How about something a bit different?
I just stumbled across this lecture, which seems to be fairly well-liked among the alt-right and/or white supremacist scene. It’s about “race realism” and how Africans’ dearth in mental ability is supposedly reflected in their native languages. And holy shit, is it a gold mine of pseudo-intellectual garbage. To sum up the argumentation: “I studied the apparent lack of one abstract concept in one Africa-originating language, so now I’m going to talk about how black people as a global, generalized racial group have no ability to congnicize any abstract concepts whatsoever and are therefore intellectually lacking.” If you think that’s a little bit more than a hop, skip, and a jump away from a logical conclusion, congratulations, you’re smarter than 90% of the people who commented on this video. If you want to feel simultaneously entertained and enraged by idiots too stupid to realize they’re not smarter than you, then grab your popcorn and start reading.
This is going to be a really nerdy post by the way, with lots of philosophy of language and psycholinguistics mumbo-jumbo thrown in. I think that kind of thing is interesting, which is why I decided to address this lecture; but I majored in language cognition and neurology, so the esoteric subjects I think are entertaining may not be overly interesting to anyone else. Warning you now.
Also, this lecture is an hour long. I literally could not get past his opening statements before having pages full of notes on everything wrong he was saying. I stopped after five fucking minutes, because that was enough fuel for five blog posts, let along just one. So if you want me to respond to the next 50 minutes of this lecture, let me know. Otherwise, I’m only going to address literally the first five minutes of this travesty of academic work.
He starts out with a nice little anecdote about how students he met in Nigeria informed him that they weren’t able to say something like “half-way up the tree,” instead only being able to say “up” without further qualifers, with there being no sense of gradation. He then goes on to speak about how oral languages (ones with no writing system) are by necessity finite in size and “basically static.” From there, he states that since the size of these oral languages is limited, then the concepts in that language are also limited. Most egregiously, he then says that “the language and thinking of these people is going to be impoverished in comparison to a language like English.”
Okay . . . what?
What is this guy’s PhD in, chiropractic medicine? The fucking thesis statement–the backbone of his entire argument in this lecture–is just flat out wrong. It’s not just a little inaccurate. It’s not a difference of opinion. It is just wholly incorrect. Either this guy is actively and intentionally lying to his audience who he knows won’t question what he’s saying to any great degree, or he is so stuck in the mental frame work of “race realism” that he somehow managed to overlook one of the foundational rules of human linguistics even when he was trying to be accurate. I actually dug out my notebook from my Intro Psychology of Language course, and the first bullet point on the first page goes against his thesis. This is not rare knowledge available only to the most specialized linguistics researchers in elite academia. Here’s a link about the basics of human language for you guys. The Key Points section is all you need.
Oral language is not “finite and static.” The thing that differentiates human language from the communication of other creatures–the thing that makes humans cogntively unique–is our infinitely productive language and ability to communicate abstract concepts. For everyone too lazy to click that link:
Human language is generative, which means that it can communicate an infinite number of ideas from a finite number of parts.
Human language is recursive, which means that it can build upon itself without limits.
Human language uses displacement, which means that it can refer to things that are not directly present.
There is not a known human language in existence or out of existence (that includes strictly oral languages) that has not been infinitely productive. That includes African languages.
What do I mean by that? That simply means that the capacity to create novel words is always present within the structure of a language. As long as a word can be spoken with the phonemes of that language, it can be recognized as a potential term and integrated into the wider vocabulary. And that’s just in regards to totally new base words; you can also infinitely generate novel terms by taking base morphemes (individual units of meaning) and sticking them together in new ways to create words that are understandable even if they’ve never been heard or spoken before. For instance, what do you think exculpatory means? You may not have heard that word before, but you’d probably be able to guess what it means because you can put together morphemes! Ex-, culp-, -ate , and –ory. Ex means not, culp as in culpable, and -atory describing a consistent, descriptive state.
Any language that has morphemes is infinitely productive. All human languages have morphemes, by the way. That’s also ignoring things like tense, gender, and other various grammatical forms that also enable the formation of novel words through set grammatical rules and conjugations that can be universally applied and understood. So, to put it briefly, the notion that a language is “static and finite” in size because its vocabulary is smaller is just not accurate. This professor goes on a tangent about how small the native Africans’ dictionary was compared to his pocket dictionary of English as though that was somehow an indication of their language being “impoverished.”
This is especially inaccurate when you consider that a good number of African languages are tonal and grammar-heavy, unlike English. With all languages you see this trade-off: A language with a lower vocabulary has a ridiculously more complex grammatical and conjugation system to derive meaning. A language with a large vocabulary has quote/unquote impoverished grammar and syntax by comparison, because it derives most of its meaning through words, not grammar. English is a very vocabulary-heavy language, so there’s less meaning derived from grammar. There is a tribal language in Africa–I forget the name, sue me–where a sentence is usually just a single actual word, but a very complex meaning is taken almost completely from grammatical conjugations onto that single word: who they’re talking to, what their relationship to that person is, is there more than one person present, what topic it is they are talking about, how urgent the topic is, where on the timeline the topic happened, how they feel about the topic, how they think others should feel about the topic, etc. In that language, all of those linguistic subtleties are achieved through grammar, not words. They don’t have words for those concepts because the language doesn’t require them. The dictionary for some random African language being small compared to a vocabulary-heavy language like English says nothing about how expressive that language is.
The worst thing about this argument is that it could easily be applied to any language, including English. “Look, this language has less X than other languages, therefore it’s impoverished!” His first anecdote about how lacking African languages are is all about how one of them was too vague with its location descriptions. You could do the same thing with English. Easily. For example, English prepositions are very difficult for most non-native learners of the language because English prepositions are incredibly vague and under-informative. The sentence “It’s under the table,” is really shitty. Is it stuck underneath the tabletop? Is it on the floor underneath the table? Is it visible underneath the table or obscured? What side of the table is it under? Is it all the way underneath the table or only part way? Is it closer to you or me? There are languages that let you know those things with a single preposition or particle. I guess English is impoverished now.
Hell, Japanese is considered to have one of the most intricate writing systems ever established. You know why it has that intricate writing system, though? Because it is phonologically impoverished. That’s fancy talk for “far too many of their words sound/are phonetically spelled the same way.” わたし, for example, can refer to multiple different words. It’s the kanji, 私 vs. 渡し just to name a few, that lets you know what the actual intended meaning is. Seeing as how this professor is a stereotypical alt-righter and a race realist, I highly doubt he’s willing to call the Japanese dumb; but using his same logic, I could call the Japanese language “static and finite” because it doesn’t have enough phonemes to make unique words and has to rely on a separate writing system to offer differentiation. Compared to strictly oral languages that rely solely on audibly distinguishable sound, Japanese is pretty much retarded.
Now that I’ve made it clear why calling any human language “static and finite” is incredibly off-base and unsupported by actual linguistics, let’s move on to his point about abstract thinking. This professor is paying major lip-service toward the Whorfian view of langauage, aka linguistic relativity.
The principle of linguistic relativity holds that the structure of a language affects its speakers’ world view or cognition. Popularly known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, or Whorfianism, the principle is often defined to include two versions. The strong version says that language determines thought, and that linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories, whereas the weak version says that linguistic categories and usage only influence thought and decisions.
For those of you who really like Orwell, he discusses this very frequently in 1984. The entire concept of Newspeak is one based around strong linguistic relativity: if you get rid of the word for something, people will have no concept of it. This is a very interesting hypothesis, and very fun to talk about, but it’s just not overly accurate. It’s at least not completely and utterly wrong like the “African languages are static” talking point, but progress in the field of psycholinguistics since the initial Whorfian hypothesis shows it to be lacking. All you have to do is look at babies and non-speaking infants and realize that they have conceptual understanding of the world and its contents before having access to language. So his statement about “the size of these oral languages being limited leads to concepts of that language being limited” is also not true.
The general consensus is that human beings don’t need specific words to refer to concepts (abstract or otherwise) in order to have an idea of those concepts, but having a specific word makes mental compartmentalization easier. That’s not saying that language has no effect on our mental concepts: the Pirahã, for example, are a very isolated Amazonian tribe whose language doesn’t have a numerical system, and it’s essentially been impossible to teach them how to count past the subitizing range (1-3). This professor would probably take that as an example of the Pirahã being a punch of stupid brown people who can’t do math haha, but that tribe lacks a numerical system because they think of “number” in more abstract terms (“not enough,” “enough,” “more than enough”). In other words, they think in more abstract conceptual terms than hu-white people, so you definitely cannot say that they lack the ability to think in abstractions, as is being argued about “impoverished” languages.
How concepts work is still contested. There are multiple camps in philosophy and linguistics. But they all agree that a specific vocab. word isn’t necessary for concept-building. They just disagree on everything after that. Personally, I like Wittgenstein and his idea that we understand and tweek our mental concepts by putting them on a constantly calibrating scale of comparison. That doesn’t require words at all, it just requires you to recognize how similar or different things are.
To bring it back to 1984, someone living without freedom doesn’t need the word “freedom” to get the concept because they can mentally understand that something exists on the opposite end of the scale from where they are now. A good example of this is the supremely disappointing (but good for this one reference) movie The Invention of Lying, where the main character is trying to explain that he lied without having a word for “truth” or “lie,” so he just settles with, “I said something that wasn’t.” The concept is there without the words. The idea that having a small vocabulary means that a language utterly castrates your cognitive ability to form and rectify concepts is not true. Just like most everything else this “doctor” said in this entire lecture is not true.
Nerdy rant: Over.