Sunday, January 15, 2012

Language Is Not Neutral

Thought and language are intimately connected. Exactly how they are connected has been a matter of some vociferous debate. There are essentially two camps.

First came the linguistic anthropologists (most notably Sapir, Whorf) who suggested that language determines thought. At least that is how their opponents frame it. In reality, these anthropologists observed that, as one can only think through the medium of language, the words that are at one’s disposal, as well as the way in which the grammar is organized, draws boundaries around what a person can think. For example, it is often noted that English speakers do not attribute gender to ordinary objects the way the speakers of languages – such as French, German, Spanish, etc. – with gendered nouns do. Whorf wrote extensively about how the number and kinds of tenses in a language influences how its speakers conceive of time. English has three general tenses – past, present, future – and a linear, forward-moving conception of time. Hopi speakers have a completely different tense system, which corresponds to a more cyclical, non-progressive sense of time. Another widely discussed example relates to color. Some studies suggested that color categories (which vary cross-cultural) actually determine how people perceive color (for example, English speakers are more likely to see all colors that fall into the “yellow” category as being similar, while speakers of a language with two distinct categories that overlap with “yellow” will perceive two separate colors). And then there is the most obvious example: if a word for a concept does not exist, one generally cannot think about the concept.

Sapir, Whorf, and their colleagues came under fire and were labeled “determinists.” Their opponents responded by insisting that just because one does not currently have a word for a concept, that doesn’t mean they can’t ever think about it, if they are introduced to a word for it. Of course, they missed the point of the “determinists” completely. The Sapir-Whorf camp never argued that these things are set from birth (otherwise how could Whorf ever come to understand the Hopi point of view?), but rather that, whatever linguistic resources that one has available at any particular time determines how one can think at that point in time. Psychologists have commissioned studies of color perception that also miss the point. On the whole, I think the opponents of the Sapir-Whorf camp just do not understand their arguments.

Furthermore, the idea of “linguistic determinism,” or more aptly, the idea that language shapes thought, has been proposed independently by scholars in other fields. The Russian developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky (coincidentally, a Marxist) is just one example.

Now, one of the most important links between language, thought, and perception is the category. I mentioned before, in my attempted refutation of positivism, that all perception is mediated, in part, by mental categories. Mental categories reside in language. Language is not only a referential system, but a system of classification. Let’s go back to the color example. Color exists on a spectrum, and there are no distinct or “natural” boundaries between colors. If one were trying to be “objective” and attempted to assign a different color to each wavelength of light, the number of colors would be infinite. Thus, it is practical, it helps us to make sense of the world, if we create a number of arbitrary divisions, and hence, categories. The arbitrary nature of color classification is demonstrated by the arguments based thereupon (“That’s not pink, it’s orange.” “Orange?!? You’re crazy!” “Actually, I think it’s more of a salmon.” “What the hell is salmon?”)

Obviously perception is tied to thought; therefore linguistic categories that mediate perception must also shape thought. In my previous post I claimed that language is not neutral. Language is not neutral because, in employing language, one by necessity must invoke a particular classification scheme, which in turn promotes a particular way of thinking and perceiving. For example, the broad distinction between “tree” and “bush” privileges size as a means of distinguishing and thinking about plants. Botanists, on the other hand, use a different classification system (with words like “coniferous” and “deciduous”) that places more importance on other characteristics, such as reproduction.

As another example, I argued in a previous post that the “political spectrum” (which is a classification scheme) entrenches a number of assumptions and ways of perceiving social life that I believe are false. The decision to label the United States a democracy as opposed to an oligarchy has real, practical consequences.

Language is, indeed, powerful.

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