Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Anecdote III

This one's about language and how it can kind of trip you up.

I was in an introduction to psychology course, and it was our lecture on language and psychology, and the whole Sapir-Whorf concept that the language in which you think necessarily constrains the concepts you are able to articulate and conceive. (The example you will have heard is Eskimos having 52 words for snow, and to a lesser extent, Germans having their own broad clutch of beer words). I believe the book took the stance that language reinforces culture which then turns around and reinforces language.

One of the examples in the book was how the Japanese are a conformist culture, where the same word means both "to be different" and "to be wrong".

My professor knew I was taking Japanese classes as well, so he turned to me and said "you're studying this, is that true?" And I said, "well, yes, the word they're talking about is 'chigau'." But it kept niggling at me. The thing is, chigau isn't a word that carries a lot of moral weight. It absolutely means "to be wrong" but it means it in the sense of getting a question wrong, or having your facts incorrect- literally different from the truth. If you tried to use it to say "that's so wrong" or "what you did was horribly wrong" it would sound weird. In that case you'd want a word like warui or yabai.

That's the thing. There's probably something to the whole "different" = "incorrect" statement, but I can't help but think there's also something important to the idea that the concept "incorrect" in English uses the same word as "morally abhorrent".

We take some very strange things for granted.

1 comment:

  1. For the professor, a better example vis-a-vis Japanese would have been that literally everything you say is couched in the context of your in-group or out-group status. Social positioning and prioritizing the group dynamics over the individual. Unless you're a boor, in which case... you're a boor.

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