Monday, August 2, 2010

swallowing the whorfian pill

The lingo world is ablaze with references to the recent WSJ article Lost in Translation by Stanford Professor Lera Boroditsky. Tweeters have been linking to it like mad and both Language Log (also here) and the Economist's Johnson blog have discussed it (I posted about Professor Boroditsky's work before here and my position mirror's the Johnson's: interesting but not ground breaking and a bit overblown).  I suspect that lay audiences love Whorfian stuff much like they love peevologists and no word for x discussions. A combination of cultural attitudes and fundamental misunderstanding about how language actually works leads to popular lingo-topics that make most linguist yawn or roll their eyes.

Along these lines, I stumbled across what appears to be a legitimate, well-meaning, but perhaps somewhat misguided research project: The who/which project. From the project web page:

One of the underlying causes of ecological destruction is the separation between humans and other animals. When nonhuman animals are treated according to balance sheets rather than their own nature, the result can be not only a life of misery for the animals concerned, but environmental devastation.  This research project looks at one area of language which both reflects and contributes to the gulf between humans and other animals: the pronouns who and which. Who, we are told by some but not all dictionaries and grammar books, refers exclusively to humans, which to nonhuman animals, plants and things. This project has begun by investigating the use of the pronouns who and which (and perhaps related topics later), starting with what dictionaries and grammar books prescribe and describe. Beyond this, the hope is that the project could contribute to efforts to bridge the gap between humans and other animals (emphasis added).

If I understand correctly, this project is going to try to analyze written rules for who/which in hopes of discovering some causal link to animal cruelty. This is founded on the belief the using a different pronoun to refer to animals causes us to think about them differently. I realize I'm exaggerating the project's claims a bit and I'll ask you to forgive me that because I want to lay bare the underlying assumptions. There is a Whorfian hypothesis underlying this project's mission. Unfortunately, their methodology is far to superficial and simplistic to yield anything useful, I suspect. And this comes full circle back to Boroditsky in that even a Standford professor's well designed empirical research on the Whorfian hypothesis gets misunderstood and overblown. Poorly designed projects are destined for a Full Liberman.

2 comments:

Lonehermit said...

Latvian language doesn't even distinguish between who and which in this way. In fact the colloquial language often uses he/she and it interchangeably. The separation in the formal language seems to be a historical prescriptive influence from other languages that were considered more "cultured".

In any case the attitude of Latvian towards animals are basically the same as everywhere else in the world.

Chris said...

Interesting point, Lonehermit. I'm sure there are many cross linguistic facts that would problematize the project's mission. Even within English it's not an straight forward issue, as Zwicky points out here.

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