December 08, 2003

Streamlined cognition?

For me, Bill Poser's examples of Carrier's many words about beavers are well-taken -- while I assume none of us regard these words as evidence of any peculiar acuity on the part of Carrier speakers, it can certainly be interesting to see where languages split hairs, to remind us of the diverse ways of being human.

A favorite example of mine here is Tzeltal, which though having only about 3000 roots in its vocabulary (with morphology recruiting them as various constituents, of course), has a neat array of words for EAT. The general word is TUN, but then there is LO' for eating bananas and soft things, K'UX for beans and crunchy things, WE' for tortillas and bread, TI' for meat and chilis, TZ'U' for sugarcane, and UCH' for corngruel and liquids. (This is from an article by Penelope Brown.) Just think -- we only break out words like CRUNCH and GNAW for narrative extravagance, while to a Tzeltal speaker this seems downright crude.

But in a follow-up to my musings on how many interpret such findings, I can't help imagining someone assuming that this meant that Tzeltals value eating more than other people. I remember a linguist who had worked on an Austronesian language of Oceania marvelling that the language she had studied had lots of words for motion, and that for her this seemed tied to the fact that they were always "going, going." But then what about the famously subtle distinctions that Slavic languages make in this same area? Are Russians especially well known for being nomadic, or for "going, going" more than we do? Have they ever been?

As it happens, I have been reading up lately on a current of Whorfian works from the past six years or so that suggest that the old guy was not COMPLETELY out of his mind. Thank you to Mark Liberman for his references, for example, to a paper by Lera Boroditsky et al. showing that speakers of languages with grammatical gender marking do appear at some level of consciousness to process objects according to sex. How fascinating to find that someone whose language marks TABLE as feminine is more likely to imagine a table depicted in a cartoon as speaking in a woman's voice, for instance. This squares with a late-night question I once asked a Francophone linguist, "Do you think of tables as girls?" He, as skeptical of the extremes of Whorfianism as I am, readily said "Actually, yes."

But one thing worries me about the idea that "language channels thought" in any SIGNIFICANT way. I suppose being a creolist helps nudge my questions in this direction. Namely, if we assume that assorted doodads in a grammar color and enrich speakers' worldviews to an extent worthy of regular citation in anthropology textbooks and presentation to undergrads, then we risk a certain implication for some peoples.

Take, for example, a language like the Native American Hokan variety Atsugewi. To render "The soot flowed into the creek," it would have in translation "it / by falling / dirt-move / into-liquid / FACTUAL / nominative/ soot / creek-to, according to Len Talmy's 1972 dissertation. (My God, do people actually speak these languages????) Atsugewi attends to the fact that dirt was doing the moving, despite the sentence nicely informing us of this later by referring to soot itself. It has a path satellite telling us that the event devolved into the drink, although we could easily get this from the reference to the creek itself, complete with a directional marker. The factual marker establishes truth conditions that an English speaker would consider of little import to signal overtly. And then nominativity.

Atsugewi is dripping with these overzealous path satellites, for example, and some might be tempted to see this as evidence of the speakers' sensitivity to the processes of nature. But then what about languages like Riau Indonesian, as chronicled by David Gil? Here is a natural language with neither inflection nor tone, no articles, barely any tense marking, and a third person pronoun that is neutral to both gender AND number. Overall, Riau Indonesian takes the telegraphic, context-dependent tendency of Southeast Asian languages to a stunning extreme.

For example, AYAM means CHICKEN and MAKAN means EAT. The sentence AYAM MAKAN can mean "The chicken is eating," "The chicken ate," "The chicken will eat," "The chicken is being eaten," "The chicken is making somebody eat," "Somebody is eating for the chicken," "The chicken that is eating," "Where the chicken is eating," "When the chicken is eating," "How the chicken is eating," etc.

No persnickety path satellites, no tables with dulcet voices, no funky uphill/downhill markers of spatial relations, no paradigms of numeral classifiers -- really, not much of anything compared to an Atsugewi, an English, or even many creoles.

Which leads to a question -- are we ready to propose that Riau Indonesian conditions its speakers to be less attendant to the nuances of the world around them overall than Atsugewi did? Some languages attend to much fewer baroque distinctions than others. How would Whorf have handled this?

For example, for all of the attention to Africans' contributions to plantation creole grammars, the fact remains that Saramaccan creole's grammar is an abbrevation of the West African language Fongbe's, not a reproduction of it. Saramaccan has its quirks, as well as the mot justes and idioms that any language has. But one could acquire its basic grammar with a month's instruction, while Serbo-Croatian's would require two years. Yet I itch at the notion of supposing that my best Saramaccan informant has a duller perception of the world than Slobodan Milosevic.

Comparisons like this help me assume that the bells and whistles of more elaborated grammars exert little meaningful influence on how people think. If my erstwhile Russian girlfriend really did think of the tables we ate at as men and the windows we looked out of as hermaphrodites, this gave no evidence of coloring her essence as a human being in any way worthy of sustained attention.

Nevertheless, it is still pretty darned cool that some people distinguish beavers and their ways, or crunching from chewing, as assiduously as we distinguish varieties of computer.

Posted by John McWhorter at December 8, 2003 02:01 AM