Date: Wed, 6 Dec 1995 19:55:51 -0700
From: Rudy Troike RTROIKE[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]CCIT.ARIZONA.EDU
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]ccit.arizona.edu)