Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Idealizing the Language-Thought Connection (Pseudolinguistics and Ideal Languages, Part 4)

The as-yet unaddressed topic in this series is the phrase "ideal languages". Nearly as commonplace as the belief that one's community doesn't speak a dialect (though neighboring communities do) is the belief that one's mother tongue is somehow more eloquent, more precise, more logical, or somehow better by another measure than other languages. I do not use ideal language in the Early Modern sense (though I hope to write on that phenomenon in the future), but rather in the sense of a pride (often national or religious) associated with some tongue.

In the same way that we note how obsessed Eskimo are with snow (they aren't really) or the way we puzzle over how Germans can have a word for that (its the morphology, dummkopf), we sometimes speak with pride about aspects of our own language. By a little folk reasoning through the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, those aspects become aspects of the national culture as well.
French has a very logical structure, therefore one can't help but reason logically when speaking French.

Italian is a beautiful language, therefore Italians are beautiful and/or great admirers of beauty.

The reasoning can even be turned against speakers of other languages.
German is an angry sounding language, therefore Germans are an angry people.

If one accepts that language and culture influence thought and one also accepts certain generalizations or stereotypes about a group or language, then such conclusions follow. In folk linguistics, one passes over details such as the sounds of German being spoken outside of parody or war movies or that the structure of French is a hodge-podge of over a thousand years worth of conflicting trends.

Sometimes the object of affection is not even the national language. Though I didn't address it at the time, this sort of reasoning appears to lie behind much of the writings on Edenics that I looked at when researching that post. As it seems to be tacitly assumed, if the ancient Hebrews were YHWH's chosen people and he communicated to them through their language, then studying the language can bring us closer to god. Hebrew, the Adamic language, and angelic languages have had their admirers over the centuries as well, and like Mozeson, more than a few have attempted to show the connection between them and their native tongue. One sees the same thing in other aspects of culture. Medieval Irish monks prefaced pagan myths with stories of Noah's flood and how some of his descendants settled Ireland. Such ideology is not always so innocent, however. In the present day, Hindu nationalists have placed great emphasis the Indo-European background of India and the Indo-Aryan origins of the Hindi language as a distinction between their culture and that of Muslims in the region.

In the next post in this series, I will look at the so-called Alphabet effect. You can read the first chapter of the book by the same name at the author's homepage and, I'm somewhat embarrassed to say, a review of mine from several years ago on Amazon.

No comments: