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Monday, September 6, 2010

I'm clueless. Doesn't mean I'm wrong, though.

Opinions, it is said, are like assholes; everyone's got one. This isn't exactly true. I can't speak for the rest of the world, but in my case, I have but one asshole (of which I'm aware), but many, many opinions. Inevitably, some of these are full of shit.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where almost all of our opinions are uninformed ones. I'm all too aware of my own cluelessness on pretty much every topic, but it doesn't stop me having firm opinions on those topics. I'm on firmer ground with some subjects than others; I know I'm right when it comes to matters concerning, for example, evolution. On others, such as my unwavering disbelief in dark matter, I know I'm almost certainly wrong. But I hold the opinion nonetheless.

My interest in language and in linguistics has been growing over the past few years, and my knowledge has reached that magic level where I can hold opinions that seem informed but most likely aren't. One of those opinions is that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is nonsense. Why reject this hypothesis which, though formulated by an amateur, has been backed by people who have actual qualifications (unlike your humble servant)? The same reason any hypothesis should be rejected; there's absolutely no concrete evidence to support it. (Note: an actual linguist who knows much more than I says that Edward Sapir was not an "armchair linguist", so my calling him an amateur just shows how little I know. He even files it under "ignorance of linguistics").

It's a compelling idea, and one that seems to make a lot of sense. The suggestion is that the language we speak has a major effect on the way we look at the world. Any of us who know more than a smattering of more than one language can see the attraction; we can all ascribe a stereotype (fair or otherwise) to a nation, and selectively find hints in their grammar and/or vocabulary to back up this idea. But in every case - every case - of which I've read in the past few years, the evidence-based conclusions have ranged from tenuous to delusional.

Again, I'm not a linguist. I haven't read the papers; just the reports on them, and the occasional publicly-available abstract. And these by necessity leave out the technical details. I could be a victim of sloppy reporting. But I don't think I am.

When New Scientists cites a number of published papers that seem to back Sapir-Whorf, it doesn't really seem all that surprising. But when you look at the examples they give, none of them is concrete. Were I given the New Scientist article with all references to Sapir-Whorf stripped, I'd come to some very different conclusions; I'd suggest that the studies pointed to the fact that more information leads to a greater ability to remember. Or something.

I could be wrong; it wouldn't surprise me in the slightest. One of the reasons that I set up this blog in the first place is that writing about these things helps me formulate my thoughts on the subject. I don't, however, think that the language I'm using has any relevance. I could be writing this in Klingon and I'd have the same opinions.

Well, maybe not the same opinions. I'd be a lot more passionate about Captain Kirk. And my interest in Seven of Nine would have a lot less to do with morphology.

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