Posted by: Piers Kelly | August 12, 2009

Opening a can of Whorfs

This week’s tutorial was (mostly) on the topic of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and almost everyone has had something to say about it. I’m not even going to attempt to summarise all the views here but please feel free to re-state your case in the comments section of Johanna’s earlier post, or here.

Just want to draw your attention to a few resources that relate to our discussions:

Some of you brought up the famous Eskimo snow vocabulary example. Although it is not the case that Eskimos have an abundance of words for snow, the success of the meme gives us insight into what many people intuitively believe about the relationship between culture language. I don’t recommend rushing out to read Geoff Pullum’s book, The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax since it’s a tad dry and the Eskimo bit is just one short chapter. More interesting thoughts on this can be found here.

The Pirahã (pee-da-HAN) language and culture of the Amazon was another popular topic. Dan Everett’s very accessible book Don’t Sleep There are Snakes is available from the library. The New Yorker article on the topic can be read here. Critiques and counter-critiques are available on Language Log.

In one of the tutorials we talked about translatability of cultural concepts and resistance to translation of sacred texts into the vernacular. A few recent episodes of Lingua Franca address these issues as they have related to the Qu’ran in Turkish, and the Bible in languages other than Latin, Hebrew and Greek. You can listen to these on the website (look for 18 July broadcast) or via iTunes. Other students talked about the difficulty of translating poetry and poetic imagery, especially if rhyme and scansion are maintained. My favourite examples are Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of The Rubaiyat or Dorothy L Sayers’ translation of The Divine Comedy.

Beyond Sapir-Whorf
The deterministic elaboration of the Whorfian hypothesis as first proposed by Benjamin Whorf is now mostly out of favour, as those who had a chance to look at the Wardaugh readings will know. On the other hand, some linguists are returning to an investigation of the relationships between language, culture, cognition from a psycholinguistic perspective. At the ANU, the Grammar and Social Cognition project “examines the way diverse grammars crystallise human reasoning about social reality”. Nothing on the web yet but I can send on materials if you’re interested.


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