8.19.2008

language thoughts

This language column by Colleen Ross muses on how what language we speak may affect our behaviour, rather than the other way around. The author is trilingual, and notices how her behaviour differs when she is speaking English, French or German.

It's an interesting idea - that a culture's norms would be brought along with its language. On the other hand, the writer is reinforcing cultural stereotypes without questioning them. The French enjoy life more, Germans are aggressive and rude. People repeat these stereotypes, often with little or no first-hand experience of the culture itself - or with only the tiniest sample size, and that experience already prejudiced by expectations, based on stereotypes. These people are rude, these are tricky, not be trusted, these are brusque, these are obsequious. Ross seems to accept the cultural stereotypes as fact.
I'm a thoughtful sort of person. I like to mull things over before coming to a conclusion. I don't rant and rave. I'm not belligerent.

But German changed me.

I had been living in Germany for a year and felt comfortable in the language and culture. But that summer, a Canadian friend came to visit and was shocked at how aggressive I had become, speaking brusquely to slow waiters and queue jumpers.

The existence of my aggressive side fully hit me one night in Prague. I was with my sister, returning from a late night at the clubs. When the taxi driver quoted us the fare, I was incredulous: It sounded far too high. From the back seat, I spouted in German (more widely understood than English at the time) that no way were we paying that price. I halved the fare and paid the driver, insisting that was more than enough. My sister later said that I was very loud, very forceful and well, very scary. The next day, I learned the taxi driver had asked us the going rate.

I've always been fascinated by the intersection of language and personality. With the experience of my own split linguistic personalities, I was especially intrigued by a recent study that shows people who live in two cultures may unconsciously change their personality, or identity, when they switch languages.

According to researcher David Luna at Baruch College at the City University of New York, identity has traditionally been thought of as stable, but research in the past decade shows that identity is fluid, changing with the context. People do shift between different interpretations of same events, but the study shows that bicultural people do it more readily. Language, it seems, is the trigger.

This makes sense to me. When I moved to France, I felt like I'd been split into two different people. Two containers, wine bottles if you will, represented my two personas. The bottle for Canadian Colleen was full; wielding words and subjunctive clauses with aplomb, self-expression was my forte. The container for French Colleen, on the other hand, was empty, save the sediment of a mediocre Merlot.

As I gradually gained vocabulary and an ear for la belle langue, the bottle filled up. It was when I got my sense of humour in French that I felt the bottle was finally full. Yes, French Colleen had arrived and she was drunk on the finer things in life. I felt different when I spoke French: more joie de vivre, an ability to savour the daily pleasures of life.

"Language is one of the most powerful cues to activate a culturally specific way of doing things, thereby activating a different identity," says researcher Luna, who is originally from Spain. His study showed Hispanic women interpreted the same advertisement differently, depending on whether it was in Spanish or in English. They viewed the woman in the Spanish ad as more independent and assertive than the same woman in the English ad.

So why do people tap into different identities when they switch language and culture?

Here, English and Spanish are contrasted as if they represent two cultures: English and Spanish. But people speak Spanish in many countries with very different cultures. Similarly, is the English speaker adopting norms from Canada, the US, Britain, Australia, New Zealand...? If they're North American, are they using the cultural norms from Ontario, or Alabama? Maybe this idea of language changing identity is another way to confirm and reinforce cultural stereotypes?

I'm interested in what you have to say, especially the several linguists who read this blog.

In another language-related story, I enjoyed reading this book review of Reading The OED - One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages by Ammon Shea, an account by a man who read the entire Oxford English Dictionary, straight through, in one year.

If you're not familiar with the OED, it's a massive, multi-volumed book that contains a miniature history of every word in the English language. It's so huge that it's usually displayed on its own reading stand, and often with a magnifying glass. I see entries from the OED when I get my weekly Pepys Diary installment (the diary is daily, but I catch up on it weekly). I also bought the OED on CD-ROM for Allan as part of a birthday present. So I have a lot of OED exposure. The idea of reading it straight through makes me feel better about my own obsessive-compulsive tendencies!

The review itself, by the author Nicholson Baker, is very enjoyable.

41 comments:

James said...

This is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that the nature of the language one speaks shapes how one percieves the world. Steven Pinker dismantles it pretty nicely in The Stuff of Thought. My understanding is that it's largely discredited, at least in the strong form.

I would more strongly suspect that living in Germany was the basis of the personality changes, rather than simply speaking German. But if most of your German-speaking experience came while submerged in German culture, it's only natural that the behavioural habits you picked up dealing with German society would resurface whenever you use the language.

As you say, there's a wide range in the "national characters" of English speakers from different countries (and the range within each country is greater than the differences between countries), which belies the idea that each language has a "personality type".

L-girl said...

Thanks, James!

Steven Pinker dismantles it pretty nicely in The Stuff of Thought.

I have to read him. You've mentioned him many times, sounds like great stuff, and I haven't read anything he's written.

But if most of your German-speaking experience came while submerged in German culture, it's only natural that the behavioural habits you picked up dealing with German society would resurface whenever you use the language.

Yes. And when you return to your own culture after immersion in another culture, habits you've picked up return with you, no matter what language you're using.

I found that even 3 weeks or a month away will give rise to a feeling of strangenes when I return, and it's necessary to re-acclimate to what is usually so familiar. And I am - unfortunately - not fluent in any language except English.

Stephanie said...

While , like James, I first thought of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and Pinker, the question is, I think, goes very deep into the role of language.

I first became interested in the relationship between language and culture in my earliest graduate courses. Does language define our membership in a community and if so how?

First, I think we should all have strong personal opinions to express since we all use language. What is most interesting for me is the manner(s) in which we use language to convey identity. This is a very personal question for any of us and for me I chose to explore my own story since I am born into a mixed culture family...my mother a francophone from Northern Ontario and my Father is an Anglophone from Southern Ontario.

My siblings and I were raised in a monolingual english-speaking household. Well, I have to qualify that, since the household was English only but I was the youngest and had house-keeper/guardians looking after me when my mother worked and who spoke French dominantly while looking after me.

I grew up monolingual but could identify with the franco-ontarian culture of my Mother far more closely than to the anglophone culture of my Father.

So let me reverse the tables a moment...does not speaking French exclude me from being a member of the Franco-Ontarian community?

The issues I hear touched upon in the original post are issues that modern linguists study today. These are largely the sub-disciplines of the modern Socio-linguists domain: language and gender, language and identity, language and community and social networks and language.

The basic principle being that we are aware of our 'community' (in a given moment/setting) and can actually perform our identity through language practices. We study these practices to understand better what a particular linguistic marker lends to that identity or what a language network might lend to an individual's performance.

I have to stop myself there...

DISCLAIMER:this is by no means an authoritative response as there are others who are far more expert than I am and whose expertise is far more acute than my own.

David Heap said...

I'm interested in what you have to say, especially the several linguists who read this blog.
Firstly, you probably refer to (and will get) as many (if not more) opinions from polyglots (who speak more than one language) as from linguists (who study the structure of language[s]).

Am I a "different person" when I speak French, Spanish, English? Yes, but as James as already pointed out, this is more a matter of the communities I speak with than with the languages themselves per se. Anecdotes abound, but I will restrain myself to one: when I returned from a year living & studying in France, I discovered that the way I interacted with institutional staff in English had been influenced by my experience in France -- I caught myself being aggressive to the point of being rude (in Anglo-Canadian terms), because I had internalized the lesson that if I wasn't pushier in these contexts, moss would would have grown over me while waiting at politely for someone to help me at a French university. It took me a few weeks to re-adjust to my native Toronto "reserve" in such encounters (an interesting aside would be: does my acquired "foreign" persona now remain part of my repertoire, which I can call upon when needed or which may surface when not expected or wanted??).

Such cultural norms have everything to do with social conventions, which we associate with languages (because language is among the most obvious cues to who we are speaking to and where) but are in fact largely independent of language.

French spoken in Europe vs. Canada, Peninsular vs. Latin American Spanish, etc. etc.: all of these have differences in "personality" for those who switch between communities -- from fairly salient vocab, pronunciation and grammatical differences (e.g. when and with whom is it OK to use a familiar vs. formal pronoun of address? this one dimension is enough to "shock" people of certain backgrounds and generations, even when "speaking the same language"). to subtler rules about "space", turn-taking and what counts as small-talk (or not).

Monolinguals only have to be minimally mobile (geographically or socially) to notice analogous differences: I bet you observed different social usages norms in outport Nfld, along with some of those characteristic vowels, consonants and verbal /-s/ forms you heard. Total strangers addressing me as "love" or "dear" didn't shock me when in Leeds (northern England) recently, but it would be rather odd back in Ontario (as elsewhere in N. America).

So when we use different languages we use different cultural conventions (how could we not do so?), but these norms only map very approximately onto languages / language varieties.

And you are absolutely right that this is fertile ground for prejudice of the most blatant sort. I sometimes use a text called Language Myths (Bauer & Trudgill, Penguin), where about 20 linguists contribute short essays debunking common misunderstandings about language. Two perennially favourite myths ("German is harsh, Italian is musical" and "People talk really bad in NYC and down South") address just these sorts of stereotypes.

BTW, I use another Pinker book ( Language Instinct) in the same course (with some reservations), and yes he does trash Whorf in particular, but don't think this language usage stuff is actually what the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is supposed to be about. But that would be a different post.

L-girl said...

Thanks Stephanie and David! Two of the "several linguists who read this blog" that I was referring to.

Two perennially favourite myths ("German is harsh, Italian is musical" and "People talk really bad in NYC and down South") address just these sorts of stereotypes.

There is a stereotype that New Yorkers speak poorly? I didn't know that! Why NYC as opposed to any other US city? I wonder what it's based on.

Total strangers addressing me as "love" or "dear" didn't shock me when in Leeds (northern England) recently, but it would be rather odd back in Ontario (as elsewhere in N. America).

Ah, but not in Newfoundland! That's the norm there.

I definitely didn't visit "outport Nfld" - one needs a boat for that, and it's largely depopulated now, from what I gather - but all over Nfld, everyone is "love", "m'dear", "dearie".

Similarly, in many places in the US, total strangers are addressed as "hon" or "sweetheart". It's less common now that regional differences are disappearing or have largely disappeared, but you'd still hear it in many US towns.

* * * *

Btw, never any need for authority disclaimers here. We all have different areas of knowledge, we're all just sharing what we know.

L-girl said...

verbal /-s/ forms

What is this?

Stephanie said...

verbal /-s/ forms

I loves pizza!

L-girl said...

I loves pizza!

Or, as some people on our JoS gamethread like to say, "I loves me some big Papi!"

Thanks, Stephanie! Now, your turn to say, "Huh...?" :)

Amy said...

I find this discussion fascinating. I am not a linguistics scholar or multilingual, but I did spend time in Italy many years ago where I had to learn Italian on the fly to communicate with the people with whom I was living. As I look back on it, I learned the basic vocabulary in order to be able to participate in the family and community. Thus, when I finally was able to speak more fluently, I "felt" Italian, whatever that means. Did I behave differently? Perhaps, but that had as much to do with wanting to be part of the family/community as it did with speaking the language. It seems the two things work separately to the same end: acculturation and communication. It wasn't using the language alone that made me behave differently.

Stephanie said...

Or, as some people on our JoS gamethread like to say, "I loves me some big Papi!"

Thanks, Stephanie! Now, your turn to say, "Huh...?"


Ahhh, yes Jargon...but that would whole other post!


Yes, but as James [h]as already pointed out, this is more a matter of the communities I speak with than with the languages themselves per se [...] I caught myself being aggressive to the point of being rude (in Anglo-Canadian terms), because I had internalized the lesson that if I wasn't pushier in these contexts, moss would would have grown over me while waiting at politely for someone to help me at a French university.

Another anecdote that exemplifies that while the language is the same the community practice is different:

While living in France last year I discovered that the culture of service can vary greatly. I had learned a more agressive approach (as noted by David) while living in Nice several years ago (even outside of administrative matters I found that in Nice even the shop keepers could have a tougher exterior that demanded you get down to business at once) . Yet, while I lived in Toulouse last year, I found quite the opposite to be the practice there. In Toulouse, there is a definite code of conduct underlying all customer service interactions.

If you wish to initiate a service interaction you must begin with the customary Bonjour, If you were to get eye contact and begin your request you will be interrupted with a slightly insistent, Bonjour! as if to say if you want my assistance you can at least acknowledge me first!

Right, of course, how rude of me!

Given the culture of politeness (in Anglo-Canadian terms) I was aghast at my own perceived rudeness.

Laura...I am a total amateur at HTML tags so if the tags and don't show up as start&end italics please change the format for me and cut this portion of the comment, THANKS!

L-girl said...

Or, as some people on our JoS gamethread like to say, "I loves me some big Papi!"

Thanks, Stephanie! Now, your turn to say, "Huh...?"

Ahhh, yes Jargon...but that would whole other post!


No Jargon!

JoS = Joy of Sox, my partner's blog

gamethread = a blog thread where people watch a game together and post as they watch

Big Papi = David Ortiz, Red Sox hero, a/ka/ God

L-girl said...

Laura...I am a total amateur at HTML tags so if the tags and don't show up as start&end italics please change the format for me and cut this portion of the comment, THANKS!

Stephanie, I can't edit or change your comments in any way. I can either put them through moderation, so they appear, or reject them, so they don't.

To make italics, surround text with [i] and [/i] but substitute < > for [ ].

Bold, same thing with b instead of i.

To make a link:

[a href="URL HERE"][link name here][/a]

Substitute < > for [ ].

L-girl said...

While living in France last year I discovered that the culture of service can vary greatly.

We've talked about this a lot here in regarding US vs Cda or rural vs suburban. It's so interesting how even within the same country, state or province, it varies, often by quite a lot.

David Heap said...

There is a stereotype that New Yorkers speak poorly?
The research is by perceptual dialectologist Dennis Preston. Not sure if non-academics can access [this article] so just in case I quote an extract that may whet your curiosity (or ire): "These responses immediately confirm what every American knows--the least correct English is spoken in the South and New York City (and nearby New Jersey)." Note that Preston is not espousing these views, only reporting them ("respondents from all over the United States agree that some regions speak better English than others, and they do not hesitate to indicate that New York City and the South are on the bottom of that pile, but prejudiced-against groups themselves seem to rate their varieties high on solidarity factors.")

Why NYC as opposed to any other US city? I wonder what it's based on.
Ah yes, why indeed. Linguists aren't always very good at answering "Why?" questions satisfactorily. But most of these sorts of prejudice / stereotypes point to transfers about how people feel about a place or its inhabitants (rather than real speech features).

Verbal /-s/ (used in persons other than 3rd sg) is characteristic of many "nonstandard" varieties of English (including in JoS -- Joy of Sox? circles) but in some places it is taken to be somehow emblematic of a local identity. As in the St. John's t-shirt which proudly boasts "I [hearts]s Nfld". (this representation could be even closer to the local speech by transcribing the initial vowel as something like what the rest of us pronounce in "boy").

Laura dearie, another form of address of note in Nfld is "my son" (first syllable sounds like "moy") used between men reciprocally, as a sign of familiarity. It has even been attested from a young man to his father ("Dad moy son...").

BTW, if you've been to The Dungeons in Bonavista, you've been as close to the (now mostly empty) outports as most folks can these days. For more on the language spoken in this most varied Canadian region, watch for our colleague Sandra Clarke's [Online Dialect Atlas of Newfoundland and Labrador English] as sound files get posted over coming months.

Stephanie said...

So, in fact, as an outsider to JoS

JoS = Joy of Sox, my partner's blog

So this much I could figure out but as neophyte blogger and a completely uninitiated in RedSox fandimonium, I would absolutely need the legend you provided in your follow-up comment to be able to access the meaning in the message.

To me this is the jargon (community practice) of a very specialised community, while more frequently used when referring to the language of a particular field or profession it can also reflect the language used for part of everyday life for many (RedSox fans speaking inside the fan community of the JoS, for example).

For example, having worked for years in the restaurant industry I will give you a few examples:

"I need that to sell!"
"I'll take three all day with s.o.s sour cream "

Right back atcha.

lol ;-)

redsock said...

[a href="URL HERE"][link name here][/a]

Actually, it should be:

[a href="URL HERE"]link name here[/a]

...

And substitute < for [ and > for ].

Stephanie said...

So has anybody figured out that David and Stephanie are not part of the community of practice wrt blogging and or use of HTML tags??

;-p

L-girl said...

To me this is the jargon (community practice)

OK. *shrug*

I guess that's a linguistic definition of jargon. To me, in popular usage, jargon is more like what's described in this post.

Whereas calling Joy of Sox "JoS" or referring to a gamethread is no more jargony than the words blog, live-blogging, Facebook, and so on.

The restaurant lingo doesn't phase me, it's pretty well known stuff. You'll have to do better than that. :)

L-girl said...

So has anybody figured out that David and Stephanie are not part of the community of practice wrt blogging and or use of HTML tags??

The reason there's a tutorial - which I posted incorrectly, thanks, A! - is because lots of folks don't know how to make a link. Everybody had to learn at some point. :)

And if you're accustomed to commenting on WordPress-hosted blogs, the blog owner can edit and change your comments, but on Blogger blogs, they can't.

L-girl said...

Wrong link! Not the one I posted above, this one.

L-girl said...

David, I understand what you're saying re NYC and linguistic biases and judgements.

But still, I wonder what type of speech that judgement refers to. What NYC speech mannerisms or dialects or - what? - they are talking about. I can't even imagine what it is. "Toity toid and toid?" from the 1940s Bowery Boys? "Youse guys?" Something out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon?

New Yorkers pronounce some words differently than people from Chicago, but I've never heard anyone say their speech is somehow less correct. Weird.

BTW, if you've been to The Dungeons in Bonavista, you've been as close to the (now mostly empty) outports as most folks can these days.

Cool.

Stephanie said...

Indeed, restaurant lingo is perhaps more transparent but for someone who has had no exposure to it whatsoever they are completely baffled...

I _could_ resort to phonology lingo but that usually results in people going to sleep... my experience when friends or family members ask about my research.

James said...

Two perennially favourite myths ("German is harsh, Italian is musical" and "People talk really bad in NYC and down South") address just these sorts of stereotypes.

This reminds me of a bit from Susan Cooper's The Grey King:

German's very harsh -- Achtung! Achtung! -- but Welsh is splochier. I expect Welsh babies dribble a lot.

Stephanie said...

Okay, so Jargon may in fact have more of a pejorative connotation, since it could denote a practice somewhat void of substance...which was what I intended. I would like to refer to the inaccessibility for outsiders rather. So substitute lingo for jargon.

Stephanie said...

Correction please!

Okay, so Jargon may in fact have more of a pejorative connotation, since it could denote a practice somewhat void of substance...which was NOT what I intended. I would like to refer to the inaccessibility for outsiders rather. So substitute lingo for jargon.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

James already said what I would have said, had I gotten there first.

Well, apart from UGH UGH UGH.

Kim_in_TO said...

I would agree with the others here that it is community, and not language, that results in behaviour change.

The one Sapir-Whorf argument that has given me a lot to think about is the idea that without a word for a concept, there is no concept. The prime example of this is the claim that some languages have no word for "rape". So if you don't have a word to express that concept, does it mean that the action or its implications are not understood in the same way as in other cultures? After all, when a culture finds a concept it values or finds important or simply needs to discuss, it tends to find a word to describe it. The argument did make me stop and think for a while, although in the end I decided I don't buy it.

Interestingly, in my Spanish class last night we had a debate. The subject was, "Which culture is better - Anglo-Saxon or Ibero-American?" (Don't look at me - I didn't choose the topic.) I was assigned to the Anglo-Saxon team. Since I couldn't bring myself to try to prove Anglo-Saxon culture was superior, I instead spent my time arguing against stereotypes - for instance, that Latinos are happier. There are actually studies that show Latinos to be happier than other people around the world. Of course, there are studies that show the opposite. My main argument ended up being that stereotypes are often full of BS.

What we really need to see is the author of this article show that, for example, people learning German in other parts of the world gradually become more brusque and aggressive.

L-girl said...

The one Sapir-Whorf argument that has given me a lot to think about is the idea that without a word for a concept, there is no concept. The prime example of this is the claim that some languages have no word for "rape".

Is it a claim that can be backed up?

I've heard people with no linguistic background make claims about languages that I now realize are highly suspect. A famous one is the Inuit having 23 words for snow. Maybe true, maybe not.

Another one is that French is supposedly an imprecise language because the word for heaven is the same as the word for sky. The person who repeats this doesn't speak French, it's just one factoid about the language they think they know.

So my question is, can anyone back up the claim that there are cultures that have no word for the concept of rape, and does that mean there is no concept of rape in their society - under any circumstances? That is, no concept of consensual vs non-consensual sex, no matter who the victim - a child, a woman of the "enemy" during a war conflict...?

I find that quite difficult to believe.

impudent strumpet said...

Interesting that she found German aggressive even after being immersed. Most people I know who've learned German found it less aggressive and more measured and businesslike (which, I realize, is a whole nother stereotype) as they learned more.

I wonder if we change in other languages because of the way we're limited by our imperfect or uneven fluency? My humour (and by extension my social lubrication skills) are completely different in French because I can't successfully deadpan in French. (I have no idea why - deadpanning in English works perfectly with the same Francophone interlocutors.) So if I'm in a situation where I can't code switch, I've lost part of my repetoire and have to compensate.

In German I come across as more direct and confident, but that's because I can't manage as nuanced a social dance in German (not so much the words, but using them idiomatically in combination with tone of voice and body language and facial expression) and conversely I can't read very well when someone is being judgemental of me.

French is supposedly an imprecise language because the word for heaven is the same as the word for sky

I think French is generally what we would consider more imprecise, in that it likes to express things more abstractly, and its words tend to encompass a broader set of concepts than our words (and thus lead Francophones to perceive as a single concept what we would perceive as multiple concepts.) But it's quite possible that I'm completely blind to cases where the opposite is true, because translating concrete to abstract or narrow to broad is dead easy, but translating abstract to concrete or broad to narrow is way harder and you need to really grok what they mean in raw concepts, not just in words.

David Heap said...

Another one is that French is supposedly an imprecise language because the word for heaven is the same as the word for sky.

And by the same token, English would be imprecise because we use the same word for a river flowing into the ocean (fleuve) and for a river flowing into another body of water (rivière), etc. etc... this line of reasoning gets quite silly pretty fast. Languages aren't precise or sloppy or poetic or harsh -- language users are, or can be.

Any comparison of two languages (or two varieties' vocabularies) will reveal many examples of "crucial yet missing" distinctions, or conversely "uselessly specific distinctions." While worthy of note to the language learner (hey, a 'mast' is a 'tree' in Spanish, cool!), they really aren't terribly significant beyond that.

I am reminded (shudder) of Reagan, who is supposed to have once claimed that is was impossible to talk disarmament with the Soviets because the Russian language "had no word for detente" (of course, English had no word for détente until it was borrowed from the formerly universal language of diplomacy).

The anecdote may be apocryphal (then again, with Ronnie you could never be sure...) but serves to illustrate the point: when a concept is really needed, a word is borrowed, coined or a circumlocution invented. Available lexicon only constrains what we can say very temporarily, if at all, before resourcefulness kicks in (capuccino with your croissants, anyone?).

David Heap said...

the claim that some languages have no word for "rape".

While a quick google of "no word for rape" turns up a number of possible (and in some cases, quite testable) such claims, I share Laura's suspicions about this. Where a concept is needed, it will be / has been invented. Our legal texts have such handy expressions as "criminal negligence causing bodily harm", which people are obviously able to conceptualise, despite the absence of a one-word term.

The absence of a specific term may be a reflection on a given (legal or other) tradition that does not want to name "rape", but not on what is "thinkable" by a linguistic community.

A famous one is the Inuit having 23 words for snow. Maybe true, maybe not.

The Inuit-words-for-snow myth has been well debunked by (among others) linguist Geoff Pullum, based on work by anthropologist Laura Martin. At times estimated into the dozens, if not scores of different terms -- in reality, perhaps really fewer than a half dozen (i.e. less than many English-speaking skiers...). The real question is: why are we so eager to believe this somehow represents some kind of profound difference? We want to believe in the exotic Inuit with their specialised snow terminology, as opposed to the not-so-exotic typesetter, with their huge number of terms for type-faces (such examples can be multiplied times as many trades, professions, hobbies or interests as you care to think of).

James said...

The one Sapir-Whorf argument that has given me a lot to think about is the idea that without a word for a concept, there is no concept. The prime example of this is the claim that some languages have no word for "rape".

This form of Sapir-Whorf has always bugged me, for reasons others have addressed: just because you don't have a word for something, doesn't mean you don't have a phrase for it.

I've read that the root of the "40 words for snow" myth comes from Inuktituk's grammar, in which adjectives are combined with nouns to make compound words -- so they'd have "single words" for "thick-snow", "wet-snow", "powder-snow", "light-snow", "driving-snow", "fluffy-snow", etc. I don't know if that's true or not.

Kim_in_TO said...

So my question is, can anyone back up the claim that there are cultures that have no word for the concept of rape, and does that mean there is no concept of rape in their society - under any circumstances? That is, no concept of consensual vs non-consensual sex, no matter who the victim - a child, a woman of the "enemy" during a war conflict...?

I got the impression that in the extreme, followers of Sapir-Whorf would assume that a culture without a word for rape would perhaps be unable to comprehend the action as right or wrong. I think that grossly underestimates people's intelligence, which is often a sign of racism. (For the record, this claim - which I've never looked into, was in reference to Arab/Muslim culture.) As James points out - when a language lacks a particular word, people find a way around it, often by using more than one word. I see this frequently in Spanish class, when Spanish lacks a word that English has; sometimes it takes a few sentences of explanation, but there is always a way to convey the meaning.

Even assuming that a language has no word for rape, I don't buy that a man can't/doesn't understand that it is wrong to force another person to do something against their will. The fact that in war it is commonplace to degrade/humiliate those conquered by raping them shows that the action is universally regarded as not only wrong, but also as possibly the worst offence one can commit against another.

David Heap said...

Languages aren't precise or sloppy or poetic or harsh -- language users are, or can be.
More precisely perhaps, these are properties of specific utterances or texts -- a given user of any language may at different times produce any or all of these effects, and many more.

David Heap said...

The "no word for rape" claim is made (according to a cursory google) regarding Turkish, Russian, Thai, Bhutanese, Quechua, Kirundi (anyone else skeptical yet?) ... and yes, Arabic. Given the notorious difficulty of proving rape charges under certain versions of Shari'a law (multiple male witnesses required to corroborate victim's testimony, etc.), there would have to be at least one term in classical Arabic, and thus also in those languages where Muslims adopt the Qur'an as part of their legal framework of reference.

And even if there weren't a specific term, there will always be a phrase that expresses the required idea, as in " Because there is no word for rape in several of the South African languages, we used the expression "forced sex without consent" in nine of the 11 official languages."

As Jakobson said in an essay on linguistic aspects of translation, languages differ not so much in what they can express [because ultimately all human experience can be expressed in any human language] but rather more in what they must express [if your language requires grammatical gender or definiteness, then these are going to be hard categories to avoid...].

It is these latter areas (what grammatical categories are available / required in a given language) that Sapir and (to a greater extent) Whorf actually hypothesized about, and which most of those who dump on them tend to ignore (in favour of the more facile lexical arguments). Such effects are also much harder to prove or disprove, though in the (rare!) carefully constructed experiments it does look as if our grammatical categories do not completely determine our thought categories.

All of which is pretty far from feeling we sound more rude / charming / whatever because we are speaking language X. These are qualities of speakers' productions or of their social norms, not of their languages.

L-girl said...

Hey, thanks for the info and thoughts, everyone. I don't have time to fully respond today, but it's all great stuff.

I had no idea that the "no word for rape" claim was levied against Muslim cultures - although it doesn't surprise me. Such a charge is particularly ridiculous (and egregious) against a religious culture that prescribes strict guidelines on all facets of living.

David Heap said...

But still, I wonder what type of speech that judgement refers to. What NYC speech mannerisms or dialects or - what? - they are talking about. I can't even imagine what it is. "Toity toid and toid?" from the 1940s Bowery Boys? "Youse guys?" Something out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon?

Potentially all of these, or perhaps none: the "beauty" of stereotypes and prejudice is that they are not necessarily based on reality, and when they have some grain of empirical truth they are often exaggerated beyond recognition.

The features you mention are common in many nonstandard varieties of English. 2nd person plural youse occurs in lots of places, including my own native Toronto vernacular. The "stopping" of fricatives, e.g. pronouncing "th" as "t" in the number "three", is so identifiable as a feature of (once again) Nfld English that a Port aux Basques taxi company proudly displays their phone number with the last four digits represented as small conifers.

Similar plays on words (dirty tree and a turd = 33 + 1/3) are told about Irish English, Cajun speakers etc. With such nonstandard features being so widespread in vernacular Englishes, the real question is not so much "what features of NYC English are picked on?" as "why pick on nonstandard NYC speech as opposed to any other city's?". Not sure, but my hunch would be that the answer to that question lies outside linguistics.

L-girl said...

Not sure, but my hunch would be that the answer to that question lies outside linguistics.

Oh yes, I understand that.

The features you mention are common in many nonstandard varieties of English. 2nd person plural youse occurs in lots of places, including my own native Toronto vernacular.

Fine, but my point is that New Yorkers don't use this. Or the number of New Yorkers who do is so miniscule as to require an anthropology expedition to dig up.

As you say, the stereotype is not necessarily based on reality. I'm just wondering what *specific* fantasy this stereotype is based on. You don't know, I understand that, but I'm still wondering!

Stephanie said...

As you say, the stereotype is not necessarily based on reality. I'm just wondering what *specific* fantasy this stereotype is based on.

I would like to point to some pretty well exhausted stereotypes perpetuated in so many Hollywood films as a strong possibility as source of said fantasy.

Take for example My Cousin Vinny as (only) one example of a long line of films that push the limits of perpetuating linguistic stereotypes and in particular those to do with New Yorkers.

L-girl said...

Take for example My Cousin Vinny as (only) one example of a long line of films that push the limits of perpetuating linguistic stereotypes and in particular those to do with New Yorkers.

Oh yes, good point.

On the other hand, there's Seinfeld, watched by millions, where no one talks like that. But when it comes to perpetuating stereotypes, it's easy to do and difficult to un-do.

nick said...

what an terrific thread! I like words, though I know so little--of or about. Reading Reading the OED sounds enjoyable. I swam through The Professor and the Madman very quickly when it came out. Upon finishing it, I read the author's bio and looked at his picture and realized he lived a couple of towns away and that I had waited on him. I've never really talked to him, though.