Don't overrate the power of language to shape minds
Thank you, this is one of my personal bore-people-to-death-at-parties hobby horses: it’s absolutely common folk wisdom around the “left”, especially (and ironically) in academic contexts that that Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is not just true but settled and accepted science, which is crazy-making since the actual experimental and empirical evidence for it is… “highly contested” is about the kindest term I could possibly use.
What it actually is, of course, is a belief in _magic_, specifically of a strain that Ursula LeGuin poetically described in “A Wizard of Earthsea”: things have their common names and their secret true names, and if you know the latter you can control them. It makes for dazzling fantasy literature but rather less dazzling political practice.
You can see through older film and photography that our worlds rich and vibrant colors are in fact quite a recent development. I have no idea why Matt is trying to obscure this. Lying about colors won’t make ‘birthing people’ sound any better to most ears.
I think one of the reasons the “language is power” take remains so common is because it makes analysis (1) easy and (2) satisfying.
Arguing a point with language is mostly deductive. You don’t have to do much research. There’s no numbers, and barely any theory. And it comes especially easy to the type of people who enjoy politics and arguing about it, who (like me and others in my policy grad program) are usually humanities-types who enjoy reading and writing, and like to think of ourselves as better people for that.
It’s also super satisfying to argue about language, because it keeps politics in the realm of aesthetics. Arguing about exactly how much higher a carbon tax should be is boring; arguing about what to call a carbon tax is fun.
I'm a (retired) theoretical linguist and I endorse this essay.
I'm reminded over the whole to-do about "person-first" language, e.g., saying "person with autism" rather than "autistic person" on the grounds that putting the word "person" first emphasizes the person over the disability. When I first heard of it, I thought it was absurd, since the contortions involved in putting the word "person" first in a sentence could easily end up highlighting the thing that one was trying to de-emphasize. In short, one may mean to say, "PERSON with autism" but end up saying "person WITH AUTISM." Emphasis is never as simple as word order.
I was not surprised to find that the response of other autistic people to person-first language amounted to "Thanks, I hate it."
Fun example in this vein is the Niger-based adaptation of Purple Rain titled Rain the Color of Blue with a Little Red in It. Clearly they are talking about the same shade even if there is no word for it.
My 5-year-old son's native language is Hebrew. In Hebrew, there are different words for "blue" and "light blue" (כחול "kahol" and תכלת "tchelet", roughly). I speak both Hebrew and English natively, but usually "think in English".
Once in a while, my son will be playing with a light-blue toy, and I'll call it blue. He'll get very angry at me and explain that of course it's not blue, it's a completely different color. I think of it as just another kind of blue - a light blue. He thinks of it as תכלת which is something else.
I completely agree that the way the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is thought about is pretty ridiculous, with a few books convincing me that it's completely overblown (Pinker's Language Instinct I think is one such book.)
But for sure, this blue vs. light blue distinction has an immediate impact on my life :)
This doesn't go into I think the main reason why this is such a big thing on the left today. Today's left includes lawyers, teachers, professors, journalists, and screenwriters, so it is unsurprisingly invested in the power of words. That pretty easily leads to focusing on arguing about words, especially in discussion with other people who care about them. It also means that if you're hoping for some extra advantage for pursuing ideological goals, the left has an advantage in changing language. So it's very tempting to think that this will accomplish something significant.
Which is not to say that the linguistic changes don't matter a little, just that it's easy to see why their impact and significance is overplayed on the 21st century left.
Not the most important part of this, but until I was a teenager I never saw a blue sea. I'd holiday on the North Sea coast and the water was brown, or, at best, a slugdy green.
While I agree with this article, the color "Cyan" does exist. It is just not used very often.
I good example of this is the use of the word Gay. Formerly meaning happy, and adopted by what became the "Gay Rights" movement to create a more positive perception of gay people, it ultimately became used as a term of abuse and disparagement. You actually had to do the hard yards of convincing people that they shouldn't verbally attack/diminish homosexual people/homosexuality
There are tons of such ridiculous claims. For instance, I can't track down Daniel Everett's direct claims about the Pirahã people in the Amazon, but his research is frequently reported as saying they "have no concept of time", which is obviously nonsensical. You cannot reason about cause and effect without a concept of time, and there are all kinds of things that existed in humans' evolutionary environment that humans couldn't manipulate without a built-in concept of time: you need a concept of time to track a game animal, to plan to spend the rainy season where the most fruit grows, to resolve paternity disputes. Even without words denoting time, verb tenses, or subordinate clauses, being able to make plans, distinguish between a pattern and an unusual event, or organize a circadian or circannual routine depends on an internal understanding of time.
Excellent. For an influential segment of the left, regulating language seems to be the only instrument of political activism they know, with the predictable fallout described at the end of the article.
Orwell was right. Controlling language can make some concepts slightly more or less accessible, but it doesn't actually prevent people from thinking of with those concepts (or disagreeing with them, depending on which end of the scales one puts their thumb). Making people use your preferred language is, however, an effective way to humiliate them and demonstrate your power.
When aunt Sally starts talking about "the death tax" at a party, the primary consequence is that it reminds everyone she cares a little too much about Fox News - or in certain social circles, it reminds people that she's "one of them". Unless she's especially charismatic or beloved to the degree that other people want to copy her for social reasons, it usually stops there.
The bitter war for people's hearts over the terms "pro-choice" and "pro-life" has culminated in a surprising situation: outside of pitched political battles, people I know simply refer to pro- and anti-abortion activists by their preferred terms without changing their own views on the matter.
The "magic words" theory of language influence is inferior to one rooted sociology that comprehends how the primary impact of terminological differences is how they indicate that other viewpoints exist at all.
Any notion that people in ancient times (i.e. very recent in terms of homo sapien history) differ >fundamentally< from modern people should be treated as suspect, and requiring very strong evidence. The idea that humans only developed the ability to see blue in recent times should immediately have stopped people in their tracks to ask if that is plausible. I mean, maybe noted historical writer Homer was using some kind of metaphor instead of literally describing what the sea looked like to him?
Another curious hypothesis people have is that schizophrenia only came about in the 18th century because ancient texts about people with mental disorders do not precisely match descriptions of modern schizophrenia.
I think there is a huge non-sequitur here. Current science suggests that language does not fully *determine* our perception, but at the same time does show that it *can* help (or hinder) the ease with which we perform certain cognitive tasks. It’s a great non sequitur and straw man to conclude that because language is not all powerful and insurmountable it doesn’t matter at all. Likewise, just because Reagan could achieve more liberal immigration policies with more hostile language and today we fail doesn’t prove that language didn’t have a role here at all. Maybe he did so *despite* a linguistic hurdle, and today likewise we fail despite a linguistic leg up?
In other words showing that something isn’t the only or the primary factor doesn’t mean it’s not a factor at all. It might still have *some* influence and thus could be argued as being a “low hanging fruit”, provided people realize it’s not the be all and end all.
And this is why us designers use numbers — hex/RGB, CMYK or Pantone — to describe colors rather than using vague terms like "sea foam" or "cerulean". People can, and have, measured the colors all humans* can see and have created standards describing not only which colors we can see, but how bright and colorful they're perceived to be.
*Except those who are color blind of course.
: Yellow light looks brighter to people than blue light even if they have the same physical power. This is called luminance or luminosity and is again universal.