but McW does follow you, VS, in enjoying such an assault! Even as a wistfully ignorant Whorfian sympathizer, I found myself entertained by McW and by you both. Great GRABAR citations!

vilges suola said...

Hi, Fionnchu. The Grabar stuff is good, isn't it - I forgot to post a link to the whole article, which is completely batty. Will remedy that.

I know there is some serious (i.e., not by gullible BBC journalists) recent work on the SWH, which I have not been able to access, so one day I might be forced to recant. Meanwhile I really do think it is a load of horsefeathers!

Bo said...

Hear, hear! The welsh do it too, in a more melancholy vein.

vilges suola said...

Really? Are they proud of being melancholy?

Bo said...

Hm, no, but they are fond of arguing that Welsh has an intense eloquence which English can't match: a traditional name for English is yr iaith fain, 'the thin language'.

Anonymous said...

I never know exactly why this kind of thing makes me so annoyed. On most other topics, if I read an opinion that I disagree with, I just happily disagree, imagining the writer to be a fool, and that's as far as it goes.

Also, by the way, my great-grandfather was Armenian, so you'd better think twice before insulting that fine language.


vilges suola said...

Γειά σου, Ρομπάκη. I'm sure Armenian is a splendid tongue and your great grandfather was a man of learning, integrity and scrupulous personal hygiene. The writer quoted here, though, is bonkers. Abley is just being exquisite and pretentious, Walker here is a linguistically misinformed hack. Zachariou contributed several articles in this vein to ELT News back while I was in Kalamata, and they were all extraordinary pieces of bombastic subjectivity, if that is a meaningful collocation. The Armenian has seriously lost the plot.

One thing that bugs me about journalists is that they will uncritically report this sort of bollocks about language but will be much more careful to check their facts if they are reporting something about say, astronomy or physics.

Anonymous said...

I suspect that journalists are pretty lazy on most topics. I often notice this when they write about subjects that I know a thing or two about. I suppose newspapers (including trade rags) are essentially a form of entertainment. And articles by Zachariou and his sort were the only entertaining (or at least engaging) things in the ELT News, as far as I remember.


vilges suola said...

True. I do think that linguistics must be the least known and least popularised science subject, though, and people feel free to pronounce on matters pertaining to it without knowing what they are talking about, in a way they wouldn't on computer science, for example.

O Kyrios Zach has written a book, currently available at no good book stores anywhere. If I ever get a copy I'll let you know his latest thoughts.

JR said...

Your vocabularly challenged student reminds me of a similarly challenged group of people, who also demand to be understood. My son liked spaghetti bolognese but couldn't make me understand what he wanted to put on it as he didn't know the word, until he asked for "cheese pepper".

To someone who cooks beautifully, (as you do - I still remember that very boozy fruit salad!) my son's choice of word for parmesan said as much about his culinarily challenged mother as it did for his need to be understood.

vilges suola said...

'Cheese pepper' is pretty ingenious, though, isn't it? I remember the salad too, slathered in cointreau, I think it was. Our guests Betty and Geoff have now gone on to the great office in the sky. (Several years AFTER we cooked for them)


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