Saturday, July 20, 2019

Personal Pronouns

Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. Aragorn, in Lord of the Rings.

The topic of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis - the idea that the language we speak influences or even controls what we think, and more properly called Linguistic Relativity - came up in the comments section over at Chicago Boyz.  It shows up from time to time in comments sections at Maggie's Farm as well. There is a strong version, that echoes Orwell's 1984, that modes of thought can be prevented (or created) by eliminating (or requiring) certain words or phrases. This is about as thoroughly discredited as it gets in cognitive science.  There is no evidence that people who don't have Gem├╝tlichkeit in their language can't get the concept.  It just takes a while to get it across.  Vocabulary is efficiency.

The weak version, that one's language influences, on a percentage basis, how one thinks hasn't fared much better.  There is some soft evidence that there are slight differences in perception of color according to one's original language, but this is undermined by the fact that those learning a new language can rapidly switch to the new way of looking at things.  Similarly, languages have many different ways of describing where something is, and there is often an initial difficulty in describing what one means in a new language.  How much this is the language and culture and how much is cognitive remains controversial, but no solid evidence that there are enduring differences has been found. Some of you may remember the idea of NLP, neurolinguistic programming as a method of changing how one thinks about things in order to communicate with others.  The theory is that there is a fundamental difference in saying "I see what you mean" versus "I hear what you are saying" or "I get what you are driving at" or "I understand you." A charming idea, but again, one that has eluded any measurable difference.

People really, really like this idea. It was part of the 19th C nationalisms. Groups have always tied their identities to their language, but this took on an intensified form of "we even think differently than other groups." Because all languages have words and phrases that do not translate linearly, people take this as evidence of a difference in thinking. Because there are cultural differences, people come to believe that language drives these rather than reflects them. In the 20s and 30s the idea became very popular among anthropologists, and it spread to other fields - and to writers like Orwell - over the next decades. I loved the idea as an undergraduate, and held on to it for decades, without really thinking about whether it was true or not.  It seemed self-evident, once one had broken through and been introduced to it. How could your mother-tongue not influence your thinking, for Pete's sake? I wonder now if some of its intuitive proof nature comes from the experience of intelligent people (or at least those with high vocabulary, which is very similar) speaking with those who lack both the words and concepts for things.

This idea of linguistic relativity is strongly present in our attempts to remake language for political purposes. It became a goal early on for feminists to remake the masculine-assumed nature of English, as in chairman, mankind, congressman. The use of Ms had two objectives, one which fits this conversation and one which doesn't.  It is true that the new abbreviation sought to remove the greater emphasis placed on a woman's marital status than a man's, especially after the similar but age-reflecting distinction  Master-Mister dropped out of use for male.  That fits this discussion.  Yet I think the privacy concern, though related, is a little different. It's none of their damn business whether I'm married or not. I have some sympathy with that.

The belief was that changing the language would change people's attitudes, or at least help that along. I think that would be hard to measure either way, but given that language doesn't seem to drive attitude change as much as reflect it, and sometimes forced change creates backlash, I am unsympathetic to further enforced changes.  I think the idea of driving change is behind the insistence on trans people insisting on different personal pronouns.  They think that putting the language in line will help put attitudes in line over time.  I think this is misguided, and as I just suggested, the backlash may actually make things worse. Having to focus on pronouns takes my focus off whatever else a person is saying, and therefore, hearing them less well.

4 comments:

Christopher B said...

Rod Dreher has a post up at TAC regarding the reason for moving to a new school district that must not be spoken. I often think this is more what people are driving at with the idea of language driving thinking. The most direct way of making topics off limits is to either eliminate the word, or more usually to give it an alternate and unpleasant meaning. Patriot is pretty much there, as is immigrant.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

True. I do think that the underlying idea is that being able to say words aloud gives them life they would not otherwise have, rather like the idea that even allowing opposing views to be uttered on a platform gives them a legitimacy that should not be countenanced. OTOH, that one may actually work.

james said...

If you need the information, you will find a way to get it, no matter what chaff of pronouns or PC terms are used. Do you remember King Solomon's Mines?


"Behold! I make a decree, and it shall be published from the mountains to the mountains; your names, Incubu, Macumazahn, and Bougwan, shall be "hlonipa" even as the names of dead kings, and he who speaks them shall die.[1]

[1] This extraordinary and negative way of showing intense respect is by no means unknown among African people, and the result is that if, as is usual, the name in question has a significance, the meaning must be expressed by an idiom or other word. In this way a memory is preserved for generations, or until the new word utterly supplants the old. "

Assistant Village Idiot said...

In Indo-European culture, the bear could not be mentioned by name. Indirect speech, such as "the honey-eater" was used.