Keeping Up with the World
When one retires from the workforce, it’s to be expected that one’s chosen field will continue to change even if we don’t keep up by reading and going to meetings and conferences, and even in some cases making our own quasi-original contributions. There comes a time when we come to realize that not only are we forgotten, but we no longer know what’s going on. Improving our golf game through daily practice might, for some people, make up for the feeling of loss and isolation.
What is more discouraging to me is the discovery that something I’ve “known” for a long time hasn’t, in fact, been true at all. It’s one thing to realize that the world goes on without me; it’s quite another to find that the world wasn’t what I thought it was even when I was part of it.
“Linguistic determination” was an hypothesis about how we are shaped, in a fundamental way, by the language we happened to grow up with. We’ve all heard people who speak more than one language cite certain words in French, say, that “have no English equivalent; they are untranslatable.” Without a doubt, we have borrowed words back and forth between different languages because they seem to express something better than anything in our native tongue.
Benjamin Lee Whorf, studying linguistics under Edward Sapir in the last century, wrote that the Hopi language contained no words for time, and that therefore those people had no concept of something the rest of us take for granted. And there rose in the twentieth century the myth that “Eskimos have dozens of words for snow,” and therefore possess a finer discrimination in that area than do European-Americans. Language, in other words, is our window to reality. Without language, we are mere animals. It was an idea that caught on in the general culture, and for years I echoed the idea along with many other people.
It turns out we were wrong. Noam Chomsky, the brilliant linguist and sometimes scathing social critic, pointed out that humans possess a kind of built-in “universal grammar,” from which all languages have developed. Steven Pinker, in his book The Language Instinct details the commonalities of natural languages and argues that Chomsky’s theories are compatible with the most recent discoveries in the neural sciences. The structural way in which our brains are made leads to the common structures underlying language. And the Hopi Native Americans did, indeed, possess the concept of time and referred to it much as we immigrants do. And when one looks more closely at the Inuit language, their perception of “snow” is very similar to our own.
No one doubts that a large vocabulary enhances one’s ability to perceive nuance. An interior decorator has at her disposal many more words for different colors than I do, and is thereby more sensitive to eloquence in art. I’m reminded of my verbal shortcomings every time I pick up a copy of The New Yorker or The Atlantic. I’m sure that other people understand more of the world than I ever could, simply because of their greater command of language. But that’s not what Chomsky and Pinker are talking about.
George Orwell, in 1949, wrote his famous novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which the government was systematically stripping the language of undesirable words so as to strip the people of dangerous ideas, such as “freedom” and “rebellion.” Orwell actually thought that his fictional society might actually come to be. He didn’t know that the human brain can—and will—create ideas and ways to communicate them, regardless of cultural strictures. Eventually, anyway.
For fifty years, I’ve helped to perpetuate the myth of linguistic determinism, gleefully pointing out to people that the world was more complicated than they thought, limited as they were by their language. My own arrogance obscured from me the need to investigate further; Noam Chomsky’s writings were available to me all the time.
Of course, nobody accused Mr. Chomsky of excessive clarity in the way he expounded on his theory. Maybe it had to take Steven Pinker, fifty years later, to put the ideas into words that I could understand. And I didn’t have the time to read about such things until I extracted myself from the Daily Grind of “making a living.” I needn’t apologize now, I tell myself, for what I didn’t know then.
Still, I wonder what other myths I’ve been harboring and perpetuating all my life. Even as I lifted an eyebrow, as a teenager, when my father spouted garbage that I knew for certain wasn’t so, I have to expect some condescending responses from my progeny now and then. “Oh, Grandpa,” I hear them say, “you’re so naïve!”
Donald Skiff, October 11, 2007