I’ll be teaching a new crop of freshman writing students tomorrow morning. A thought lingering in my mind as I prepare myself mentally for the first classroom contact with these 17- to 19-year-olds concerns language, and an ongoing argument about its uses and origins. The argument is part semiotics, part linguistics, part sociological, part neurological, part cultural, part philosophical: what is the relationship between language and the human thought process? It’s sort of a chicken-and-egg question. Bruner, Goodnow & Austin, in 1956, characterized the two main theories at that time as “mould theories” in which language is “a mould in terms of which thought categories are cast” and “cloak theories” that hypothesize language is “a cloak conforming to the customary categories of thought of its speakers.”
In other words, does the language make us who we are/how we think (culturally), or does our culture make our languages reflect the cultures in which we live?
The famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis theorizes that we experience the things we do, and speak about them to others in our community, because our language habits incline us towards certain interpretations. It is therefore a mold theory. Whorf wrote, in 1940, that “We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages.” Ie, if our culture values, say, coloration, our metaphors and cliches and descriptions would be largely based on color-values. In a more recent essay by David Chandler,* the author points out that this sort of interpretation of what language is can be interpreted in so relative a fashion that every form of linguistic communication, even with in a culture, becomes a kind of translation. Chandler finds this situation “problematic.”
Problematic, perhaps. But incorrect? I’m not so sure. It seems to me that our very individualist U.S. culture offers so many personal and sub-cultural perspectives that even everyday commerce and chit-chat involve constant translation. One of the most challenging things I have to teach to my students is how to understand what their college professors want from them, which is largely demanded in terms of a vocabulary that is not necessarily academic jargon but which is connotative in ways most incoming freshmen cannot know; they have seldom or never been exposed to that perspective. It is not part of their culture.
So does that make language a cloak or a mold?
Probably–as in most things–moderation serves best. The answer is not either-or, but a bit of both, because the human brain–and human culture–is so commodious and adaptable and complex. Chandler promotes “moderate Whorfianism.” That’s another one of those rather irritating academic –isms, but what he means is: “Meaning does not reside in a text but arises in its interpretation, and interpretation is shaped by sociocultural contexts.” This theory affects my role as educator even when I am teaching the introduction to academic writing and rhetoric class rather than some higher-level analysis course. More so, in some ways, because the introductory course is where students learn to question their socio-cultural assumptions as they read and write. I have to learn their slang, their habits, their leisure activities and distractions in order to make compelling analogies that work for them. They have to learn to transition into academic and business-world conventions from their peer-oriented and narcissistic teen environments.
It is a form of translation.
It is also an opportunity for new perspectives, for my students and for me. Wish us luck!
*David Chandler, “The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis” UWA 1994 (from The Act of Writing)