The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

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Amanda and Johnathan,

One thing I’ve been talking around is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Or rather a corollary. The idea is that for most people a great deal of thought – and almost all out our communication – is linguistic. An internal monologue, if you will. This limits us. We cannot concisely express thoughts for which we have no words. A computational theorist would say our minds are general machines and can express any thought. But the concision and thus speed of our thoughts is limited by such circumlocutions.

Jargon, properly used, is a shorthand to think more quickly about things that are slow to explain formally. With time and use they become formalized and speed up the thought of everyone who uses them. Skiers know there is a great difference between powder and mashed potatoes. Police call the long, scraping dents between the wheel wells of cars ‘drunk marks.’ Concise and explicative of the common deduction. Laser has become more precise and accurate than ‘Light Amplification by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation’ could ever have been. It also allows for faster thinking through grammar. “The tungsten alloy LASED under the effect of the nuclear blast.” Try and say that without the word ‘laser’ or using it as a verb. I dare you. So better language makes us think faster.

Of course bad usage makes us think more slowly and thus more dimly. Salesmen like this. ‘Hand rubbed finish’ is just a complicated way of saying ‘linseed oiled’ without imparting information to those unfamiliar with the code. Sometimes it is used to segregate the ‘right’ people from the ‘wrong’ ones.

After Fukishima I was mystified by the radiation dosage being given in Sv. Sievert. I knew REM. Two different definitions. Rads. Curies. Roentgens…. I never heard of Sieverts. It turns out 100 REM == 1 Sievert. The Metric System does this all the time; it changes names without changing anything else to define who is in good standing. Heck, it’s not even the Metric System any longer. It’s SI. When I was young, Charles had transceivers labeled cycles per second. Dad spoke of Centigrade. When I was in college they were purging Degrees Kelvin for Kelvins and the AMU for u. Angstoms were replaced by nanometers with a decimal move. This sort of jargon made everyone slower as we limped to our dictionaries to find what the new term was for the same old thing.

Political Correctness does the same thing. By having to stop and determine the ‘Correct’ term for something we already knew, we are stopped cold. And since the new words don’t quite fit, they make a hash of the language, which makes us all slower. For thousands of years man meant person. Woman meant a man who could bear children. The name for a male person was struck from the language in a very old case of thought policing. ‘Retarded’ was a euphemism meaning slow. Now we need a further euphemism to hide unpleasant thoughts. I guarantee that whatever the word is which is thought correct today, we will soon need a euphemism for that too.

I once read a letter to the editor from Leslie Charteris where he complained about the word ‘gay.’ I didn’t understand then. We had lost a word from the language. That is not a small thing, for we had lost a thought from our minds.

So better words lead to better thinking. It follows that worse words lead to slower, confused thoughts. [I swear I really will discuss Auctoritas eventually!] Restricted vocabulary leads to a restricted palette to paint our thoughts. Did you ever read 1984? That was the point of Newspeak. By eliminating ideas from the vocabulary, the government tried to eliminate the ideas. This haunts me because I grew up reading Conan Doyle, Walter Scott, and Rudyard Kipling. Even low-brow writers – apologies! – such as E. R. Burroughs and E. E. Smith wrote with a clarity and precision not easily available today. Our current language will not support it. Think of writing a program in BASIC versus Python. We have enfeebled our language while our science and power have grown. This is not a stable state.

The last writer I read who actually wrote in a manner to expand my faculties was Rex Stout. [Well, maybe Neal Stephenson in Anathem.] If you’ve never met Nero Wolfe, I encourage you. Actually it is not just the language. He embodies an America which has faded and lost liberty.

Of course I exaggerate. There are other types of thought. Charles is a great proponent of visual thinking. And I have met painters who thought in a formalized way I do not understand. But since we communicate by words, I am preoccupied by our linguistic retreat.


Uncle David


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