Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Wear the red basque

Is red red? That's to say, is it only red because we call it red? Or is it something nameless that everyone sees, and only we call red? It's an interesting and important distinction. If the former is true -- and perhaps the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is correct -- lack of understanding between speakers of different languages might extend beyond difficulties in translation into impossibility of sharing term, a serious problem for crosscultural understanding. If the latter is true -- so that we might describe the world differently but the world we're describing is not affected by our descriptions -- hey, we can still love each other. Linguists Berlin and Kay did seminal work on colour in the sixties, which seemed to go some way to disproving Sapir-Whorf, but as Kay points out, his work can't be extended beyond colour. Still, he says languages are not too different (he means in this specific sense, not that Arabic is much like English) even if it might be true that they can shape thought (particularly interested by the Guugu Yimithirr thing -- they use north, south rather than left, right).

Googling "Guugu Yimithirr" I found a most curious thing. A page on Aboriginal languages in English and Basque. You don't see written Basque too often.

Basque is peculiar among languages itself (and it's probably only a curious coincidence but this is common among Aboriginal languages, as well as in Samoan, Inuit languages and to some extent in the Caucasus -- I studied Abkhaz at university, but don't ask me to say anything in it, I only looked at its form and phonology) in that it is an ergative language. In a rough sense, ergative languages mark as the same case the subject of an intransitive verb and the object of a transitive verb -- because they are the thing the verb does its action on: so that the words for "I" and "me" would be the same in "I arrived" and "he hit me". "He" would be in a different case to "I". They would not be considered grammatically equivalent. If you can think of those two sentences as "I am the thing arrived" and "I am the thing hit by him", you're getting it.

There, right there, is Kay's point. Even though ergative languages and their way of casting the world are strange, we can still grasp the concept. I don't know whether Basque speakers actually conceive of actors and actions differently from us, though. I rather doubt it.

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