Another very interesting take can be found here (from a writer new to me, which is always cool) on the whole SapirWhorf linguistic relativism conversation, one that I almost missed in my growing dependance on trackback to keep me up to date on who’s been saying what…
One of the best things for me that came out of this ongoing discussion has been finding a whole constellation of new and interesting voices that had something to say on some facet of the topic, in addition to my friends in the virtual neighbourhood. It’s been a pretty good week in blogaria for me.

People Say Stuff Sometimes

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  1. Hey, thanks for pointing me to OneMan! But your link leads to a gardening essay, which I spent some time trying to relate to Sapir-Whorf before I went to the home page and found what you were talking about. You might ought to link to the home page yourself if the permalink goes to the wrong entry (as so often happens).

  2. Re: William C. Hannas’s new book, “The Writing on the Wall: How Asian Orthography Curbs Creativity” (University of Pennsylvania Press):
    I remember discussing very much this sort of topic with a Chinese Philosphy prof years ago (I’m Canadian). We agreed, both of us, that it was quite possible that the more precise Chinese script and relative lack of homonyms in chinese didn’t force Chinese citizens, from childhood, to make the same sort of constant analytic distinctions between word meanings of homonyms that any reader of english must make just to get by.
    This makes english speakers more analytical in the most obvious sense of analysis – that of breaking things into definite pieces, at least semantically (distinguishing meanings). There are so (ridiculously) many homonyms in english that we are constantly forced to pick apart every word and distinguish which of several meanings applies. This may lead to a different cast of mind.
    So, if true, we english speakers and readers may be poorer poets and poorer thinkers about people, relationships and many other very complex things – but perhaps more prepared to think about clocks, science, and other concepts and processes that are simple enough, and well-enough understood, to allow straight-forward analysis and very precise codification.
    In other words, he and I concluded that the sheer awkwardness and inadequacy (ambiguity) of the alphanumeric script and spoken tongue, together with the polyglot roots of english that have left behind huge numbers of homonyms, force english speakers to be over-analytical, and linguistically paranoid, if you like, just to understand ordinary talk. Such analysis may make one comfortable enough with technical and analytical precision to allow more “creativity”, in this limited area.
    Note that brains are meant to handle matters that are a lot more complex, and indeterminate than technology or scientific knowledge that can be reduced to precise rule systems. Similarly formal logic is much more simple than any human language, so our much more complex brains, dedicated to pattern recognition under much more confused circumstances, struggle to understand it. It’s unnatural. (See
    Now, we were blowin’ air, having a kitchen table discussion, the two of us, and thought we had come up with a pretty cool hypothesis, nothing more. We didn’t think we could show this to be true, just that it was an interesting possibility. Neither of us were in a specialty that would give us the credentials to put forward anything, so we weren’t about to publish the idea in any way.

  3. If you look at Sperber and Wilson’s Relevance Theory (within Pragmatics), you’ll see how we presume that a speaker/writer has a reason for saying/writing something. If the most obvious interpretation doesn’t make sense, we’ll search for alternative interpretations within the encyclopedias within our minds, based on our prior experiences of the situation, the context, the speaker/writer, and our expectations. If someone makes an utterance which it takes some time for the listener/reader to decode, then there must be a particular reason why the speaker/writer selected to use such language rather than producing an initial utterance which is easier to decode. Such a reason might be for humour or to make a specific point, for instance. (That’s my understanding of how Relevance Theory works, at least!)
    My comment to Russell (above) is simply: why should this be any different in any other language? Surely this must be a universal? And does the form of the written language really make a difference here? I don’t believe we think in terms of our writing systems – otherwise illiterate people would be well and truly screwed! And acquiring language as a child would be a bit of an inconvenience, too!* I’m not sure how important it is, how we actually write our homonyms. But that’s just my speculative opinion, of course, and there’s every possibility that I could be wrong or very misguided!
    * An example of Relevance Theory: when you read my sentence “And acquiring language as a child would be a bit of an inconvenience, too!”, you probably ignored the most obvious, literal interpretation. Your mind will have worked a little harder to understand that “a bit of an inconvenience” is in fact understatement. You will have worked this out from your past experience of this phrase being used in this way. And the context will have helped, too. You will have also understood, subconsciously, that there must be a specific reason why I selected this type of phraseology in particular. Clearly it must be because I wanted to really highlight what I was saying (not that it was something I thought about while writing the sentence). In my understanding, Relevance Theory must be universal to all languages, even if it might be applied differently somehow. The basic principle must be the same, though: we search for the most relevant meaning, and the harder that we have to search, the more likely it is that there is a specific reason for the utterance having been made in such a manner. I’d be interested to hear if anyone really thinks that’s wrong. What about Korean, Stavros? And do you think this could explain a lot of misunderstandings from your students, who will have very different encyclopedic entries on a vast array of subjects, mainly due to a lack of shared experience with you, someone from another country (and vice versa, of course)?


    I’ve just started what promises to be a slow and fascinating read, Ammiel Alcalay’s After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture. I have long been interested in the “Levant” as an archaic term (for the eastern Mediterranean lands) that still…

  5. Yikes. Big, deep thoughts here, gentlemen, and I’m just a beer-drinkin’ wonderchicken!
    Well, I’m drinking beer at the moment, anyway. Let me ruminate (and eructate and micturate a bit too) on this. Very intertesting indeed – many thanks.

  6. Er, I don’t mean I’ll actually micturate on this topic…but you know, beer does go through you something fierce after all….
    Um, how about I just get back to you later?

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