Wednesday, March 07, 2012

"What language shall I borrow?": mystical fat burlesque, Peruvian epistemology and messianic betrayal

First, two good posts on language shaping thought:

Check out the theological questions Guy  Deutscher   asks here in his "one final bit of burlesque" in overcoming linguistic determinism  here.

Now wrestle with this section of Deutscher's "Through the Looking Glass" book:
"Since there is no evidence that any language forbids its speakers from thinking anything...the effects of the mother tongue  cannot be sought in what different languages allow    their speakers to think.  But where then?  Humboldt went on to say, in somewhat mystical terms, that languages nonetheless differ in what they "encourage and stimulate to do from their own inner force.  Can we turn his hazy imagery into something more transparent?
I belivce we can.  But to do so, we need to abandon the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the assumption that languages limit their speaker's ability to express or understand concepts, and turn instead to a fundamental insight that can be called the Boas-Jacobson principle.....the crucial differences between languages..are not in what each language allows its speakers to express--for in theory any language could express anything--but in what information each language obliges its speakers to express.

Chinese may seem to us rather lax in allowing its speakers to equivocate about the time of the action, but try to imnagine what a speaker of Matses from Peru might feel about hearin g the incredibly crude and careless distinctions of have to specify with different verbal endings whether an action took place in the recent past (roughly up to a month, distant past (roughly a month to fifty years) or remote past (more than fifty years ago).. The Matses have to be master epistemologusts.
..."I find it gratuitous sto assume, such a Matses would say,"that an Ameican who knows only English and the cultural ideas of his own society can have a proper grasp of epistemology.  English speakers would simply not be able to understand the difference between directly experienced events and merely inferred facts, because their language imposes on them a monistic view of the universe  that blends the event with how it was experinced into one plastic creation."  pp. 148-153


  • Does language limit, or is it liminal?
  • Do phrases like "Ojala" in Spanish (literally "If Alla wills it) reinforce/force speakers to think/act/believe/pray from a certain worldview/"languageview."?
  • How about "que sera, sera" and the well-known fact that Spanish  hardly ever uses future tense.  Implications?
  • In Spanish (and other languages, especially biblical), how does the "singular plural"/ "ustedes," which we have no word/form  for in English  ("y'all does not count) facilitate a more  (see "Committee of Buzzards") Hebraic/Eastern/biblical/nondualistic  view of community/corprateness/ groupness?
  • If a person is bilingual and bicultural   (think Dan Nainan, and watch his classic video), might they be forced to think/speak in a  prejuidiced way about their "other" culture/language/self/half..when limited by a language with firced grooves, tenses and biases.
  • If a  language has no word for "can't," how would a speaker imagine/verbalize "can't"?  What if the language had no word for "opposite," so they couldn't just say "its the opposite of can"?  What if said language had no word for "opposite." etc.....
  • If translation is both/either messianic and/or betrayal what steps to we take to creatively  think, speak and act in a way tha reinforces our neural pathways, tongue and deeds in an Kingdomed way?  And not in a way that is Messianic betrayal?
  • Romans 8:26: Sometime we DON'T have the words to say/pray...due to limits of our language/culture?  Love that the Spirit intercedes when we "don't know what to say" ..or even that we don't know what we're missing.  What happens when our prayers shift into another earthly language or translanguage/glossolaliaBongolese/ Nigun/music?  Maybe in the language of the hymn, every language is borrowed..

  • If there indeed is a primacy of images over words, how do we captivate the language of creativity/imagination/imagineering/art? 
  •   How would I ask that question above in Spanish? Hebrew? Sign language?  Without words?

Deutscher shines on the "egocentric vs. geographical" sense/language of direction.  From an article based on the book:

The area where the most striking evidence for the influence of language on thought has come to light is the language of space — how we describe the orientation of the world around us. Suppose you want to give someone directions for getting to your house. You might say: “After the traffic lights, take the first left, then the second right, and then you’ll see a white house in front of you. Our door is on the right.” But in theory, you could also say: “After the traffic lights, drive north, and then on the second crossing drive east, and you’ll see a white house directly to the east. Ours is the southern door.” These two sets of directions may describe the same route, but they rely on different systems of coordinates. The first uses egocentric coordinates, which depend on our own bodies: a left-right axis and a front-back axis orthogonal to it. The second system uses fixed geographic directions, which do not rotate with us wherever we turn.
We find it useful to use geographic directions when hiking in the open countryside, for example, but the egocentric coordinates completely dominate our speech when we describe small-scale spaces. We don’t say: “When you get out of the elevator, walk south, and then take the second door to the east.” The reason the egocentric system is so dominant in our language is that it feels so much easier and more natural. After all, we always know where “behind” or “in front of” us is. We don’t need a map or a compass to work it out, we just feel it, because the egocentric coordinates are based directly on our own bodies and our immediate visual fields.
But then a remote Australian aboriginal tongue, Guugu Yimithirr, from north Queensland, turned up, and with it came the astounding realization that not all languages conform to what we have always taken as simply “natural.” In fact, Guugu Yimithirr doesn’t make any use of egocentric coordinates at all. The anthropologist John Haviland and later the linguist Stephen Levinson have shown that Guugu Yimithirr does not use words like “left” or “right,” “in front of” or “behind,” to describe the position of objects. Whenever we would use the egocentric system, the Guugu Yimithirr rely on cardinal directions. If they want you to move over on the car seat to make room, they’ll say “move a bit to the east.” To tell you where exactly they left something in your house, they’ll say, “I left it on the southern edge of the western table.” Or they would warn you to “look out for that big ant just north of your foot.” Even when shown a film on television, they gave descriptions of it based on the orientation of the screen. If the television was facing north, and a man on the screen was approaching, they said that he was “coming northward.”

...psychological experiments have also shown that under certain circumstances, speakers of Guugu Yimithirr-style languages even remember “the same reality” differently from us. There has been heated debate about the interpretation of some of these experiments, but one conclusion that seems compelling is that while we are trained to ignore directional rotations when we commit information to memory, speakers of geographic languages are trained not to do so. One way of understanding this is to imagine that you are traveling with a speaker of such a language and staying in a large chain-style hotel, with corridor upon corridor of identical-looking doors. Your friend is staying in the room opposite yours, and when you go into his room, you’ll see an exact replica of yours: the same bathroom door on the left, the same mirrored wardrobe on the right, the same main room with the same bed on the left, the same curtains drawn behind it, the same desk next to the wall on the right, the same television set on the left corner of the desk and the same telephone on the right. In short, you have seen the same room twice. But when your friend comes into your room, he will see something quite different from this, because everything is reversed north-side-south. In his room the bed was in the north, while in yours it is in the south; the telephone that in his room was in the west is now in the east, and so on. So while you will see and remember the same room twice, a speaker of a geographic language will see and remember two different rooms.It is not easy for us to conceive how Guugu Yimithirr speakers experience the world, with a crisscrossing of cardinal directions imposed on any mental picture and any piece of graphic memory. Nor is it easy to speculate about how geographic languages affect areas of experience other than spatial orientation — whether they influence the speaker’s sense of identity, for instance, or bring about a less-egocentric outlook on life. But one piece of evidence is telling: if you saw a Guugu Yimithirr speaker pointing at himself, you would naturally assume he meant to draw attention to himself. In fact, he is pointing at a cardinal direction that happens to be behind his back. While we are always at the center of the world, and it would never occur to us that pointing in the direction of our chest could mean anything other than to draw attention to ourselves, a Guugu Yimithirr speaker points through himself, as if he were thin air and his own existence were irrelevant.  LINK

Questions (Quest-ions):

  • If we are programmed by our language to think-speak-act/discern direction (literally? theologically?) in away that our referenvce point and compass is outside ourselves, as opposed to internal, does that condition us to be more open to  outside forces/God, and trust less in self?
  • Or..since we know from Scripture that Kingdom and Christ are within us,,is this a  fuzzy set/marker trick?
  •     Does this "North Star" video help?:

Check out the grid Paul Hiebert  (pp. 56-57 of "Transforming Worldviews")draws of my own city (Fresno)'s downtown and surrounding directional/orientational grid.


  •   How might this language.grid/construct influence our local sense of direction/orientation?
  • What do you think of p. 25: "Walter J. Ong points out that the word 'worldview' itself reflects a worldview, namely the modern worldview that gives priority to sight over sound..maybe we should use the word 'world event' rather than 'worldview?'



word out!

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