Arika Okrent – In the Land of Invented Languages

arika_okrent_image “But if you sit down and make a sincere attempt to use the language, you discover the really important flaw, not in his [John Wilkins] language, but in the whole idea of a philosophical language: when you speak in concepts, it’s too damn hard to say anything.”

“… when it comes to expressing ourselves, we need some fuzzy edges, a chance to discover what we’re trying to say even as we say it. We should be grateful to our sloppy, imperfect languages for giving us some wiggle room.” pp. 72-73

“… the sound aspect of Chinese characters is not always so readily apparent. Thousands of years of language change coupled with a conservative writing tradition will do that. Look at English, after only a few hundred years of change, holding on to forms like ’light’ and ‘knee,’ when the pronunciations that gave rise to those spellings are no longer used. The situation in Chinese writing is much worse.”

Still, most characters, more than 90 percent, give you some clue about the pronunciation of the word. … it makes the task of learning and remembering thousands of characters a little bit easier. Chinese writing doesn’t represent spoken language in the way that alphabetic writing does, but it still represents spoken language – just in a much more complicated way.” p. 170

“… in the 1950’s scholars began to look more closely … Fields like psychology, anthropology, and sociology had picked up the machinery of the hard sciences – empirical observation, measurement, experiment – and were figuring out ways to apply it to the ‘soft’ areas of human behavior: mind, meaning, culture. When it came to the matter of human thought … a modern social scientist had two choices: (1) reject all discussion of ‘thought’ as unscientific, because it was impossible to observe directly… or (2) find a way to test your hypothesis using cold, hard data. Sitting in your armchair and musing… was no longer an acceptable option.” p. 203

“Elgin… built into the syntax a requirement that speakers make clear what they intend when they speak. Every sentence begins with a word indicating the speech act being performed (statement, question, command, request, promise, warning) modified by an ending that marks whether that act is performed neutrally, in anger, in pain, in love, in celebration, in fear, in jest, in narrative, or in teaching.” pp. 246

“Whorf took his linguistic relativity principle as a given: different types of grammars ‘point’ people toward different views of the world. The job for the researcher was not to see whether this was true but to explore how it was true. If we were to do this right, we had to be made conscious of our own hidden, language-conditioned thought habits. And the best way to do become conscious of them was ‘through an exotic language, for in its study we are at long last pushed willy-nilly out of our own ruts. Then we find that the exotic language is a mirror held up to our own.’” p. 251

In the Land of Invented Languages, Arika Okrent, 2009


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