More Things My Language Told me to Say

(Follow-up to Things My Language Told Me To Say )

As I mentioned, I believe a major weakness in Whorf’s thinking stems from his too-great reliance on Saussure, particularly Saussure’s separation of language into langue and parole (roughly: “language” and “speech”), and his insistence on langue (language as the total system, carried in our heads) as the correct object of scientific inquiry. Saussure was defining a particular kind of research program, a way of examining the internal structure of a language, and his exclusion of spoken language (parole) makes sense for his ends. Linguists would be utterly lost if they had to account for every possible variation in individual mastery and usage in their models–instead, Saussure provides a means to abstract these variations into a single “object” for study: a language. These standardized languages are not the languages we speak–they’re the whole language, even perfect speakers speak only part of the whole in any given utterance. After separating langue from parole, Saussure completely ignored the study of parole, and most linguists followed suit, for decades. So there was really no model for approaching spoken language, and especially discrete acts of speech, during Whorf’s career. The work of several later theorists–notably Émile Benveniste , JL Austin , and Roman Jakobson –starts to fill in this area, in ways that I think expand Whorf’s hypothesis greatly.

Benveniste’s most significant contribution (or one of them, at least) is his discussion of “shifters”. In Saussure’s schema, any given sign (in the case of language, a word) signifies something real in the world–an object, an action, a feeling, an idea. “Cow” signifies an object, “running” an action, “love” an emotion, “Communism” an idea. The signified does not have to be real–a faerie can grok a tralfamadorean. Colourless green ideas can sleep furiously. The point is that each sign has a fixed referent–”cow” doesn’t mean a bovine animal today and a toaster oven tomorrow (note: homonyms are different signs, e.g. “cow”–the animal–and “cow”–to hide in fear–are two separate signs, even though they sound the same in English). But Benveniste noticed that there is a class of words, mostly pronouns, that do not have fixed references, and these he called “shifters”. Consider the sentence “I want that for him, but you think they will be angry.” This sentence contains 5 words–”I”, “that”, “him”, “you”, “they”–whose referent is entirely dependent on the context in which it is spoken. Their referents “shift” depending on who is doing the speaking, who is listening, who is the object of the sentence, what the speaker wants for the object, and who the listener thinks will be angry if the object gets whatever the speaker is talking about. While the structure of this sentence can be sussed out as langue, the meaning only exists in the realm of parole.

What’s interesting about this is that it’s reflexive–the context of the sentence is constructed in the speaking of the sentence. “I”, “that”, “him”, “you”, and “they” only take meaning as they are spoken, in the moment of their utterance. What’s more, we construct ourselves as acting subjects–I become the “I” of the sentence in speaking it. Consider the alternative: “Dustin wants that…”–the subject of that sentence is removed, distanced from the speaker of the sentence, even though they (we) are ostensibly the same person.

This ability to construct and shape the context in which we find ourselves is not limited to shifters. Benveniste opens discussion on another class of linguistic acts he calls “performative speech” or just “performatives”. Performatives are sentences that actually do what they say, that act on the world. “I now pronounce you man and wife”–spoken under the right circumstances by the right “I” actually changes two unrelated people who happen to like each other an awful lot into relatives, into a family. They are no longer the same people–their legal status has changed, their names might be changed, their social role has changed–all because of a sentence. “I hereby declare War on Syria” creates a state of war with Syria. “I christen thee Christopher Robins” confers a name onto a nameless infant–and in some cases, a soul. And so on. Performatives not only shape the way we see the world, as Whorf saw language doing, they shape the world itself.

While Benveniste might be credited with the “discovery” of performative speech, it was Austin who developed the idea, in his insanely frustrating How to Do Things With Words . Austin begins innocently enough, well within the bounds of Benveniste’s work, but at each step he finds himself frustrated by a too-narrow conception of what usages actually qualify as performative usages. Ultimately, he arrives at a conception of all language as performative, and all utterances as “speech acts”. What this means in practical terms is that saying something is an act, and particularly an act of power. “The sky is blue” is not merely a reflection of an external reality, it is an assertion about that external reality. Furthermore, it is not an assertion made in a vacuum, but an assertion made by a speaking subject (an “I”) directed towards a listening audience (a “you”). It is an assertion intended to persuade that “you” of my world-view, and thus to define the relationship between us.

At first glance, Jakobson doesn’t seem to follow from what I’ve said. Jakobson wrote literary analysis, especially on the use of “parallelism” in language. Parallelism is the use of linguistic devices that enlarge and reinforce the message of a statement. For instance, the use of alliteration, consonance, rhythm, and rhyme in poetry imparts a subtle palpability to the lines, making them more effective. Consider this line from Poe: “While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, as of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door…”. “Nodded nearly napping”, with its rhythm and alliteration, conveys the idea of being almost asleep in a way that “While I was nearly asleep” does not. Consider a non-poetic translation of the phrase: “While I was nearly asleep, I heard someone knocking at the door…”. In Poe, you can actually hear–even feel–the person knocking at the door, waking the speaker out of his near-sleep, adding a layer of sensation to the literal meaning.

What this has to do with Austin is two-fold. First, parallelism performs the meaning of the utterance. Think of the rhythm of Poe’s “The Raven”–a good drummer could probably convey the sense of the poem without uttering a word. Second, because of the almost over-abundance of meaning, parallelism makes utterances far more persuasive–they add to the power of the utterance–even more so for being almost subliminal. Parallelism works below the level of conscious thought, conveying meaning almost viscerally.

Parallelism is yet another way in which meaning is conveyed outside of the formal boundaries of Saussure’s langue. In fact, Saussure explicitly denounced what he called the “bow-wow” theory of language–theories that located the origin and meaning of language in its mimicry of sounds found in the real world. Saussure insisted on the the arbitrariness of signification–that is, that the sound of a word had nothing to do with its meaning. Jakobson’s parallelism directly challenge Saussure on this point, showing that, in some cases, the sound of a word does, in fact, impact it’s meaning–and can add meanings to the word that have nothing to do with the “official” referent of the word.

Whorf’s conception of language had seen it determining the ways in which its bearers perceive and act in the world. The work I have discussed here expands on that conception, seeing language more as a medium through and in which we encounter the world–and each other. Through language we not only apprehend the world, but actively engage and construct it. Furthermore, in relation with the world and one another, we change and adapt our language. To be fair, Whorf allowed for the possibility of a sort of “feedback loop” between language and culture, but understanding the process of change over time was not really on his agenda. Following from Saussure, he viewed language as something external to individual actors, something more or less fixed and constant that individuals took on as a whole. Following from Benveniste, Austin, and Jakobson, we might think of language as something that emerges in the interaction between social actors. In this view, the vocabulary and grammar of a language are only a part of the overall phenomena, the building blocks out of which social interactions are forged.

Such a view is not inconsistent with the general principles of Whorfian Relativism. The basic principle–that language, thought, and reality are intertwined in our relations with the world and each other–still stands. What’s changed is the level at which relativism is applied: Whorf saw cultures and languages as discrete “units”, each culture-language pair tied to a particular social, economic, political, and ecological reality. The Inuit world-view differed from the Nambikwara world-view because the realities they inhabited were different. The work of Benveniste, Austin, and Jakobson applies at a much more local level than that, ultimately to the specific interaction between individuals. It is in the multiplication and recurrence of such interactions that culture occurs, not at the artificial unit of “the culture”, and we see in every conversation a reshaping of the cultural world in which its participants live. Rather than language determining culture, as in the original S-W formulation, or language as a part of culture as some opponents of S-W assert, language is culture, and vice versa.

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