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August 27, 2010 2:09 PM   Subscribe

What language obliges us to think about. The NYTimes has a fascinating article on how language affects thought, from the gender-specificity of many European languages to the pure geographic directions of Guugu Yimithirr.
posted by bitmage (59 comments total) 60 users marked this as a favorite

 
I haven't read the full article yet, but I think it's extremely important to point out that "Guugu Yimithirr" is officially the coolest name for a language I've ever heard.
posted by infinitywaltz at 2:12 PM on August 27, 2010


OK, now that I have read the full article, I'll add that Guugu Yimithirr is cool not only in name but also in substance (and that the author used the name "Guugu Yimithirr" more times than necessary because it's so fun to say, read and write).
posted by infinitywaltz at 2:22 PM on August 27, 2010


The language only seems possible if Guugu Yimithirr tribe members have a biological compass. A member with a poor sense of direction would be nearly unable to communicate.
posted by bitmage at 2:27 PM on August 27, 2010


Hmm, I was all ready for some Sapeir Warf nonsense but fortunately this wasn't that.
posted by delmoi at 2:30 PM on August 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


I live in California, on a stretch of land where the coast mostly runs east-west, paralleled by the mountains. I moved here from Texas over twenty years ago - it is incredibly easy to remember cardinal directions. Because the freeway interchanges here are all individually designed, you can't tell someone to "take a right off the off ramp", unless you are absolutely certain that that is what that off ramp does. You're better off telling people to "go north on such-and-such road", and so on.

That being said, I find an enormous number of people who have lived here all their lives, that don't know the mountains run east-west, and that the ocean is to the south of us. It's all based on Route 101 for them...north is west and east is south. It can be very frustrating for me.

I think I would like these Guugu Ymithirr speakers. As my mother used to say, "Xoebe, it's not enough that you are understood. You must not be misunderstood."

And yes, that language shapes perception should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever studied a foreign language.
posted by Xoebe at 2:31 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


The language only seems possible if Guugu Yimithirr tribe members have a biological compass.

So what are you saying? That the researchers were lying? Or what? The whole point is that people learn which direction is which in given locations, and learn to do it quickly. Also, the article mentioned that they used a bunch of hand gestures. It's likely that if someone doesn't know the directions at the current spot, they'll be able to pick it up based on the other person's gesticulation. And if neither knows it, they'll just guess.
posted by delmoi at 2:33 PM on August 27, 2010


The language only seems possible if Guugu Yimithirr tribe members have a biological compass. A member with a poor sense of direction would be nearly unable to communicate.

The article suggests that merely by growing up speaking Guugu Yimithirr, you develop a much better biological compass than you might have otherwise.
posted by infinitywaltz at 2:33 PM on August 27, 2010


And yes, that language shapes perception should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever studied a foreign language.

It's actually a huge misconception that 'language shapes thought' to the extent that people used to think. What you have here is a few specific, minor examples. Using cardinal directions instead of relative direction is a major difference and the fact that people would need to stay oriented in order to communicate would mean that they are really good at figuring out and remembering the directions.

The general idea that language shapes the way we think directly is pretty much wrong. The fact that a language requires you to use a certain skill in order to speak it would make you good at that skill isn't nearly the same thing.
posted by delmoi at 2:38 PM on August 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


As people who primarily use the egocentric directions Up, Down, Left and Right, we look in the mirror and claim that it reverses Left and Right (while leaving Up and Down unchanged). Perhaps a Guugu Yimithirr person would correctly see that nothing has been reversed - a man pointing East is still pointing East in the Mirror, and West is still West.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 2:44 PM on August 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


The newest Radiolab, words, was on the subject and totally blew me away.
posted by Rinku at 2:45 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Guugu Yimithirr" is officially the coolest name for a language I've ever heard.

I just wanted to brag/confess that I'm enough of a sad amateur linguist to know it was an Australian Aboriginal language without looking it up.

For an encore, I recite parts of Beowulf in the original Old English. Thank god I'm already married.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 2:47 PM on August 27, 2010 [5 favorites]


Birhor, pronounced like 'beerwhore', is language spoken by 1,000-10,000 nomadic peoples in India. I think they get some sort of cool name prize, too.
posted by iamkimiam at 2:49 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


For instance, some languages, like Matses in Peru, oblige their speakers, like the finickiest of lawyers, to specify exactly how they came to know about the facts they are reporting. You cannot simply say, as in English, “An animal passed here.” You have to specify, using a different verbal form, whether this was directly experienced (you saw the animal passing), inferred (you saw footprints), conjectured (animals generally pass there that time of day), hearsay or such. If a statement is reported with the incorrect “evidentiality,” it is considered a lie. So if, for instance, you ask a Matses man how many wives he has, unless he can actually see his wives at that very moment, he would have to answer in the past tense and would say something like “There were two last time I checked.” After all, given that the wives are not present, he cannot be absolutely certain that one of them hasn’t died or run off with another man since he last saw them, even if this was only five minutes ago. So he cannot report it as a certain fact in the present tense.

I conjecture that this is the coolest thing in the history of things.
posted by Jpfed at 2:52 PM on August 27, 2010 [26 favorites]


I used to work with U.S. police officers a lot - they routinely described events in a Guugu Ymithirr way, using geographic direction. It certainly had an impact on my thinking, because the more I worked with them, the more I began to visualize my surroundings and events as occurring on a huge map. That really has not changed for me -- but interestingly, I don't now think of the area where I grew up, near Boston, as having that same geographic dimension. I guess I default back to my original thinking about my hometown as a place that exists in relationship to me and my personal landmarks instead.
posted by bearwife at 2:54 PM on August 27, 2010


Also, I liked that episode of The Wire where the police chief is yelling at the new recruits for getting lost during a crackdown. He gives them all compasses until they can figure out which way is up. As they leave their grand chewing-out, Herc asks Carver where something is. Carver responds with a complete assement of the position of his desk, body, limbs, and penis, all rapid-fire in cardinal directions. That was the best.
posted by iamkimiam at 2:56 PM on August 27, 2010 [5 favorites]


So what are you saying? That the researchers were lying? Or what?

Nothing of the sort. I found the idea of a language with no body references amazing, and wondered how it could work. We use left/right, and you don't have to think about it - you know where your left is. They use N-S-E-W just as fluidly, and that is incredible.

The author claims that they can't explain how they know where north is, and that they can find it even after being spun about in a dark room. If that's not a biological compass, then it's the next best thing.
posted by bitmage at 3:00 PM on August 27, 2010


Yeah when I saw this article I was all geared up to go, stupidNYTcrappysciencejournalismSapir-Whorf ignorantMalcolmGladwellesquebull…

and then I actually read the thing and it was pretty reasonable, complete with historical background and responsibly-limited inferences.

This, however, I question (from the penultimate paragraph):
You cannot [in the Peruvian language Matses] simply say, as in English, “An animal passed here.” You have to specify, using a different verbal form, whether this was directly experienced (you saw the animal passing), inferred (you saw footprints), conjectured (animals generally pass there that time of day), hearsay or such. If a statement is reported with the incorrect “evidentiality,” it is considered a lie.
I don't see how "it is considered a lie" necessarily follows from the grammatical structure of the language as reported. That seems to me to be pretty obviously some sort of cultural accretion.

(on preview: I agree with Jpfed that it is a pretty cool thought, though.)
posted by tivalasvegas at 3:06 PM on August 27, 2010


Guy Deutscher is a good linguist and a fine fellow (as a result of something I said, he decided to change Łódź to Pinsk in a Jewish joke he recounted in The Unfolding of Language), and I'm glad he's taking on this tricky subject (and the Times is giving his article a wide audience).

Also, Guugu Yimithirr.
posted by languagehat at 3:06 PM on August 27, 2010


You have to specify, using a different verbal form, whether this was directly experienced (you saw the animal passing), inferred (you saw footprints), conjectured (animals generally pass there that time of day), hearsay or such.

Ah, but do you have to specify, using a different verbal form, whether the hearsay is nevertheless admissible within one of the specific exceptions under the Federal Rules of Evidence?
posted by The World Famous at 3:07 PM on August 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


I wonder if people who would have dyslexic left/right problems in English end up having north/south problems as native speakers of that language...
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:10 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I wonder if people who would have dyslexic left/right problems in English end up having north/south problems as native speakers of that language...

My wife has problems with left/right, so instead she just uses north/south/east/west instead without any trouble.
posted by The World Famous at 3:15 PM on August 27, 2010


Guugu Yimithirr: Worst players of "One Up, One Down" ever.
posted by Back to you, Jim. at 3:19 PM on August 27, 2010


I wonder if people who would have dyslexic left/right problems in English end up having north/south problems as native speakers of that language...

I think everybody I know who's right/left dyslexic, myself included, has an astonishing affinity for using the cardinal directions. Maybe it's a skill you just have to develop to compensate for not being able to handle the right/left thing.
posted by bookish at 3:27 PM on August 27, 2010


The article suggests that merely by growing up speaking Guugu Yimithirr, you develop a much better biological compass than you might have otherwise.

Their mental compass, it doesn't necessarily mean biological.

For instance: the US is much more cardinal-point oriented than Brazil. Road signs regularly reference cardinal points, etc, etc. Where a parking regulation sign in Seattle says "no parking South of here", or a freeway sign says "I-5 - North", the equivalent Brazilian signs are "no parking beyond this sign", or "BR-116 - Sao Paulo", respectively.

As a consequence, Americans are way more aware of their directions than Brazilians. You may not keep track of in which direction you're driving, but if you're familiar with a road you know it's North-South, or East-West, etc. If someone says, it's North on University Ave, you know what direction that is.

In comparison, I lived in a smallish (300k ppl) town for 18 years, and I don't have any idea about what neighborhood is North or South of each other, what direction the street I lived in faces, or what cardinal direction the main arterial roads in the city run. I can orient myself by knowing whether I need to turn right or left, but not based on cardinal points. I used to watch cop movies, and when someone promptly said on the radio "Suspect is moving South on Park Avenue" I would always think "How the fuck do they know that? Do they have an internal compass or something?"
posted by qvantamon at 3:31 PM on August 27, 2010


Also, I suppose those guys' heads would just explode if they were given a GPS (that rotates maps so that you're always facing "forward").
posted by qvantamon at 3:37 PM on August 27, 2010


One thing to keep in mind is that the speakers of Guugu Ymithirr are not just landing in a foreign landscape and miraculously orienting themselves. The wikipedia article shows they live along a coast that runs north and south.

One thing I like about the city of Almaty (in Kazakhstan) is the city is perched between a desert to the north and mountains to the south, and you can refer to every location as either "up" (south) or "down" (north).
posted by mammary16 at 3:57 PM on August 27, 2010


There's a nice metaphor I heard to describe the color-term variations in languages. Every person, in any language, sees the color spectrum the same (barring colorblindness of course). It is where a language places the frets along the spectrum that makes the difference. (And how many frets there are, etc.)

I think that this aptly describes the idea of what languages 'oblige' us to think, too. For example, Zulu has ~17-21 "genders", which is really just another word for 'noun classes'. French has 2, German has 3, etc. If we place alllll a language's nouns on a continuum, Zulu would have ~17-21 frets, French 2, German 3, English 1. If you look at grammaticalized tense, English would have 2 (present and past) and Spanish would have 19. It goes on and on. But I find it a neat visualization for classifying and comparing languages.
posted by iamkimiam at 3:57 PM on August 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


The article barely mentions Tzeltal Maya, another language like this with no anthropomorphic spatial reference, no left/right, no use of front/back to talk about where objects are, etc. But it's interesting too. In numerous studies (see this bibliography), Stephen Levinson demonstrates pretty clear effects of the language on spatial cognition. For example, if you show a Tzeltal speaker a cup in front of a bottle, then rotate the speaker 180°, and ask them to recreate the arrangement of the cup and bottle, they will generally set the bottle in front of the cup, preserving the absolute orientation of the scene along an absolute axis rather than the relative orientation of the scene to the viewer.

But I think the article overstates the situation for Balinese, where IIRC there are terms for left/right, front/back, etc. but just a very strong cultural tendency to say whether things are inland (kaja) vs. seaward (kelod) and east vs. west around the island. There's a symbolic reason to keep track, because seaward (kelod) is a direction associated with impurity. The cultural/symbolic logic is extensive: it applies to applies to your body, where your head is kaja and your feet (which are less clean) are kelod. And your house needs to be built properly on the kaja-kelod axis so that the winds flow properly for 'health' reasons. And there are even two culture-bound syndromes associated with all this: pamali, a wind going the wrong way in your body because you're living in a house that's not oriented correctly; and paling, a feeling of confusion that arises in several circumstances, including losing track of the Balinese calendar, but also from losing track of where you are on the island (which happens constantly if you leave).

Still, that's not the same as Guugu Yimithirr or Tzeltal Maya, because if you only look at Balinese and other languages where you can use anthropomorphic terms you might still claim "yes, but see really, fundamentally, the body is necessarily the reference point for all human phenomenological encounters with the world" and the answer is no, no it isn't.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 4:12 PM on August 27, 2010


What's so nonsensical about "Sapeir Warf" (Sapir-Whorf)?
posted by phrontist at 4:34 PM on August 27, 2010


For instance, some languages, like Matses in Peru, oblige their speakers, like the finickiest of lawyers, to specify exactly how they came to know about the facts they are reporting.

This is fucking fantastic. Reminds me of the ancient Skeptic who developed his own epistemologically self-aware grammar, such that every statement was appended with a quote-unquote ... or so it seems to me at the moment caveat.
posted by joe lisboa at 4:54 PM on August 27, 2010


Four guys are travelling by train in a foreign country. As the train passes a sheep...

Mope: I didn't know the sheep in this country were black.

Next guy: Actually, you can only say that *this* sheep is black.

Wise guy: Actually, you can only say that *this half* of that sheep is black.

Matses guy: I can only say that this half of that sheep looks black from this vantage point right now.
posted by kram175 at 5:16 PM on August 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


I seem to remember a short story by I think Umberto Eco about a fictional people whose culture strives to eradicate all ambiguity from language. They would start telling a story by saying "I will now tell a story. For this I will use words. [etc. etc.]" I think in the end the point was this was untenable because they would never get around to actually getting anything done.

Google fails me. Does anyone here know what I am talking about?
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 5:29 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I stopped reading when I got to bit about the neighbor.

In our home my wife and I speak Spanish which, like French, has a gender for most nouns. And I guarantee you, if I get in late and say "Yo estaba con un vecino" my wife will say "vecino, o vecina?" Because despite the fact that every noun has a gender, you use the masculine gender to specify an unspecified gender.

So I say the author doesn't know what he/she is talking about.
posted by winston.smith at 5:31 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


As a consequence, Americans are way more aware of their directions than Brazilians. You may not keep track of in which direction you're driving, but if you're familiar with a road you know it's North-South, or East-West, etc. If someone says, it's North on University Ave, you know what direction that is.

Maybe if they live in cities that are a grid instead of somewhere like Boston. When directions are applied to long, meandering roads such as interstates the labeled orientation can be incorrect for fairly long segments of the road. I totally do not understand why they ever try to use cardinal directions on those ring highways that loop around cities.

I met a fellow American once who lived on the East Coast but could not correctly answer the question, "If you're travelling from Washington D.C. to New York City is the Atlantic Ocean on the left or the right?" She had lived in both cities and travelled back and forth frequently. (Possibly it was a gotcha question, though, because she'd been describing how bad she was with maps and I'd just finished saying "Oh come on, no one is that bad with directions!")
posted by XMLicious at 6:04 PM on August 27, 2010


My town lends itself to cardinality, running along a north-south valley intersected by an east-west valley, and when my daughter was young she always knew her north-east-south-west, but had, (and still has,) trouble with left-right. It was the cutest thing; in those days we attended a weekly Pagan ritual, and so she knew the four directions as earth-air-fire-water before the more usual names.
posted by bitslayer at 6:05 PM on August 27, 2010


I wonder if people who would have dyslexic left/right problems in English end up having north/south problems as native speakers of that language...

I have a tendency to confuse right and left when driving, especially if I am the one giving directions. I'm left handed, and I happily point to the left while saying "right". However, I can tell the cardinal directions pretty much anywhere, unless I'm newly arrived from the airport in a cab at night. Once there's daylight, I've got it, though I can imagine having issues in the Southern Hemisphere.
posted by oneirodynia at 6:22 PM on August 27, 2010


I find an enormous number of people who have lived here all their lives, that don't know the mountains run east-west, and that the ocean is to the south of us.

I've heard that Balinese uses ordinal directions of towards(away from)-the-water, and towards(away from)-the-sea. If that's true, then what with Bali being basically a small round island, directions would be both personal and geographic.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:29 PM on August 27, 2010


I screwed that up, towards sea vs. towards mountain.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:31 PM on August 27, 2010


Also, I suppose those guys' heads would just explode if they were given a GPS (that rotates maps so that you're always facing "forward").

This drives me batshit. My display needs to be flat and not rotate.

I use left, right, forward, etc. in my personal space, but I think I use cardinal directions more than most people. It's just more exacting. "Go west on Main Street" is a lot less error-prone than "turn left at Main Street." What if you've already made some sort of navigation error and are approaching Main from a different direction?

I lived in San Francisco for a short time and never got the hang of cardinal directions there due to the bay; because I was born and raised in Milwaukee, it is ingrained in me that water = east. Manhattan was similarly confusing.
posted by desjardins at 6:39 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


If you look at grammaticalized tense, English would have 2 (present and past) and Spanish would have 19.

At first, I thought "English has WAY more than 2 tenses" but (upon quick consultation of Wikipedia) apparently everything I was thinking of is just a different combination of aspects and/or moods, which I was never taught about in sixth grade.

♬ The more you know... ♬
posted by Jpfed at 6:49 PM on August 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


The general idea that language shapes the way we think directly is pretty much wrong. The fact that a language requires you to use a certain skill in order to speak it would make you good at that skill isn't nearly the same thing.

"Language shapes thought" is a very general statement. Even if the way it shapes thought is something very indirect, like by making it more convenient to talk about some things than others, that's still a way that language shapes thought.

I don't think there are many Sapir-Whorfians who really claim... whatever you think they're claiming.

Anyway, forcing you to practice a skill seems to me like a rather direct way in which language influences thinking. It sure isn't subtle.
posted by LogicalDash at 7:15 PM on August 27, 2010


And then I read the article, and realized you were probably referring to it.

Hmm.
posted by LogicalDash at 7:22 PM on August 27, 2010


winston.smith: And I guarantee you, if I get in late and say "Yo estaba con un vecino" my wife will say "vecino, o vecina?" Because despite the fact that every noun has a gender, you use the masculine gender to specify an unspecified gender.

It may depend on circumstances and particular usage. My first language is French, and I would never use "voisin" to mean "a male or female neighbor". If the neighbor is male, I'll say "je parlais au voisin", if it's a woman I'll say "je parlais à la voisine".

But there are exceptions, like for some traditionnally male-dominated professions. I'll say "j'ai rendez-vous chez le dentiste", even though my dentist is female.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 7:42 PM on August 27, 2010


thanks, responders!

Brains are weird.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:06 PM on August 27, 2010


I lived in San Francisco for a short time and never got the hang of cardinal directions there due to the bay; because I was born and raised in Milwaukee, it is ingrained in me that water = east.

It's taken me about a decade in San Francisco - after about 20 years on the East coast - to finally stop switching east and west. It was terribly disorienting at first, to have the sun rising over land and setting over water. I'm mostly used to it now.
posted by rtha at 9:22 PM on August 27, 2010


Living in a city with a grid layout, I'm always pretty fully aware which way is north, south, east and west.
posted by empath at 9:48 PM on August 27, 2010


empath: heh.

I never learned shit about cardinal directions really until I could drive. This meant that I grew up in suburban Houston for fifteen years with never a real idea of which direction was north or south. I still couldn't tell you which direction my front door faced.

When I was fifteen, we moved to Bartlesville, OK, where the only major highway was U.S. 75, which ran North-South. Kansas was about twenty miles to the north, and Tulsa to the south, and so things became significantly simpler (though I still remember the experience of visiting the first time, when everything was snowbound, and I was being driven around, and then living there and driving around for the first time. Suddenly the puzzle-pieces of places I'd seen the first time all fit together, and oddly, made it all look different to me.)

Anyway, I go off to college in NY, and holy hell does Manhattan make it easy. Most of the time, anyway. North is up, South is down. And it's numeric. (This isn't perfect, of course. Stuyvesant street is the only cardinally-oriented street on the island.) Needless to say, this made things all the more confusing for me once I moved to "south is up" Brooklyn.

Now I live in the D.C. area, and the grid system fucks with my brain on a regular basis. The lettered streets are oriented east-west, instead of north-south like the few lettered avenues in Manhattan. The numbered streets are oriented north-south instead of east-west. And they flip on axes determined by the capital building. I've lived here for three years and still can't orient myself.

And yeah, Sapir-Whorf is like Freud to me - full of ludicrous stuff, but the basis for some real ideas that need to be explored, because whatever Noam Chomsky tries to assert, language does shape the way we think about things.
posted by Navelgazer at 10:22 PM on August 27, 2010


I live in a grid city too, but it's aligned with the shoreline and not the cardinal directions. So you have to completely ignore the sun since 'south' is always toward the lake.
posted by emeiji at 10:50 PM on August 27, 2010


I wonder if people who would have dyslexic left/right problems in English end up having north/south problems as native speakers of that language...

Another data-point for goodness yes. In fact, an ex just called up asking for directions, I provided great, specific nsew directions. She wanted rights and lefts. This is one of several reasons we are no longer an item.
posted by mmdei at 11:07 PM on August 27, 2010


we look in the mirror and claim that it reverses Left and Right (while leaving Up and Down unchanged). Perhaps a Guugu Yimithirr person would correctly see that nothing has been reversed - a man pointing East is still pointing East in the Mirror, and West is still West.
This would be true if the man was facing north or south - but in those cases if he pointed north his reflection would be pointing south, and vice-versa.
posted by roystgnr at 11:31 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


"For instance, some languages, like Matses in Peru, oblige their speakers, like the finickiest of lawyers, to specify exactly how they came to know about the facts they are reporting...."
I conjecture that this is the coolest thing in the history of things.


It is the coolest thing until sometimes it gets in the way. My current boyfriend speaks a related language as a first language, and it has pretty clearly affected his sense of humor and ways of reporting what he does and doesn't know, in ways I can only begin to fathom and which are not obliged to be disclosed (as the article puts it) in any of the languages we share. Without question there have been some "??" moments and fails (wait you mean we DON'T have a hotel tonight??), but mostly it just adds to the adventure.


I think everybody I know who's right/left dyslexic, myself included, has an astonishing affinity for using the cardinal directions
- Hi, I suck at both, in all languages I speak. Communicating with me about directions requires learning "this way" and "that way" and interpreting flailing hand gestures.
posted by whatzit at 1:43 AM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


The post title reminds me of a square dance I attended a while back. The caller was Lee Kopman, who is one of the most famous and respected callers ever. He is also known for verbally abusing the dancers. At one point he called "Spin the Windmill, outsides go left". One square apparently had problems with this, because he then said "Left...LEFT...OTHER LEFT...Did you people drive here today?"

Square dancing is a a fascinating subject and I really need to put together a post on it sometime.
posted by A dead Quaker at 7:01 AM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


My son, age 2 3/4, has receptive-expressive language disorder (among other diagnoses), and as much as I would love to be able to hold a real conversation with him, it's interesting to think that his acquisition of the English language will in some ways be limiting his understanding of the universe, not enlarging it. Right now, the whole world is open to him.
posted by Asparagirl at 10:17 AM on August 28, 2010


> So I say the author doesn't know what he/she is talking about.

Yes, because your vaguely semirelevant personal anecdote totally trumps the research of an actual linguist. You rule! I'll bet you've disproved gravitation, too, based on what happens when you drop things out windows.
posted by languagehat at 11:52 AM on August 28, 2010


"What's so nonsensical about "Sapeir Warf" (Sapir-Whorf)?"

Well, Delmoi's not buying it, for starters.

This Wikipedia article seems both articulate and comprehensive.
posted by sneebler at 8:35 PM on August 28, 2010


I have a tendency to confuse right and left when driving, especially if I am the one giving directions. I'm left handed, and I happily point to the left while saying "right".
In my case, weirdly, it seems to be the labels "left" and "right" that give me trouble. I know which direction is which - I just call them wrong. It's well known in my social circle that I have to give directions in terms of "driver's side" and "passenger's side" to avoid messing up.

Even as a kid, the labels gave me trouble. I used to have to check my knees for the birthmark on my right knee to know which side was which. (This lead to a moment where I boggled my first grade teacher when she asked "which is your right hand and which is your left?" and I told her "I don't know -- I'm wearing tights.")

The only case I can think of where I actually mirror-imaged something was with my mental map of the NYC subway system. I had uptown and downtown right, but had east and west flipped and could not for the life of me figure out why I kept winding up on the wrong side of the island. Fifteen seconds staring at a map cleared that right up, though.
posted by Karmakaze at 9:51 PM on August 28, 2010


"What's so nonsensical about "Sapeir Warf" (Sapir-Whorf)?"

Not to get into a whole big thing, but in linguistics circles, it is largely frowned upon and many would say discredited (in some smaller circles, however, it does has fans). It has the potential for smelling. Something like… "those simple people live in grass huts because they speak a simple language". (or the linguistics perennial about x number of words for snow) It feels good at first glance, because it feels like common sense. But as with many things regarding language, common sense often misguides. For example, as a language teacher, I've had people say to me things like "I imagine speakers can learn that language easier because of their brains". Sapir-Whorf can give silly ideas like that backing.
posted by readyfreddy at 10:40 PM on August 28, 2010


I think it may have to do with culture, too.
One of my earliest memories of my paternal grandfather, who spoke English with a Swedish accent, was trying to help him fold tarps. He kept yelling at me No, No, go Sout' wit' it. Me, a city kid, had absolutely No idea which way Sout' was, ( or Nort', East or West, eeder). Later, growing up on the farm after being a city kid, I realized absolute directions can be Very Important, even life-saving when dealing with large, impersonal farm machines with the potential to maim.
I have taken this to heart in the safety program we teach to the workers during Christmas tree harvest. When we throw the ropes over the top of the truck, we yell "driver" or "passenger" to make it obvious to the rope catchers at the back which way to stay safe regardless of the way the truck may be pointing.
So I guess I think it may be that the practicality of absolute directions as a feature of a language may be due to the fact that it can be a way to avoid danger, accidents, and/or other problems, and more languages that are closer to cultures where people interact with danger/each other may reflect this in their very structure. The rest of us just have to use whatever other ways our languages have to be very specific when the (safety) situation requires it.
posted by primdehuit at 12:56 PM on August 29, 2010


That was a fascinating article. Thanks for posting it, bitmage.
posted by homunculus at 10:30 AM on August 30, 2010


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