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language as thought

September 22, 2010

[TNR] Judging from how the Times magazine’s excerpt from Guy Deutscher’s new book has been one of the most read pieces in the paper for over a week now, the book is on its way to libating readers ever eager for the seductive idea that people’s languages channel the way they think–that is, that grammar creates cultural outlooks.

“Oooh-mmmm!” I heard in a room once when a linguist parenthetically suggested that the reason speakers of one Native American language have prefixes instead of words to indicate mixing, poking, and sucking on food is because they are “culturally” attuned to such things.

But don’t we all cherish poking and sucking? As cool as it would be if grammar were thought, the idea is a myth–at least in any form that would be of interest beyond academic psychologists.

Deutscher is to be commended for noting that the original version of this idea has not held up. Fire-inspector-by-day Benjamin Lee Whorf claimed in the thirties that Hopi has no way to indicate tense, and thus created a cyclical sense of time among its speakers. But Hopi has plenty of words and suffixes to indicate tense, and the whole idea that Hopi was a substrate for a mystical frame of mind has fallen to pieces.

But Deutscher’s idea is that a new thread of work is showing that language does create thought patterns nevertheless. The upshot is supposed to be that human groups are going about with their grammatical structures lending them fascinatingly different Ways of Looking at the World. (read)

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