12 July 2007

A Monolingual Field Situation

This article in The New Yorker left me much amused.

Davidson was always quick to note that his "radical interpretation" was only meant as a sort of thought-experiment, aimed at wheedling out some of the requirements for the possibility of understanding another's mindful actions (primarily speech), but it does seem enlightening to note how translation of a language really functions when there is nothing like a shared language between two speakers beforehand. Note that progress was basically nil until the translators began to posit that the Pirahã simply hated anything foreign, or far-off, or old, or abstract. They live in a strikingly odd society, ignoring things like mathematics, art, and history which might've been taken to be universal among humanity. And so their language doesn't have ways to talk about things like calculation, individual colors, great spans of time, or perspectival orientation, because they have no interest in these things. (Note the look of "pitying contempt" when it is suggested that perhaps bugs might be swatted instead of tolerated. It is not that the Pirahã man has no idea of what the reporter is doing; he has enough of an idea to know that he hates the reporter for it, which involves knowing quite a bit more than nothing.)

The bit on Whorf was interesting, too. It's hypothesized that the Pirahã don't have terms for numbers larger than two, and that's why they have trouble with any but the simplest calculations. It's then suggested that this doesn't quite fit the phenomena; rather than being unable to count past two due to a lack of a word for "three" it's supposed that they aren't counting at all. They have some loose ways to organize quantities (little, more, lots), but have no proper "numbers" at all. Their meager mathematical skills are then part of their disinterest in things like math, and not an artifact of their limited vocabulary. This strikes me as a very nice way to appreciate Sapir (et al)'s point about the close connection of language with the rest of life without falling into the confusions that lead one to say things like "Thought is limited by one's vocabulary," which makes it mysterious how one's vocabulary changes, or "There are some thoughts which cannot be expressed in English," which then begs the question of which thoughts these are, and how we know enough about them to know we can't "express them in English."

I should probably write a post on "On The Very Idea Of A Conceptual Scheme" or somesuch, so that this blog isn't utterly impenetrable to anyone who hasn't read the guys I've read. (On the off chance that anyone ever reads this blog to begin with, of course.) I'll have to hunt around old comment threads in a bit and see if I've already written something useful for this purpose.

1 comment:

J.A. Brown said...

I have read it. It has not gone unnoticed.