Sapir-Whorf: the Coriolis force of language

Did you know that Eskimos have 20 words for lame linguistic analogies? Do you suppose this shapes their view of visiting linguists? I understand they can distinguish among many subtle variations of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or the Isumannaallisaavigissavaat meeqqap angajoqqaaaminiit taakkua piumasarinngisaannik avissaartitaannginnissaa hypothesis, as it is known in Tuktut Nogait.

Amateur linguists (hey that’s me!) are easily seduced by linguistic relativity, also known by its cocktail-party name, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It’s very appealing, this idea that the language you speak shapes the thoughts you can think. George Orwell played on this with his imagined Newspeak language in 1984, the notion being that politically incorrect thoughts become impossible so long as you think only in Newspeak.

Among language professionals, linguistic relativity has lost much of its charm. The so-called “strong form” that Orwell described has been discredited. Just because Germans have the word schadenfreude and we don’t doesn’t mean I can’t take pleasure in your misfortune. And, watch this, if I like the word schadenfreude, I can just appropriate it by removing the italics. Boom! It’s mine now. Eskimos (Inuits) really do have lots of words for snow, but it’s only because Inuktitut is an agglutinative language. So when they say qanik, it means falling snow. Qanittaq is recently fallen snow. Qannialaaq is light falling snow. And so on. They just mash all them little word blobbies together. It’s not like I can’t describe the same snow with my mealy non-agglutinative English. Oh look! I just did. So is that a profound linguistic insight or merely a somewhat interesting distinction between two languages?

But even among the pros, a weaker form of linguistic relativity is on the rise. Here’s a Scientific American article by Lera Boroditsky called How Language Shapes Thought. I recently listened to a Long Now lecture by Boroditsky on the same research. She’s pretty pumped up about relativity, but I came away with the sense that Sapir-Whorf is the Coriolis force of language. The Coriolis force is the thing that supposedly makes the toilet swirl counter-clockwise (in the northern hemisphere). Here’s the thing: the Coriolis force is real. You can measure it. But at the scale of your toilet, it’s tiny. It’s completely swamped by a dozen other larger forces. As a result it’s almost never the actual reason your toilet swirls this way or that. Similarly, you can do fascinating experiments that show there really is something to linguistic relativity. Russians really are measurably better at distinguishing between shades of blue than you are. It’s true! But do these effects happen at a scale that really matters, once they smash into all the other forces that influence human behavior? I doubt it.

Good stuff for a cocktail party though. By the way, did you know that pigs’ tails curl the other way in New Zealand?

4 thoughts on “Sapir-Whorf: the Coriolis force of language”

  1. oops, mentally “buckled” in. Wow, even just now when I knew I mistyped it the first time and tried to correct it, I mistyped it before I corrected it. I’ll have to add this to my characteristic-repeating-typo list (like “-tino” for “-tion” and some others that I forget until they pop out of my fingers in real time.)

  2. I wonder if mistyping “teh” for “the” has become more common since it has taken on its own semantic payload: teh skillz, teh suck, teh pr0nz, etc. Call it Qwerty’s Revenge, The Keyboard Strikes Back. Think of all the zany leet words we wouldn’t have today if our keyboard was more sensible.

  3. I once used, and now faintly remember, an ancient, long-dead dialect of leet:

    “bnarf on that, u r 2 a ruggie!!!111222”

    …marks one as a late-1970s, early-1980s user of the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium’s timesharing system.

    I remember reading somewhere that indigenous languages are disappearing from the earth at some staggering rate (tens per year or something like that) as the last superannuated speakers die off. I wonder how many leet-like regional dialects exist(ed) and the mechanisms that cause them to flourish or die off.

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