Feb. 6th, 2011

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Although I normally try to avoid the temptation to put quotes up on my walls, I couldn't resist with these (see below). They are a bit long, but worth reading, at least in my mind; and Guy Deutscher is such a beautiful writer that it makes me want to expound on the relationship between thought and language. Instead, however, I will let Deutscher do it for me:

A nation's language, so we are often told, reflects its culture, psyche, and modes of thought. Peoples in tropical climes are so laid-back it's no wonder they let most of their consonants fall by the wayside. And one need only compare the mellow sounds of Portuguese with the harshness of Spanish to understand the quintessential difference between these two neighboring cultures. The grammar of some languages is simply not logical enough to express complex ideas. German, on the other hand, is an ideal vehicle for formulating the most precise philosophical profundities, as it is a particularly orderly language, which is why the Germans have such orderly minds. (But can one not hear the goose step in its gauche, humorless sounds?) Some languages don't even have a future tense, so their speakers naturally have no grasp of the future. The Babylonians would have been hard-pressed to understand Crime and Punishment, because their language used one and the same word to describe both of these concepts. The craggy fjords are audible in the precipitous intonation of Norwegian, and you can hear the dark l's of Russian in Tchaikovsky's lugubrious tunes. French is not only a Romance language but the language of romance par excellence. English is an adaptable, even promiscuous language, and Italian—ah, Italian!
Most foreigners cannot hear the difference between rugged Norwegian and the endless plains of Swedish. The industrious Protestant Danes have dropped more consonants into their icy wind-swept soil than any indolent tropical tribe. And if Germans do have systematic minds, this is just as likely to be because their exceedingly erratic mother tongue has exhausted their brains' capacity to cope with any further irregularity. English speakers can hold lengthy conversations about forthcoming events wholly in the present tense (I'm flying to Vancouver next week …) without any detectable loosening in their grip on the concepts of futurity. No language—not even that of the most "primitive" tribes—is inherently unsuitable for expressing the most complex ideas. Any shortcomings in a language's ability to philosophize simply boil down to the lack of some specialized abstract vocabulary and perhaps a few syntactic constructions, but these can easily be borrowed, just as all European languages pinched their verbal philosophical tool kit from Latin, which in turn lifted it wholesale from Greek. If speakers of any tribal tongue were so minded, they could easily do the same today, and it would be eminently possible to deliberate in Zulu about the respective merits of empiricism and rationalism or to hold forth about existentialist phenomenology in West Greenlandic.

- Deutscher, from Through the Language Glass

Confirmation bias at its most extreme! At any rate, Deutscher isn't exactly saying anything new, but he does it so well that I just had to post it. I take tiny issue with his claim that "it would be eminently possible to deliberate in Zulu ...": I know next to nothing about Zulu, but I have no reason not to think that Zulu speakers are perfectly capable of discussing empiricism, rationalism, and existential phenomenology in Zulu as it is without the influence of Indo-European. Perhaps they don't have concepts that are direct translations of the English ones, but I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if Zulu speakers didn't already discuss these issues.

And one last quote, just because it is funny:

In his De orator of 55 BC, [Cicero] embarked on a lengthy sermon about the lack of a Greek equivalent for the Latin word ineptus (meaning "impertinent" or "tackless"). [For Cicero], the absence of the word was proof that the fault was so wide-spread among the Greeks that they didn't even notice it.


I have one more, but it requires IPA, which I am still trying to figure out how to do in Dreamwidth.

Edit: Deutscher is obviously taking the theory of linguistic relativity to an illogical extreme that has little to do with what Whorf, Sapir, or any of the others probably thought; but I, at least, find it funny, if in large part because it reminds me of how I think about languages: each has its own color, its own pattern, that is probably my subconscious turning our society's beliefs about the people who speak those languages into colors—or something like that. English, for the record, is a sort of crystallized light blue-green at the lexical level, but black and dark blue at the level of syntax, and reddish-orange in its morphology.


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