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Wednesday Linguistics: Foolishness

2006-06-21 @ 11:01

When I was young and foolish (those by-gone days), I started devising weird linguistics theories (that was before I started university). Those tended to be of the strong Whorf-Sapir kind. I remember two of those, both having to do with the grammar of specific languages.

The first concerned grammatical gender, the number used by some IE languages. German has three: feminine, masculine and neuter; French has two: feminine and masculine and English only one, called neuter (lit. “not the others”) for lack of a better term. This I decided to compare, for some strange reason, with the offerings of each culture in the field of philosophy.

[Bear in mind, I was, as I said, young and foolish] German had the widest offering: it had both social/ down-to-earth and personal/high-flight (or, as we say in French, “cloud-shovelling”) philosophy. Examples of more down-to-earth works including Das Kapital. French tended to mostly have the cloud-shovelling kind: who am I, how can I determine what I am to become. English, on the other hand, tended more toward the sociological, down-to-earth kind.

Conclusion: in languages that keep the neuter, down-to-earth philosophical thinking is made easier. Flights of fancies and personal are supported by the existence of dual animate gender (feminine and masculine).

The other hypothesis I tinkered with had to do with the existence, or not, of the verb to be (or copula). Arabic doesn’t have that verb (nor an infinitive form, which makes it fun to translate Hamlet’s famous monologue), nor do (I was told at the time) Chinese languages, and in Russian, it is somewhat restricted in the present tense. Interestingly enough (or so I claimed to think), those same language were spoken in countries with autocratic governments. There seemed to be a link between notions of individual freedom and the verb to be. (Note: Klingon doesn’t have one either)

As I said, that was before I really got into linguistics.

11 comments to “Wednesday Linguistics: Foolishness”

  1. Since my teenage years in the 1970’s I used to be fascinated with the relation of grammar to perception. I don’t think I was conscious of just how much I thought about it at the time. But I can remember spending hours thinking about notions that I guess I made up before I was twenty. One idea that I still think about from time to time is what I used to call “linguistic override”–a notion I still refer to occasionally, but could probably not explain with any clarity.

    I think I must have also been interested from pretty early on with the idea of creating grammars that would restrict and direct our perception. Then, when I read George Orwell’s 1984 (back in 1980) and found the section on the “Principles of Newspeak” at the end of the book, my mind began to race. It seemed to cause all my dimly held notions about language and perception to crystallize, then explode into a starburst of new possibilities.

    For several years, I became slightly obsessed with the idea of how language might affect perception. I started writing papers (that only I read) on my ideas for new grammars. Grammars that would inhibit thinking, grammars that would force one to think logically, grammars that would allow us to remember everything, grammars in which every sentence was actually two sentences with completely different meanings, sentences that in which one meaning was delivered to the conscious mind while another was delivered to the subconscious. I had actually invented a card trick that crudely demonstrated the last idea.

    I used to love to hear stories of how some primitive aboriginal culture in Africa (or somewhere) had only 2 words for all colors–so I would imagine how that would constrain them to not be able to perceive colors that were obvious to me. Or stories of how some other culture would have no words for the past or future tenses, so I would suppose they must be unable to conceive of those things.

    When I think back on them, I find these notions very quaint. I am no language professional, though I once wanted to be. Even so, I think they probably were very helpful to me insofar as they led me to explore the nature of perception probably a deeper than the average person gets to.

  2. BTW, what is the actual expression (in French) that you were referring to? And can you give me an example sentence or two?

    [I tried using the Google translation tool to see if I could come up with the expression, but nothing seemed obviously correct — nuage pellant? déblayement de nuage?]

  3. The phrase is “pelletage de nuages” (cloud shovelling) or “pelleter des nuages” (to shovel clouds). It may not be that widespread in other parts of the world, but quite common here is Quebec.

    “they probably were very helpful to me insofar as they led me to explore the nature of perception probably a deeper than the average person gets to” and that is often just what we need.

    I still (mea culpa) have to read 1984; it’s one of those books that’ve been forever “on my list”. U. Eco does have an interesting book on the Search for the Perfect Language which discusses various attempts at creating “perfect languages” (as well as attempts at finding out which one was the first).

    I did try to create a language or two, but never really got anywhere; and they weren’t about restricting perception (I hadn’t got into that then). What I find interesting (and understandable) is that we often find examples of how other languages don’t seem to express things that are obvious to us, but really how ours doesn’t bother with distinctions obvious in others.

    “sentences that in which one meaning was delivered to the conscious mind while another was delivered to the subconscious. I had actually invented a card trick that crudely demonstrated the last idea.” I’d like to see ;)

  4. I have heard of Umberto Eco’s book, but never read it. It has been on my ‘to read someday’ list for a long time. I suspect Eco is brilliant. I did read one of his novels “Foucault’s Pendulum”, but couldn’t get through “Name of the Rose”. The movie was one of my all time favorites, though. It may have been through his writing that I eventually became aware that many famous historical figures (I think Isaac Newton was one) toyed with inventing languages reasons that sound similar to mine. Anyway, despite my interests, I never really invented any languages worth discussing. It may have been my passion for a time, but I can’t claim to have been very proficient at it. :)

    Is ‘pelleter des nuages’ a very academic expression? I asked a Francophone coworker if he recognized the expression. He said he had never encountered it after living in Mtl for close to 50 years.

    As you may have guessed from my last question, we’re more or less neighbors, you and I. So who knows? I might just be able to demonstrate the card trick someday in person. (If I can still set it up.)

  5. I was muchly frustrated when learning French years ago by the gendered thing. I thought, how can a chair, or a spoon, or a fork, be boy or girl? It didn’t make any sense to me.

    I LOVE “cloud-shovelling”! That is about the best description of existentialism and metaphysical philosophy I have heard to date!

  6. Well, maybe that expression is more localized than I thought. It’s not very academic though. Maybe it’s a Quebec city thing.

    The thing with grammatical gender, is that, I think, if your mother tongue has it, you quickly dissociate it from real-life gender. For inanimates, that is (and non-domestic animals: giraffes, hyenas, gazelles are feminin but elephants, deer, cheetas are masculin). And sometimes also for some terms describing people: person is feminin, individual is masculin (but I guess could be feminized).

  7. I hadn’t notice we were neighbours, Mr P. Do drop in for that card trick and a nice chat. You too, TG, if you’re ever in the neighbourhood; I always like meeting in person people I e-talk with.

  8. …Well, maybe that expression is more localized than I thought. It’s not very academic though. Maybe it’s a Quebec city thing…”

    Just last night I realized that the “Francophone coworker” whom I asked about the “shoveling clouds” expression also happens to be a Belanger. So, I guess that means the expression is not particularly widespread among members of your family. :)

    BTW, I googled the expression again and found tons of examples of its usage online, so I think my coworker, Paul, just happened to miss that expression. Or maybe I said it badly.

    As you have probably guessed, expressive phrases like that tend to stick in my mind. Well, it’s for a good reason. I expect to resume my French training in about a month. (I can speak French well enough to be a very boring conversationalist.) I am actually getting quite excited about having a chance to raise my skills up another notch. My biggest hurdle, however, seems to be one that the education system is usually not very helpful about–it’s learning to understand what people are saying when they are not speaking a standardized version of French.

    My feeling is that the best strategy for language training is to teach the student to speak a standard variety–so he/she will be easy for all to understand–but teach them to at least be able to comprehend both the standard and local dialects.

    It seems to me, though, that our educators consider it bad practice to teach the local dialectical variations, or to even speak of them, for that matter, unless they are berating it as “bad French”. As a consequence of my past training, I can usally understand spoken French fairly well if it is of a standard variety, but I typically have a very difficult time with the language I encounter in the world I actually live in. At my martial arts club, for example, there is a young man that I often partner with when practicing techniques. I am sure I understand less than 20% of what he says to me. Although it is getting better with exposure.

    May I ask what your opinion is–assuming you have one–on the value of the local dialects of French, here in Quebec?

  9. Funny, I’ve got a cousin named Paul. Then again, Bélanger is one of the most common name in the Province.

    As to what my opinion of the local varieties (there’s actually more than one) of French. Well, you’ve just given me an idea for my next instalment of Wednesday Linguistics, if you don’t mind waiting until then!

    I agree with you though about the need to learn the local variety. After all, odds are the locals are the ones you’re gonna talk to.

  10. I look forward to your next post.

    Does your cousin have a brother named Carl?

  11. No, and come to think of it, he lives in Ottawa.

What do you think?