Date: Wed, 6 Dec 1995 19:55:51 -0700


Subject: Re: non-linguistic thinking

It is surprising at this late date in the 20th century to have a discussion

among linguists taking place at such an unsophisticated level. Everyone who

hasn't should get in their time machines (courtesy a written form of the

language) and zip back to the 1920s or 1930s and read Edward Sapir. There is

a constant danger, even for linguists, to get trapped in the Eurocentric

view of language as composed of atomic things called "words", and to think

other peoples and cultures less sophisticated because they don't have "a word"

for something. For one thing, they may have many words for aspects of a

phenomenon, and think English speakers less capable of precise thought because

we bumble along with a single gross category. When we study European languages

in school, we are encouraged by the dictionary habit to think that word=word.

If you read Sapir, he will quickly disabuse you of such simplistic equations.

To "translate" to Navajo, for example, one often has to decompose an English

word into its semantic primitives, and then reassemble these in a totally

different way, sometimes combining elements which are distributed in other

discrete "words" in the English sentence. There is no verb "to throw" in

Navajo, for example. Does this mean that Navajos are incapable of thinking

abstractly of this action? No, it means that they have several verbs, each

referring to movement on the part of a differently shaped object, to which

a causative affix is attached, yielding "to cause a round object to move",

"to cause a long object to move", etc. Surely our thought processes are more

primitive in describing a scene by saying "John threw the ball", since "throw"

makes no distinction for the form of the object. Korean, of course, requires

its speakers to distinguish among 6 possible social levels, to which we

English speakers are hopelessly and slobbishly insensitive. We can't even

think about some of the topics which are of great moment in Korean culture.

So please, hasten to your bookshelves and read, or re-read, your Sapir.

--Rudy Troike (rtroike[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]