Saturday, May 30, 2009

You Are A Radical Relativist!

In this post, I'd like to expose you: You are a radical relativist! Before you deconstruct me, take a look at yourself. Listen to your own language. Okay, I'll help you out: listen to mine. These are "true" statements, of mine:
  1. I am a linguist.
  2. I am a native speaker of Vietnamese.
  3. I am a native speaker of English.
  4. My Vietnamese is Southern Vietnamese; my southern Vietnamese is Saigonese; my saigonese is 5-toned only.
  5. My English is Southern American English; my southern american english is Texan probably only less drawled than my maternal grandfather's.
  6. Blue is not green.
  7. Xanh is the Vietnamese word for blue and for green.
  8. Xanh is xanh; xanh is not not xanh.
  9. I am a fan of Bob Dylan's "Tangled Up in Blue."
  10. I am someone who almost entitled this post "Tangled Up in Green."
  11. Noam Chomsky is more clever than he thinks he is by creating his novel utterance: "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously."
  12. "Colorless green" is still a color.
  13. "Colorless green" is an illustration of much much more than just abstract grammar categories or than unbounded nonsensicalness otherwise.
  14. The river I step into is still the same river.
  15. A pile of grain is a heap.
  16. You and I are much much more forgiving and forgiven than we can even imagine.
  17. Abortion is murder.
  18. Abortion is a woman's legal choice in the United States of America.
  19. I am a feminist.
  20. You are a radical relativist!
With these 20 statements, I'm trying to show that we all (yes, you and I also) use language to chunk up our reality. I've been reading comments from some of you at this blog this past week. Posting on Anne Carson writing on adjectives was only the beginning of my response.

We construct and we deconstruct our realities by language. Benjamin Whorf began talking about that. Brent Berlin and Paul Kay chatted about everyone else chatting about colors. Ed Sapir took it all further. Kenneth Pike even further. These guys are feminists. Now, I hear you all saying to me: No way. So I'm asking you, No way What? And most of you say, No way these fellows were women activists. They are linguists. And some of you linguists say, Yeah, and they are structuralists. And I ask, Did I say that?

You see what we're doing, don't you? We're not listening to each other! We're talking past one another. We're assuming linguistic categories differently. "Women, fire, and dangerous things," are not all the same thing in English we all agree until we start reading that huge book of George Lakoff. He is not a feminist but a feminist taunter, I say. And while you're choosing words with which to protest, I add: "And Ernst-August Gutt, whom bible translators are looking to today to appropriate so-called 'Relevance' Theory for their work, is not a feminist either." What? most of you reply while still thinking of how women like Claudia Camp and Frances Young can so easily not be the feminists that Phyllis Trible is.

You are thinking their positions, and your very own, are not radically relative. Right? You love your own language and how it chunks your own reality for you. You love to see how awfully my language chunks your own reality. Which is Reality. And so you say so really in the space of a blog comment box.

But, my friend, think again please. You are a radical relativist!

Take your letter A, and it's shape. Write it by hand. Type it by finger. Did you write it the same way each time? Now teach it to a NON-native speaker of English, your English. Teach the fundamental absolute shape of the letter A in your alphabet to a native speaker and writer of Chinese. What is it? Do you see how many many different shapes you allow? Just for lower case? What if you chose the other shape of upper case? What if you've worn out the letter A on your keyboard. Wh^t if you h^d to use a different ch^r^cter for the letter ^? Do you see how toler^nt you h^ve been? How rel^tive! You r^dic^l! You w^nt your Chinese friend to underst^nd, don't you? Who t^ught you? Your mother? Your schoolte^cher? Remember how forgiving she was of you? Remember how forgiving you were of yourself?


My linguistics prof, Kenneth L. Pike, never called himself a feminist. Then again, he didn't call "emics" and "etics" what anthropologist Marvin Harris called these Pikean terms for "insider" and "outsider" perspectives. Pike was fascinated that scientists (the most rigid observers of all) could use variable language for "light." It's a "particle," it's a "wave," it's a "field." It depends on what's most useful. But Pike went beyond pragmatics. He'd always say, "person above logic." "Logic is formalism." "Persons and persons choosing radically relative perspectives are always above and prior to the formal rules they choose." "Okay, language may have some of the formal properties Noam Chomsky perceives it has, but language is also N-dimensional. N is infinite. We people are infinite in our choosings." Pike also told us his students of a moment when he was a student: One of his teachers one day was trying to overcome Plato's problem when he declared to the class, "What we really need in language is for one word to have one and only one meaning." (The teacher, I think, had been reading too much of Aristotle - but that is my aside to this little story.) Pike tells us his students how he responded to this teacher of his: "But sir," he protested, "how then would we learn language." Do you see how radical a question (how rhetorical!) it is?! Pike knows that learning language depends on it's N-dimensionality. If language for everyone is always and only chunked exactly the same way, then how will our mothers teach us? We need adjectives to modify our nouns. We need metaphors to give nuance to construct differently our worlds. Pike loved to quote Nelson Goodman saying, What we need is "radical relativism within rigid restraints." What most of us want to imagine most of the time (and it is absolutely pure imagination) is that there must only be rigid restraints. Thank God you are a radical relativist!


Will Fitzgerald said...

We all talk post each other.

And I like that Blogger asks me to 'choose an identity.'

J. K. Gayle said...

Thanks Will. Please say more.