Friday, January 27, 2006

Counting Eskimo Words for Snow

Does language influence or determine thought? Will I lose my own cultural identity if I start using another language too much? Consider these injunctions that a language teacher might face:

1. Teach culturally neutral International Business English.
2. Refrain from any cultural distortions of language.
3. Keep your language pure and neutral.
4. Don't be a Linguistic Imperialist

Implicit in these injunctions is that you actually can suppress the cultural component of your language in non-trivial uses of language. Maybe cookbook phrasebook language that you can program a computer program like Eliza to generate can be culturally neutral:

A: "Excuse me sir, where is the bathroom?"
B: "Down the hall to the right."

But at higher levels, language seems to determine thought, and thought language, there is at least strong feedback between the two. Linguistic determinism (the strong form of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis) is controversial though:

"Among the most frequently cited examples of linguistic determinism is Whorf's study of the language of the Inuit, who have multiple words for snow. He argues that this modifies the world view of the Inuit, creating a different mode of existence for them than, for instance, a speaker of English. The notion that Arctic people have a large number of words for snow has been shown to be false by linguist Geoffrey Pullum; in an essay titled The great Eskimo vocabulary hoax, he tracks down the origin of the story, ultimately attributing it largely to Whorf. More to the point is the triviality of this observation. The fact that wine fanciers have a rich vocabulary to speak about the tastes they find in wines is not thought of as evidence that their minds work differently, only that they know more than the average person about wine. English-speaking skiers may also have a rich vocabulary for snow."

"Wine literacy" certainly affected the thought and lifestyle of the wine afficianado main character of the 2004 movie Sideways [Review]. A computer geek or any kind of geek certainly acquires a vocabulary and way of using language and expressing themselves that affects their thought and life. It is a feedback process though and geeks and the wine literate are extreme cases.

Controversial statement: When you learn a word, learn everything about it, even the cultural hooks that people hang it on in their mind.

The word lists I've been looking at recently treat the words in word families as separate words. For example:

1. produce (v - action)
2. producer (n - actor)
3. production (n - activity)
4. productive (adj - applied to actor)
5. productivity (n - 4 nominalized)
6. product (n - object of action)

Maybe, the whole word family and perhaps even frequent collocates, should be taken as knowing or learning a new word. If you make enough links or handles for the student to hang the word on in their mind, culture is going to inevitably intrude. In my experience, teaching words in a set like this, also ties grammar to vocabulary building. Vocabulary-Grammar-Culture all tied together. Try to separate them and you'll get something inhuman.

(Stray thought: Isolating and counting words or units of meaning must be even more difficult in agglutinative languages like Eskimo, Sanskrit, or Turkish (See morphological typology of languages (agglutinative -building words from particles vs. isolating or analytic - each particle is a word)).

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