Monday, August 2, 2010

Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been A "Linguistic Determinist?"

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis postulates that the NATURE of a language --its syntax, semantic systems, grammar, and meta-linguistic components-- influences the habitual thought of its speakers. It is not an overstatement, under this theory, that such influence is ontologically and metaphysically determinative: Different language patterns yield different patterns of thought. (Example: In Hopi, the concept of "lightning" is expressed as a verb, a state of being, rather than as a noun, some named thing. Surely the universe is a different place when you and your whole culture regard "lightning" as a state of being.

The thesis is controversial because the idea challenges--actually, negates--the possibility of perfectly representing the world with language--such conceits as a univocal "meaning" to sacred religious or other community texts-- because it implies that the mechanisms of any language condition the thoughts of its speaker community. Call it the quantum theory of language. It is rather like the 'quantum theory' of linguistics.

From this thesis (along with several semesters of post-graduate work in socio-linguistics), I have extrapolated this dictum: You don't know what you cannot say. I say what I know in the terms available to me in my home language, American/English. I am frequently chided for my '$20 vocabulary, of which my use of the word 'anthropogenic' to describe climate change when a reader said I could have used man-made, is a perfectly legitimate example. In my vocabulary, 'anthropogenic' is a term whicvh encompasses "mad-made," modifies it, adds nuance and substance; hence my choice to employ it, even whn I knew I could have used a different word.
Just sayin...


  1. The problem we're facing today is a shrinking vocabulary which keeps people from thinking precisely. Next thing you know the younger generation will only be able to grunt their text vocabulary while draggin their knucles on the ground.

  2. If you want to see the breadth of their vocabulary (and then take an educated appraisal of their conceptual, as well as their compositional abilities) just read their text messages or their blog posts.

    Twitter, Twitter, Tweet-anyone?