Overweening Generalist

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Neologisms and the Neo Soft (?) Whorfian Revolution

My Idiohistory With Linguistic Relativity
I had begun trying to understand Chomsky's linguistics around 1990. One thing that spilled out rather quickly was I was apparently wrong about the idea that the structure of the particular language you speak shapes the way you think about phenomena. This idea was fairly taken-for-granted until around 1970. Then a few studies were done on how people from different tribes used language for things like color, and Chomsky's idea of universal grammar seemed to hold sway, according to these studies. Or so I read. On one level, I still thought this had to be wrong, because whenever I made some cursory study of a new language I noticed how strange I felt; there was always some aspect of the way the new language made me think that was novel. Also: as a crazy fierce autodidact, I found one quick entry into some new territory of knowledge was to get hold of a standard fat textbook for the field, go directly to the glossary, and study the words and their definitions. The specialized jargon allowed me to think about things I never would have before. But this, I knew did not mean that, "underneath" it all, people weren't still "really" thinking about the phenomena in the same way, despite the way they seemed to conceptualize differently, based on their different language. The Chomskyans virtually wiped this idea of linguistic relativity off the map of "serious ideas" roughly from the period 1975-2000 or so.

A little later, in the early 1990s, I fell in love with the works of Robert Anton Wilson. In the first book I ever read by him, Right Where You Are Sitting Now, which was assembled as a collage and utilized techniques derived from Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs and their "cut-up" method. I turned a page late in the book and found a page with a "smaller" piece of paper made to look as if it was hovering over the page, at a slightly Dutch angle. The paper - or rectangular block? - had a shadow beneath it, a sort of "Kilroy Was Here" guy looking over the top of the paper, but with +/- signs for eyes and ears. Inside the block were three quotes, one from RAW himself: "Verbal chains guide us through our daily reality-labyrinth." Another was from Joyce's Ulysses, where Leopold Bloom, reflecting on the repetition used in the Catholic mass, and his own occupation, advertising, thinks to himself, "Mass seems to be over. Could hear them all at it. Pray for us. And pray for us. And pray for us. Good idea the repetition. Same thing with ads. Buy from us. And buy from us."

                                                      Benjamin Lee Whorf

A third quote was from Benjamin Lee Whorf: "A change in language can transform our appreciation of the cosmos." But this went against Chomsky. And it was published in 1982, when linguistic relativity was supposedly dead. Nevertheless, I decided to obtain Whorf's Language, Thought and Reality. I haven't bought the universal grammar line since.

The only problem I found in Whorf (whose teacher was the great first-generation cultural Anthropologist Edward Sapir, who studied under Franz Boas), was that Whorf seemed to think the language we are born into prevents us from thinking in new ways; we get boxed in. This was later dubbed "hard Whorfianism" by some, in contrast to the idea that our language tends to shape how we perceive reality, often labeled as "soft Whorfianism." Whorf, who died in 1941 and was largely self-taught, never saw any of what we would call empirical testing of his ideas. But there are empirical tests galore now, and this is why I call it "Neo Soft Whorfian" in the headline for this blogspew.

Lera Boroditsky
I forget where I read it, but Boroditsky - perhaps the figurehead in the renaissance in linguistic relativity - wrote about a study about how time is perceived differently among Mandarin speakers, compared with English speakers. In English we think of time like we think of our sentences, as running from right to left. We say "The best years of our lives are still ahead of us." Or "All your troubles are behind you now." Boroditsky showed that the Chinese thought of time in the way they wrote language, famously: vertically. How mind-blowing! Yep: next month is "down." It's the down month, or "February" to me. Last month - December - would be thought of as the "up month." Of course, in English I can say, "Looking down my calendar, I'm busy through March. How about April we go to Hawaii?" Similarly, apparently Mandarin speakers use a horizontal metaphor for time every now and then, like we English speakers do. But they clearly use vertical metaphors for time far more often, while we English speakers use horizontal ones far more often.

                                                 Lera Boroditsky, grew up in Minsk

So Boroditsky and colleagues decided to see if they could determine  if Mandarin speakers think about time differently than we do...which is a different idea than looking at how the language is structured. When Chomsky's ideas about linguistic relativity held sway, it was thought that all sorts of other things could influence the way people speak about the world in different ways. What was important was that we are all using a basic universal grammar at the core, despite how wildly different our surface language speaking may be.

By the way, here is a statement by Boroditsky about Chomsky's linguistics, and how the Whorfian ideas have now been demonstrated empirically:

"The question of whether language shape the way we think goes back centuries; Charlemagne proclaimed that 'To have a second language is to have a second soul.' But the idea went out of favor with scientists when Noam Chomsky's theories of language gained popularity in the 1960s and '70s. Dr. Chomsky proposed that there is a universal grammar for all human languages --- essentially, that languages don't really differ from one another in significant ways...

"The search for linguistic universals yielded interesting data on languages, but after decades of work, not a single proposed universal has withstood scrutiny. Instead, as linguists probed deeper into the world's languages (7000 or so, only a fraction of them analyzed), innumerable, unpredictable differences emerged...

"Languages, of course, are human creations, tools we invent to hone and suit our needs. Simply showing that speakers of different languages think differently doesn't tell us whether it's language that shapes thought or the other way around. To demonstrate the causal role of language, what's needed are studies that directly manipulate language and look for effects in cognition...

"One of the key advances in recent years has been the demonstration precisely of this causal link."
-quotes gleaned from "Does Language Influence Culture?"

Back to the Mandarin/English dealio:

Try this with your friends, and if you have a native-born Mandarin speaking friend, all the better:

Stand next to your friend and point to a spot in the air directly in front of your friend and say, "That spot represents today." Then ask where they would put "yesterday." And where "tomorrow"? Most English speakers, overwhelmingly, pointed to a sport horizontal to the spot that represents "today." Mandarin speakers pointed to spots vertically, about eight times more often than English speakers did.

These are literally "new words." How do they come about? It's complex. Often they're portmanteau-ishly derived: two pre-existing words smashed together. Because many of us can't afford to go anywhere when we have time off, we now take a "staycation." The examples are endless. Also, the old adage that those who control the language control the future and the past seems true enough, and one way they do is via manipulation of language, and one of those ways is via neologisms. When a wealthy person died, there was an estate tax paid. Out of right wing think tanks, we got a term that sought to replace this: "death tax." Despite it being in the best interests of most citizens to keep the estate tax paid,  research on human nervous system response to certain words led them to keep rich families richer than they would have been, and "death tax" just sounds unfair, doesn't it? It's the same thing, different words. And the thing is: people buy it. I think Chomsky has some small (ironic!) part to play in this, but mostly, people are not taught how language really works in our society, and it's a travesty, in my opinion.

Of course, specialized fields of study will necessarily invent words to describe many of their new findings, and sometimes the new words float out into the common atmosphere. Other times - most interestingly to me - poets and novelists will mint a new word that allows us to think - or describe - something we used to have to use many words for, often accompanied by copious hand-waving.

But what about those of us who are Ironists will seek a vocabulary unique to ourselves, if only because, as Richard Rorty wrote, we do not want to find ourselves on our death bed, self-describing ourselves using someone else's vocabulary. We might not use neologisms, but old language in new ways, via subtle turns of metaphor.

I am not sure if neologisms work in the same sense that cognitive neuro-linguists who study linguistic relativity - scholars like Lera Boroditsky - say that the structure of the local language shapes perception and thought. But I suspect these two ideas are interrelated.

Rorty wrote in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, that "A sense of human history as the history of successive metaphors would let us see the poet, in the generic sense of the maker of new words, the shaper of new languages, as the vanguard of the species." (p.20) Furthermore, "Ironists specialize in redescribing ranges of objects or events in partially neologistic jargon, in the hope of exciting people to adapt and extend that jargon." (p.78)

"Every gloss becomes a potential meta-gloss..." - Robert Anton Wilson, Wilhelm Reich In Hell (p.40) This meta-gloss might have to be named. usw.

                                            William Gibson, influenced by Burroughs,
                                            Pynchon, and Borges, extremely influential
                                              himself, and rightly so!

Because I've carried on far too long, as usual, I'll end with a quote from a poet, the science fiction-ish William Gibson, who coined "cyberspace," which you might think is the "space" you're inhabiting right where you are sitting now:

"The essential art of pop poetics is the art of neologism. Cyberspace was my contribution, a term which was hollow, senseless, waiting to receive meaning. I don't care what people pile on top of it." - in an interview with Bruce Sterling and Steve Beard, found in the latter's Logic Bomb (p.63).

Lera Boroditsky's papers

I don't get how this dude's head seems to float atop his body, but he's talking about the ideas above:


Leif said...

Do the thinkers involved within the linguistic relativity debate make a distinction between the inner-thought-train and the externalized written word? Or might a given language influence the former more so than the latter?

michael said...

Gads, what a great Q, Leif. As it is I've been wading through all the empirical stuff, with most of my fascination fastened on studies of Aborigines and all that stuff about German and French and those different masculine/feminine nouns and being asked in English to describe attributes of, say a bridge. That's mindblowing stuff to me. It turns out if you're raised thinking a noun is "feminine" you tend to describe it that way: elegant, soft, fragile, peaceful, , pretty, helpful, etc. When a different romance language sees that same noun as masculine, you will describe it in masculine terms: big, sturdy, dangerous, long, sturdy, strong.

Your Q made me think a lot about the role of the translator of novels. It seems their responsibility somehow gets even heavier with all this new knowledge, but hey, I guess they're doing their best and we shd just be thankful.

I've been meaning to consult Jerome Feldman at UC Berkeley on Qs like yours. If he says anything, I'll pass it along.

Certainly Vico thought there were inherent qualities in languages, which gave rise to even bigger differences in culture, which would obviously reflect the written word. Vico was a linguistic relativist over 200 yrs before Sapir or Whorf were. I think Vico was a tad fanciful when he said, in the New Science, that, for example, German and Latin were "honest" and "accurate" languages. But Boroditsky and her colleagues showed that it's difficult to assign blame for something in Spanish due to the structure of the language...Vico thought French was subtle and good for scientific discourse, but it was barbarous with dipthongs. All this pre-empiricist - in the sense of labs and fMRI machines, etc - of course.

Even earlier, Montaigne had written on the "imperfections of language."

If you come up with any ideas, please share 'em here.

Eric Wagner said...

Great stuff. It made me think of Fenollosa, Pound and Richard Bandler.