Friday, September 16, 2005

The Existence of Words

It shouldn't be too hard to believe language influences the way we think; the question is, how much? If you subscribe to the Whorfian hypotheses, what we can think about is entirely determined by what language we have available to us.

I don't go quite that far, but I definitely think it's important to study the tie between how we think and the language we have. In particular, I was thinking about why it is we have words for some things. I postulate (after a couple of linguistic classes and a fair amount of thinking) that we have a word for something when there is a need to refer to it frequently, and thus compactly. In this case, it worries me that we have certain words. "Anti-Semitism", for example (this was the one that got me thinking about the problem). "Rape", "torture", "murder", "theft", and many others come to mind. "Pirate", even (we do realize that they were bad people, despite the cool image now, right?) That we actually needed, in human history, to refer to these things early on (old Anglo-Saxon words, mostly, I think), and with such short words... well, that worries me.

I'm not a fan of just griping about things; I like to come up with something to do about them. But what can be done about something like this? I guess this is where the whole "politically correct" thing came from (although I think they were going for something a bit different). Do you try to get the words dropped from the language? "Forced sexual intercourse and destruction of property accompanied by seizure of property belonging to others" doesn't sound as cool as "rape and pillage", but I doubt that will catch on. Getting people to say "challenged" instead of "crippled" was hard enough, and in most cases, all it seemed to do was lend a bad association with a word that used to be good (this is what I mean when I say PC was going for something different). Maybe I'm trying to go the other way - let's stop using words with cool connotations for things that are, in real life, very bad, and not to be taken casually.

Addendum 8:43pm 9/18:
I think it's worth noting the line of thought that got me to the first word. I was thinking that there really ought to be more of some people in the world - like Ron. And Sergey. And Steve. And then I noticed that they're all Jewish. I guess I'm pro-semitic. What kind of messed up people wouldn't like those guys? What kind of messed up world comes up with a word that specifically means not liking those guys?

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