Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
So I recently saw the film Arrival and read the short story it’s based on, “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang.
At the center of the plot, both in the film and in the story, is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which states that the language(s) that one speaks determines or influences the way that one thinks. The film and the story present an extreme version of Sapir-Whorf, wherein one who learns an alien language comes to see time the way the aliens do. But in fact most scholars have rejected the strong version of Sapir-Whorf, which suggests that people aren’t even able to think outside of their linguistic categories.
The weak version, though, seems to me surely true. This is an autobiographical account of how languages have repeatedly predicated my thinking.
My first language is Mandarin Chinese. I didn’t start learning English earnestly until the age of 12. When I began to spell English words, I didn’t memorize strings of letters, as I later realized most native speakers did. Instead I would look at a word — say, MILK on the side of a milk carton — and take a mental photo of that word. When later I needed to recall how to spell it, I would recall the image and then transcribe it. Only much later did it occur to me that the ideographic nature of Chinese must’ve conditioned my brain to process orthography, all orthography, as images instead of data strings. It’s how I spell even today.
On the other hand, as I was learning English, I had to master the concepts that seem natural to native English speakers but bizarre to native Mandarin speakers. What’s this business with tense? If you need to explain that something happened in the past, can't you just say "yesterday" or "last week"? And why are “pants” plural when they are clearly a single object?
At 12 or 13, I used to try to read English books with a dictionary at my side, because I didn’t know half the words on the page. I couldn’t look up every word I didn’t know, I realized, because by the time I did I’d completely lost the sense of the sentence that I was trying to decipher. So I tried only looking up some words and guessing or inferring the rest. I began to adopt a curious implicit assumption, that if I could tap into the essence of the English language, then I would be able to surmise the meanings of words that I never learned. In retrospect this was a universalist view of language, now abandoned by linguists and contrary to the work of scholars like Sapir and Whorf themselves. Really my theory could only have worked with onomatopoeic words. When I first came across the word, “to splice,” for example, I guessed its meaning to be the exact opposite of its actual meaning, solely because “splice” rhymed with “slice.”
Later I tried studying other languages and had to learn to see things through strangers’ eyes again. I learned, for example, that Russian used the “dual” in addition to singular and plural. This fact in itself was not shocking. I knew that Latin had the dual, and in English the vestige “both” still remained. What I considered strange was that in Russian you used the dual not only for two things, but for three and four of them as well. You didn’t use the plural until five. So, I thought, the people who spoke this language felt it was important to distinguish between one, a few, and five or more. Then I tried to empathize with this point of view, if only so that I could remember the correct form to pass my Russian midterm.
Then ten years ago I spent a summer trying to learn Arabic. I didn’t get too far, not once I realized that it contained consonants that I wasn’t sure my vocal cords could make or my ears could distinguish. But one thing about Arabic stuck with me: In that language you can construct sentences relying primarily on the definite article “al,” or “the.” For example, “al-mataar al-kabir,” literally “the airport the big,” means “the big airport.” But “al-mataar kabir,” literally “the airport big,” means “the airport is big.” This is so because in an Arabic sentence, information flows from the particular to the general: You take a specific thing, and you say something about it; that’s what a statement does. But if the construction is definite throughout, then it can't be a sentence.
A few years later I was prompted to reconsider the English teacher’s injunction against passive constructions. Strunk and White, in The Elements of Style, made the famous rule that you should always favor the active voice over the passive, except in those exceptions where you should favor the passive. So the famous rule was actually tautological. How should I know when to favor the passive, except that it is when I should?
And then the old Arabic grammar came back to me. One of the primary purposes of language is surely communication. So its first principle is not some rule in a grammar book, but the flow of information. We deem the politician’s formula “mistakes were made” to be weaselly because it denies us the crucial information of who made the mistakes. We find the “X was done by Y” construction typically frustrating because it reverses the action — Y did X, so why put the cart before the horse?
What of the exceptions, then? Churchill famously pronounced in a wartime address, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” This is a passive construction. The active equivalent would be, “Never in the field of human conflict did so many owe so much to so few.” And yet the active version seems clearly inferior to the passive original. Why?
With Arabic grammar in mind, the answer seems clear: In the original, the information flowed from “so much,” the magnitude of the sacrifice, to “so few,” the slim number of RAF pilots. The statement contrasted the awesome contribution with the fewness of the men responsible for it, hence its drama. The active voice rewrite, however, flows from “so many,” the number of British citizens, to the number of pilots, rendering the statement a pedestrian comparison of two population sizes, robbing it of its drama.
Or consider this Game of Thrones meme I saw just last night (spoiler alert): It features an image of Tommen Baratheon with the caption “My uncle is my dad,” followed above an image of Jon Snow with the caption “My dad is my uncle.” The meme only makes sense because the information flows temporally: Jamie Lannister begins as Tommen’s uncle and then is revealed as his father; Ned Stark begins as Jon Snow’s father and then is revealed to be his uncle. We begin with what we knew, or thought we knew, and proceed to the new information.
Sapir-Whorf: It's one reason why immigrants tend to come up with new ideas. Having to learn new languages and adjust to new cultures give them original perspectives.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."