Language Hat points to this strangely timely article in the New York Times, which not only mentions the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but mentions it in the context of East Asian languages. How interesting, thinks I to myself, as I follow the link, hoping it will be germane to all the fascinating and erudite discussion in the neighbourhood that’s sprung up around and taken off in a multitude of interesting directions from my brain dump last week.
In it are described the ideas of a certain William C. Hannas, “a linguist who speaks 12 languages and works as a senior officer at the Foreign Broadcast Information Service,” author of a newly released book which claims that Asian science has suffered because the main Asian languages are written in “character-based rather than alphabetic” systems.
Not to get off on a rant here, but : in and of itself, this seems to me to be the most vile form of egregiously wrongheaded bullsh-t, and I suspect Mr Hannas is precisely the sort of person that I’d take great pleasure in pummelling until he whimpered like a frightened infant (a reaction that may reveal to some extent why I left academia many years ago, having dipped no more than a toe in its calm waters). But that’s not the thing that bothered me.
The article states, presumably parrotting Mr Dipsh-t, that “Western specialists are better informed today […and] now recognize that the writing systems of East Asia, including Chinese, Japanese and Korean, are “syllabaries,” in which each character corresponds to a syllable of sound.”
Now, I can’t speak for written Japanese (for which I think this may in part be true, depending on which way of writing the language one chooses – Jonathon may be the better person in the immediate neighbourhood to address that), and I’m only semi-certain it is true as far as my knowledge goes for Chinese, but this is completely and laughably wrong in the case of Korean.
I’ve been promising for over a year now to write a piece about the Korean language and alphabet, and this may have me riled enough to actually do it.
“Mr. Hannas’s logic goes like this: because East Asian writing systems lack the abstract features of alphabets, they hamper the kind of analytical and abstract thought necessary for scientific creativity,” says the New York Times.
Replies the wonderchicken : Mr Hannas should take his head out of his ass, because having one’s cranium so firmly lodged up one’s rectum can hamper the kind of analytical and abstract thought necessary for actually making some f–king sense.
A googlesearch takes literally about 5 seconds to find a multitude of sites that describe hangul, the Korean alphabet, and make Mr Hannas look like the idiot (or at the very most gracious, ‘mind-bogglingly poor researcher’) he would seem to be.
What is also distressing to me is that Sapir-Whorf (to the weak formulation of which, as I’ve mentioned, I have a degree of sympathy) is being talked about in connection with such worthless, badly thought-out crypto-racist twaddle.
Here’s a rude bit of English, sloppily and phonetically rendered into the Hangul alphabet in 5 letters and two syllables for Mr Hannas, sounding something like ‘puhk kyu!’. Wonder if he’d be able to read it…

f--k you!

[Gah! I thought I had all my ranting out of my system for the week. Ah well.]

Korea-related, non compos mentis, Thoughts That, If Not Deep, Are At Least Wide

Join the conversation! 15 Comments

  1. Ignorance bought and paid for (in Japanese too)

    Golly, Blogaria’s a strange old world. Before dinner I started an entry about Heidegger’s On the Way to Language. But on Monday night SBS screens the English Premier League Highlights show. And what a delightful hour it turned out to be: eating a delic…

  2. Asian Languages…

    This post at really got my blood boiling, as it did his, obviously… 😉 He references an

  3. You are how you write?

    I am in the midst of semantics, poetry, and RDF but I did want to take a moment to add my own comment on a new linguistic nosh currently being nibbled in the neighborhood. The nosh in question is a new book by William Hannas titled “The Writing on the …

  4. One of the side benefits of this blogging thing seems to be the speed with which half-baked cultural detritus is roasted until golden brown. But shouldn’t some rantese be reserved for the editors of the Newspaper of Wreckord, who selected this fellow’s scholarship for public consumption? Not that such a thing is unheard of. It’s more than usual. Just that, now, it’s not up to the Times whether withering letters to the editor, correcting or berating their idiocy, are deemed “fit to print.”

  5. Most assuredly, Tom, but that’s a pretty big damn target. More sensible to pick off the support struts and hope the whole rotten edifice comes tumbling down of its own accord, maybe.
    Like that’s gonna happen, but still.

  6. From one enthusiastic dabbler to another

    Stavros admits: I’ve been promising for over a year now to write a piece about the Korean language and alphabet, and this may have me riled enough to actually do it. Time to shit or get off the pot, my Canadian friend. I’ve been waiting for over a year…

  7. the “uh” sound in fuck is better represented by a straight horizontal line vowel instead of the one you are using. the one you are using has more of an “oh” or “aw” sound.

  8. Well, no, it doesn’t, pukey. I’m actually working on a textbook on this at the moment, so I’ve paid some close attention here.
    Although the sounds don’t map through perfectly, of course, the one I used is more like the ‘u’ in ‘fun’. The character you refer to is more like the ‘u’ in ‘put’, except articulated at back of the throat, which is definitely not the same sound as the one found in ‘fuck’.

  9. Also also, I’m assuming the transatlantic relatively ‘unaccented’ version of North American English that I speak. If you’re from Louisiana or some place like that, of course, your vowel pronunciations will vary wildly.

  10. Hide the Sparkle

    I was surprised when I wrote the post You are how you write? that no one seemed to notice the irony in the page. In particular the paragraph: Of course, once I wrote this, I thought of Jonathon’s previous writing on Linguistic Imperialism, and the impa…

  11. actually, i’m not wrong. the sound you are using clearly and unmistakably has a “oh” or “aw” sound and is unsuitable compared to the other vowel. either “u” sound you listed should be preferred to an “oh” or “aw” sound. books aren’t great for pointing out distinctions clearly. and for the record, i am currently attending a language academy in monterey california full time studying korean.

  12. Actually, you are wrong. For the record, I’ve lived in Korea on and off for about 6 years, and have been using the language on a near-daily basis for that long, and, as I mentioned before, have recently been preparing a textbook detailing differences in English and Korean phonemes with several tenured professors at the university where I teach. But kudos on your studies – not many people bother to learn Korean when they don’t live here.
    Don’t feel bad, though. I don’t think you’re a bad person because we disagree.

  13. we can continue to one up each other on our credentials but it won’t settle this point and in fact, it bears little meaning on the fact that you are wrong. heh.

  14. Actually, I’ve read Hannas’s earlier book on the Orthographic Crisis in East Asia (or some similar title). It makes some sense when it launches a full scale attack on some of the half-baked assumptions about Asian writing systems that are put around by their users. But even in the earlier book Hannas tended to rant. (It’s hard enough to follow if you know Chinese characters; it would be impossible to follow if you didn’t.) He tends to lapse into foaming incoherence when attacking the ‘beg-the-question’ logic that marks many defences of Asian writing systems.
    In this book it seems Hannas may have gone too far, although one wonders how much he may have been misrepresented by the reviewer (I haven’t read either the review or the book). Besides which, if I may say so, this kind of thinking (broad-brushed assertions about links between languages, traditional thought, scientific thought, economic progress, environmental awareness, artistic perceptions, or whatever other parameter you may choose) is all too common in East Asian societies. It’s nothing unique to Hannas.
    I write this in the knowledge that I may well be roasted to a crisp – where’s the evidence, you may say, and isn’t that a rather broad-brushed assertion you’re making yourself? Well, yes, it is. But no-one can seriously believe they can write an expose of Oriental writing systems and their impact on thought and society in half a page, which is about all that most rebuttals of Hannas come to.

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