Communicator (communicator) wrote,
Communicator
communicator

A horse was animaling-about with me

ozarque posts today about that perennial favourite, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (or, do you remember, as one woman described it, the Sapphire Wolf hypothesis). Roughly, this is that language forms influence perception and thought. Particularly interesting as she has written SF about this relationship.

There's the famous example of the two sets of parents bouncing a ball for their toddler. One set, native speakers of English, says "Look! Ball!" The other set, native speakers of a Native American language, says "Look! Bouncing!"

The implications for science of using such a linguistic form are obvious (if the original atomic values were the motions not the particles). However, as a linguist she is sceptical, as am I, that the relationship between thought and language is as simple as it is sometimes described.

There's the set of sentences I gathered (for a conference paper) from a variety of languages, all of them the equivalents of the English sentence "I was riding a horse" when said in response to the question "What were you doing yesterday afternoon?" The Navajo equivalent is "A horse was animaling-about with me"; the Hopi equivalent is "I was using a horse to move about with"; the French equivalent is "I was being at a horse." Does this mean that English speakers perceive the horses they ride the way they perceive the dog in "I was bathing the dog," while the Navajo speakers perceive their horses as courteous companions, and the Hopi speakers perceive them the way they perceive shovels to dig holes with, and the French speakers perceive them the way they'd perceive a restaurant or a bus stop?

A danger of falling into 'noble savage' territory, or exoticism, and imagining that other cultures are wiser and stranger than they really are. Or not? I don't know.

She links to an even more sceptical and crotchety post on the subject at language log. There he argues that all languages are rich and interesting but that so called 'native' languages are not magically more spiritual, they just have interesting contrasts to our own.

ETA - someone in ozarque's comments adds the Polish version 'Jeździłem konno' = '"I was going (not under my own power and with no particular destination) horsely." So many ways of saying I rode a horse.
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  • Phew what a scorcher

    I see Gove has backed down on climate change and it's back in the curriculum again.

  • GCSE Computer Science

    My book is now for sale

  • LJ Settings

    At the moment I have set up this journal so that only friends can comment. I hate doing this, but I was just getting too much Russian spam.