I've just been reading Mark Abley's book on endangered languages, SPOKEN HERE. It is a heartfelt journalistic trip to various places where language revival efforts are going on, but the book is shot through with something that has made me itch in most of the language death books over the past several years, a rather reflexive acceptance of the Whorfian language-is-thought notion. What makes me especially uncomfortable about this tic is how easily it shades into fetishizing the very kinds of indigenous people who Whorf's progenitors Sapir and Boas worked so hard to dignify.
Abley listens to a Mohawk speaker talking about the word KA'NIKONRIIO, "righteousness." The speaker says "You have different words. Something that is nice. Something coming very close to -- sometimes used as a word for -- law. The fact of KA'NIKONRIIO is also -- beautiful. Or good. So goodness and the law are the same." Abley muses "I had the impression that a three-hour philosophy seminar had just been compressed into a couple of minutes."
Abley's intentions are good, but I can't help wanting to ask him "OK -- explain precisely how the semantic range of that word will illuminate your life, and/or please delineate for me just how you would construct a seminar on KA'NIKONRIIO that would stand alongside one on Kant?"
I know we are not supposed to "go there." But then, let's take STAND. You STAND on a corner, you STAND rather than sit, you STAND up. One can STAND pat -- even in an argument. That is, one can STAND up for a thesis, the point can STAND to reason, one can STAND firm on it, STAND down dissenters, and when unrefuted, the point STANDs, although the debate may also end in a STAND-off. We extend that meaning to say that something cannot STAND, and when we are not inclined to let something STAND we cannot STAND it. One person STANDs in for another; a symbol can STAND for a concept. Something noticeable STANDs out. And then when we probe deeper, STAND even lurks sheltered in longer words and seasons their meanings -- we underSTAND an idea, we withSTAND a threat. Then STAND even crosses the line between verb and noun, becoming what we might call a guiding spirit pervading the language. A persistent person may finally make their last STAND. People sell food at STANDs. To performers especially in the old days, a stay in one town was a STAND. You watch a ball game in the STANDs. And then one even hears of STANDs of trees. And STAND tucks itself into other nouns as well -- one may have a unique bodily STANCE, or a STANCE upon an issue of the day.
Yet I find it hard to imagine Abley or others so fascinated by polysemies in indigenous languages readily identifying all of these uses of STAND and their relationships as evidence that English speakers have a different conception of standing than other people. Nor can I readily imagine anyone calling the uses of STAND a "mini-lesson in philosophy" -- I suspect Kant would have found little of use here, for example.
On the other hand, I find it quite easy to imagine that if the word for STAND -- say, HALUC'KIP -- were used in the same ways in an indigenous language, then some writer somewhere might be telling classrooms that this word signals some complex, dynamic relationship between bodily position, conviction, toleration, nutrition, performativity, and trees.
The subtext of Abley's approach here is a school of thought that proposes that indigenous people are "realer" than we are, more in touch with spiritual realities that "civilization" has long wrested us from to our detriment. I understand that a good while ago, this notion was a useful way to counter the myth that indigenous people are "savages." But I wonder how many people who read a book like Abley's need to learn that in 2003, and in the meantime the tradition too often smacks of clapping wildly when a child manages not to spill any of her food.
As far as I'm concerned, if it's meat and potatoes in English, then it ought not dazzle us in any other language as "special." This is the very soul of believing that all humans are equal.
Elsewhere in the book Abley marvels that the Boro language has words that mean specific things like "to love for the last time" and "to feel unknown and uneasy in a new place." Okay -- but English has a word for when two acquaintances, through sharing an experience or reminiscence, experience a sense of deeper connection for the first time: BONDING. How spiritual we English speakers must be ... then -- get this -- we have a word for the first time a couple has sexual intercourse: CONSUMMATE. And so on -- and note that these are the meanings the relatively ingenuous English speaker would give most immediately to an investigator, despite their actually being specific uses of larger terms (as many of the Boro terms likely are, for that matter).
In the same way, what is mere polysemy in English is not a philosophy seminar in Mohawk. It's just polysemy.
Certainly we should try to save as many languages as we can. But we should do this because they are fascinating in their own right -- not out of a staged wonder that indigenous languages have lots of words for things that matter to them, or that some of their words happen to have wended into highly specific connotations, or that they have words that -- wonder of wonders! -- cover several related meanings.