Monday, May 08, 2006

Blame Orwell

Language Log notes yet another example of the "X have no word for Y" Sapir-Whorf fallacy (in fact, they have a whole list of them, with the "Inuit have no word for robin" meme a particularly egregious example) - the idea that since a certain culture has no word for something, they must be totally incapable of conceiving of it, describing it, understanding it, etc. - a notion completely absurd on its face, given that a) people invent new words all the time, and b) you can just describe the thing with a phrase, not a word. For example, if I had never heard the word Schadenfreude, that doesn't mean I don't understand the concept of "taking pleasure in another's suffering."

I blame Orwell for the popularity of this trope. It's true that the hypothesis is named after Sapir and Whorf, but who's ever heard of them? On the other hand, almost everyone read 1984 in high school, along with its compelling - yet linguistically unrealistic - description of Newspeak as the language that would make it literally impossible to even think about concepts like "freedom" because there would be no word for it. 1984 posited that once Newspeak was fully adopted, the language itself would do the work of the thought police. But this makes no sense, since without the thought police (and crimestop, doublethink, blackwhite, etc), people could easily just talk about freedom using circumlocutions or a newly invented word. That is to say, Newspeak is functionally superfluous as a mind-control device. People have taken Newspeak too seriously as a real linguistic possibility, rather than seeing it for what it really is - just another symbol of a Party that wants power for its own sake, a linguistic analog of the "boot stamping on the human face - forever."

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