Friday, September 28, 2007

Where I come from we have a word for this

Mr Verb recently posted a gateway to a brilliantly ignorant article at The Christian Science Monitor website. It's a grand ol' flailing attempt at linguistics by anthropology PhD student David Keyes. The CSM article is a shorter version of an earlier post on his own blog.

Mr Verb controlled his commentary--and with good reason. It's hardly worth the argument because the claims are quite ridiculous. But there's reason to think that a counter voice is necessary. Just look at the commentary on Keyes' blog. His readers love this stuff and they feel smarter having read it. Ay...(that's Spanish for Oy Vey).

His claim is simple. Soccer proves that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is true.

Let's dive into this shallow end of argument:

Keyes references the "obscure theory about linguistics called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis" claiming that it offers an explanation for the great chasm between "English" and "Argentinian" soccer. As an example he introduces the Spanish term enganche for a soccer position. He was confused when he first heard the word then he learned what it meant.

From his original post:

The reason that I had so much trouble understanding enganche was because it was a position that didn’t fit into my frame of reference, which only had space for defenders, midfielders, and forwards.

That's like saying that I once found it so hard to understand French pomme de terre because my frame of reference only had room for spuds and taters. It's called not knowing the translation.

And as commenter Brett points out here, David's claim--that his ability to understand the position is hindered by his not knowing enganche--is felled by the fact that he has the word playmaker and he uses it. Not knowing how one vocabulary corresponds to another does not in any way equal not having the ablility to conceive as the other does. In fact he uses 2 terms for the idea: "a number ten" and "a playmaker". This apparent reliance on the idea that language-shapes conception would surely conclude for that for Keyes this position is twice as important and easy to conceive of because he uses twice as many words for them. Right? (if this sounds like the Eskimo-words-for-snow argument you can just take my word for it right now that it's all a crock. Better yet take Geoffrey K. Pullum's words.)

Likewise regarding the libero position Keyes says in his original post that "Franz Beckenbauer was a player whose unique style of play created the need for a new word to describe a newly created position."

Wait--if they didn't have the word for it how the hell did they come up with this hard to conceive of position? You see the problem here?

Then he introduces as evidence a dirty play in which the cleats are used in a tackle. Of the term La Plancha he says
Because there is a single word that describes this type of tackle, Spanish-speakers are more likely to be aware of the offense (and thus take offense at it being employed against them).

This is not to say that non-Spanish-speaking players are not sensitive to straight-legged, cleats-up tackles (speakers of all languages like their ankles in one piece). But the fact that a word exists to describe this kind of tackle heightens Spanish-speakers' awareness of it.

Heightens their awareness? So if somebody slashes my ankle with cleats and I don't have a single word for that I'm less likely to be upset? Really? It's having the word that allows me to be more aware and offended?

"Of course, players take offense at these types of tackles around the world" he says. "But [I would argue that] they are more frowned upon in Latin America." I suppose familiarity does breed contempt. Note that the bit in brackets is only included in his original post. In the CSM piece it was cut. Boo editor. Boo.

There are so many jumps in this argument--but to be fair they are necessary. Because there are so many gaps in the logic. And yet these stories have wings. I'm not sure what it is. Real linguistics and real psychology are so much more interesting and surprising than this. Why are people so willing to believe these people: they who claim that crisis and opportunity are the same word in Chinese even when that and similar claims have been satisfactorily refuted? Why do people still believe that women say more words per day than men do? Why do people believe that we can't think without language? Why is multilingualism considered a threat to the unity of our country? Why do people still read William Safire?

Well to end with one last petty and insignificant criticism of Keyes' article: Sapir-Whorf is not by any means an obscure theory. It's old and tired. It is dragged out and flaunted by scores of inept linguists manqués. It is a very commonly cited and abused theory and just as commonly (and more effectively) disputed.

[Update: Let me just add that it's a 'hard' reading of S-W that has been tossed aside. There's little doubt that language plays a role in our categorization of concepts. An appropriately 'soft' reading of S-W might go so far as to say that language sheds a little light on concepts at work. But once phrases like can't imagine or understanding is limited start creeping it it's time to grab the reins.

But I do not claim that language and thought are unrelated. That's just silly.


  1. You're a better man than me ... my head would have exploded if I'd written that much about the piece!

  2. There's a quote from Pratchett's "Hogfather" that is appropriate here:

    "Y'know, I've always felt that Mr Johnson was a much maligned man," said Ridcully, eventually.

    "Well, yes, of course he was," said the Lecturer in Recent Runes, clearly exasperated. "That's like saying jam attracts wasps, you see."

  3. I've been reading Wishydig for a while, but this is the first time I've encountered this post, and it's kind of made my day.

    Had I known about Mr. Keyes' piece a few weeks ago, I probably wouldn't have written a Sapir-Whorf-explains-soccer post on my own blog, arguing, amongst other things, that there is a direct link between positional flexibility on the soccer field and word-order flexibility.

    The difference between my post and that of Mr. Keyes is that mine was published on April 1st...


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