Lingering Sapir-Wharfism: Confusing the results of change with its causes.

So I was listening to the Cracked podcast again because its enjoyable and good for little factoids, but they were talking about history in an interesting way and turned to language history and said the following: It is not that words form your thoughts, they are your thoughts.   No, they absolutely are not: this mixture of Lacanian and Sapir-Whorf is endemic particularly to left-liberals and educated leftists and its been debunked in both cognitive psyche and linguistics for nigh 20 years, and yet people still function as if all symbolic thought was words. 90% of daily expressions are pre-verbal.

I am a poet who is interested in anthropology and philosophy and have some formal training in both.  I deal with language all the time, and what I have learned as a poet is what language can’t do, what it doesn’t it change, what it can’t shape.  Yet I constantly deal with people who operate in the realm of “criticism” that assume almost exactly the opposite. Then it occurred to me: language policing as a means to change, instead, you know, actually changing social conditions first stems from this basic misunderstanding about people and history.   When you don’t change social conditions the term of respect used to replace the prior slur JUST becomes the next slur.  It’s a Red Queen game that goes no where.  Furthermore, just because people couldn’t leave record of a concept doesn’t mean they didn’t have it in some nascent sense–otherwise changes in language themselves would never happen.

It’s not that we should respect people’s vocabulary wishes, but it is definitely ahistorical and, frankly,  anthropologically incorrect, to think that this itself indicates social change.  Yet it is assumed in way most political pundits address media and we people talk about the past and its use of language.

Why is this so hard to understand?  Is just something that Humanities and social science majors are given to because they study ideas often removed from material history and then presume that bias in psychology?

Even if the “subconsciousness is structured like a language” that doesn’t mean it is the same thing.


One thought on “Lingering Sapir-Wharfism: Confusing the results of change with its causes.

  1. This is something I’ve thought much about over the years.

    I’ve never been overly interested in philosophy as a mere language game. I suppose it relates to what simultaneously irritates and fascinates me about political labels and rhetoric, along with social constructs such as race.

    I’m always wondering about how to both understand words and sense what is behind or beyond them. Words can obstruct and obscure as easily as they can communicate, maybe more easily.

    I remember learning about this kind of thing with the theory about perception of colors in terms of words describing color. I realize there is a long and complex debate about the relationship between words and perception, and I won’t pretend to understand much of it.

    The reason we put so much emphasis on words is because they are the most accessible evidence we have and often the only evidence available. This is particularly true of societies that have had their cultures destroyed (e.g., indigenous peoples) and of societies that have entirely disappeared (e.g., ancient civilizations).

    It’s the latter that has been on my mind recently. The only two sources of info about the ancient world are archaeological sites and ancient texts. There is often a greater emphasis on the latter because they can feel more accessible, as if by having their words before us we can peer into their minds.

    It is a fascinating topic. When ancient people wrote those words, what were they trying to communicate? What were the thoughts, experiences, and perceptions being represented and expressed?

    I’ve been reading the views of a number of authors: E. R. Dodd, Bruno Snell, Julian Jaynes, Bernard Williams, Anthony A. Long, etc. They are all looking at ancient texts and yet interpreting them differently.

    I’m curious about the ancient worldview. I think it is unhelpful to assume that the ancients thought like us. I have an appreciation for how diversely the mind can be expressed. It’s not hard for me to imagine that the ancients actually could have regularly heard the voices of gods, spirits, and ancestors. But maybe that is what I get for having done too many psychedelics when I was younger.

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