Singing the Land, Signing the Land

Whenever we talk of the world, we make many assumptions about the way the world is ordered, about the kinds of things which are found there, and about how these things relate to each other: their differences and similarities. (For an introduction to the question of order and classification see Putting nature in order, esp. pp. 48-53.) These assumptions are implicit in the languages that we speak. At one level, language is the system of signs which we hang on nature: names that we give to natural objects and creatures, processes and relationships.

People of all cultures tend to think of their own language as neutral, believing that it 'maps' the world the way it 'really' is (see Maps and territories). Yet, scholars have suggested that languages may sometimes provide dramatically different pictures of nature, actually dividing the world differently, using dissimilar categories. Does this mean that some languages offer a 'better' or more accurate picture of nature, and of reality, than others? For example, is it possible that one language might provide a better picture of, say, 'time', while another provides a better understanding of ecological relationships? On the basis of what evidence might such judgments be made? What sort of linguistic variations would matter? Do these variations reflect important differences in the conceptual systems which underly each language world? Do such variations of language and of conceptual systems lead to alternative value systems and different modes of behaving in the world? These questions, and a host of others we might pose, indicate that to think of different languages as merely providing different names for things is to greatly oversimplify the problem. If languages do frame up the world in different ways, then language itself becomes yet another element of culture which directly influences the kind of understandings people have of nature.

. . . the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds-and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way-an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its term, are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing 10 the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees.
Whorf, 'Science and linguistics', pp.213-l4

This succinct statement of what is often called the 'Sapir-Whorf hypothesis' is based on principles of cultural and linguistic relativity which inform the entire Imagining nature project of which this book is a part. To fully understand the view we present here, and some of the scholarly criticisms that have been made of that view, one would need to pursue the relevant discussions in the scholarly literature of a number of disciplines: anthropology and linguistics, of course, but also philosophy, psychology and the sociology of knowledge. While we have neither time nor space in this exhibit to consider in depth any of the fundamental questions these literatures pose, it is possible to indicate some of the problems that arise from our natural tendency to attribute 'real' existence to those categories created by language or to those categorical distinctions we make in our everyday dealings with the world.

One aspect of grammar which has long been of interest to philosophers of language is the distinction between the subject of a sentence and the predicate. The subject of a sentence is what is being discussed; the predicate of a sentence is what is said about the subject. By juxtaposing subjects in two languages, as we do later in this exhibit, we may learn something about the ways that languages divide the world into categories, giving us 'pictures' to work with and giving us subjects to talk about. We use particular criteria in making these divisions, but it is only very rarely that we notice what we have accomplished. Even when we do become aware, we can never finally know how the sorts of things we say there are (what we take as subjects of our sentences) fit with the things there actually are.

The people who are most likely to be aware of the 'built in' assumptions involved in language use are those who speak two languages which are very different in type, such as Chinese and French or the Yolngu language and English. Even then it is unusual to focus upon, or narrow down, this awareness. The disparate categorisations that lie behind the different ways of creating subjects for sentences are experienced principally as a difficulty in translating from one language to the other language, rather than as a way of identifying different perceptions of nature inculcated in the two languages.

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