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Re: [ontolog-forum] 15,000-year-old ancestral language

To: ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
From: John F Sowa <sowa@xxxxxxxxxxx>
Date: Sun, 12 May 2013 07:54:59 -0400
Message-id: <518F8313.3080506@xxxxxxxxxxx>
Ed and Doug,    (01)

>> Is there a lesson for ontologies in this?  Or is this yet more
>> "fun with linguistics"?    (02)

> It seems the latter.    (03)

I agree that this thread, like many others in this forum, often
strays rather far from issues relevant to ontology.    (04)

But while we're on the topic of linguistics, I'd like to recommend
a little book that I checked out at the NY Public Library:    (05)

    Sapir, Edward (1921) Language: An Introduction to the Study
    of Speech, reprinted, New York: Dover, 2004.    (06)

We have talked a lot about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in Ontolog forum.
I had read Whorf's book, but I had never read anything by his mentor.
As I was  browsing through the linguistics section, I decided to check
out this short (200 page) book.  (By the way, it's $8.32 at Barnes &
Noble, but $13.95 at Amazon.)    (07)

I was pleasantly surprised to find that it doesn't say anything that
is obsolete. But it does emphasize a "perspective", as Sapir called it,
that is rarely discussed by the mainstream linguists today.    (08)

As for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, it shows very clearly where Whorf
got his basic ideas.  Sapir spent many years studying native American
languages.  He was the first to apply the comparative method to them,
at a time when most linguists ignored so-called "primitive" languages.    (09)

Basic point:  Both Sapir and Whorf did a lot of translating among the
many languages, so they definitely recognized that it was possible to
translate ideas from one to another.    (010)

Sapir used the metaphor "groove" -- the categories of your native
language determine a well-worn groove or habit that channels thought.
It is certainly possible to jump out of the groove and form new ideas,
but it does take some effort -- like kicking any habit.    (011)

One point that Whorf makes, which I strongly support, is that the
IndoEuropean languages tend to foster an "essentialist" ontology.
A prime example is Aristotle's essence/accident dichotomy.  That
ontology is useful for mapping English words to a type hierarchy.    (012)

But Whorf noted that many of the native American languages form
their "noun-like" words from verbal roots that make processes more
fundamental than "things".  He said that making process fundamental
is more compatible with modern physics.    (013)

I agree with that point, and so would Whitehead in his magnum opus,
_Process and Reality_.  In that book, processes are fundamental,
and objects are "permanences amidst the flux" that change slowly
enough to be recognizable at repeated occurrences.    (014)

As for the critics of Whorf, they have mostly been attacking the
strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.  Among them are
Jerry Fodor and Steven Pinker -- who believe in a universal
"mentalese" or "language of thought".    (015)

I once attended a talk by Fodor, after which another philosopher in
the audience said "Jerry, you have left a burning field of strawmen."    (016)

I believe that Whorf's critics are guilty of taking quotations
out of context to build and burn their strawmen.    (017)

John    (018)

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