Archives for category: Linguistics

Benjamin Lee Whorf seems to have been the first person to point out how much English, and other European languages, are ‘thing-languages’, ‘object-languages’. By far the most important part of speech is the noun and though it is now accepted that not all sentences are of the subject-predicate form, once regarded as universal, quite a lot are. We have a person or thing, the grammatical subject, and the rest of the sentence tells us something about this thing, for example localizes it (‘The cat was sitting on the mat’), or enumerates some property possessed by the ‘thing’ in question (‘The cover of the book is red’). And if we have an active verb, we normally have an agent doing the acting, a person or thing.
There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with such a linguistic structure, of course, but we are so used to it we tend to assume it’s perfectly  reasonable and irreplaceable by any other basic structure. However, as Whorf points out, it is not just applied to sentences of the type ‘A is such-and-such’, where it is appropriate, but also to sentences where it makes little sense. “We are constantly reading into nature fictional acting entities, simply because our verbs must have substantives. We have to say “It flashed” or “A light flashed”, setting up an actor to perform what we call an action, “to flash”. Yet the flashing and the light are one and the same!” (from Whorf, Language, Thought and Reality p. 242, M.I.T. edition).
The quantum physicist and philosopher, David Bohm,  seemingly unaware of Whorf’s prior work, makes exactly the same point.  “Consider the sentence ‘It is raining.’ Where is the ‘It’ that would, according to the sentence, be ‘the rainer that is doing the raining’? Clearly, it is more accurate to say: ‘Rain is going on’ (from Bohm, Wholeness and the Inplicate Order p. 29 ).
Whorf and Bohm clearly have a point here and the general hostility of the academic world to Whorf’s ‘Theory of Linguistic Relativity’ is doubtless in part due to their irritation at an outsider ─ Whorf trained as a chemical engineer ─ pointing out the obvious. Moreover, one would expect the syntax and vocabulary of languages to tell you something about the general conceptions, day to day concerns and modes of thought of the people whose language it is. After all, people talk about what interests them, and languages typically evolve to make communication about common interests more efficient (Note 1).

Even if this is granted for the sake of argument, one might still object that the subject-predicate structure and the role of nouns in English simply reflects ‘how things are’ ─ and there is only ‘one way for things to be’. Since ‘reality’ consists essentially of ‘things’, and relations between these things, isn’t it inevitable that nouns should have pride of place? Well, maybe, but maybe not. And Whorf, one of the very first ‘Westerners’ to actually speak various American Indian languages, was in a good position to question what practically everyone else had so far taken for granted. Amerindian native languages certainly are very different from any European or even Indo-European language. For a start, “Nearly all American Indian languages are either distinctly ‘polysynthetic’ or have a tendency to be so. At the risk of oversimplification, polysynthetic languages can be thought of as consisting of words that in European languages would occupy whole sentences” (from Lord, Comparative Linguistics). Out and out literal  translations from other European languages into English may sound clunky but are perfectly comprehensible, but literal translations from Shawnee or Nitinat sound, not just awkward, but half crazy. Whorf writes, “We might ape such a compound sentence in English thus: ‘There is one who is a man who is yonder who does running which traverses-it which is a street which elongates’ …... the proper translation [being] ‘A man yonder is running down the long street’.” Whorf adds, “Of such a polysynthetic tongue it is sometimes said that all the words are verbs, or again that all the words are nouns with verb-forming elements added. Actually the terms verb and noun in such a language [as Nitinat] are meaningless.”

Secondly, approaching things from the physical/conceptual side, there can be no doubt that native American tribal societies, untouched as they were by Christianity or Newtonian physics, really did have very different conceptions about the world from those of the incoming European settlers, which is one reason why this meeting of the cultures was so catastrophic. Sapir (Whorf’s first teacher) and Whorf believed that this double dissimilarity was not an accident and that the structure of native American languages indeed reflected a very different ‘view of the world’.
So what, in a nutshell, were these linguistic and ‘metaphysical’ differences? According to Whorf, most Amerindian languages are ‘verb-based’ rather than ‘noun-based’ ─ “Most metaphysical words in Hopi are verbs, not nouns as in European languages”. Worse still, “When we come to Nootka, the sentence without subject or predicate is the only type….Nootka has no parts of speech”. Why were they ‘verb-based’, or at any rate not ‘noun-based’? Because, Whorf argues, the Amerindian world-view was not ‘thing-based’ or ‘object-based’ but ‘event-based’. “The SAE (Standard Average European) microcosm has analysed reality largely in terms of what it calls ‘things’ (bodies and quasibodies) plus modes of extensional but formless existence that it calls ’substances’ or ‘matter’. The Hopi microcosm seems to have analysed reality largely in terms of EVENTS” (Whorf, op. cit. p. 147).

         Again, there seems little to quarrel with in Whorf’s claim that the SAE world-view, which we can trace right back to Greek atomism for its physics, really was ‘thing-based’ ─ “Nothing exists except atoms and void” as Democritus put it. The subsequent, more sophisticated Newtonian world-view nonetheless reduces to a world consisting of ‘hard, massy’, indestructible atoms colliding with each other and influencing each other from afar through universal attraction. Whether, the world of native American Indians really was ‘event-based’ in the way Whorf imagined it to be, few of us today are qualified to say ─ since hardly anyone speaks Hopi any more and even the most remote Amerindian tribes have long since ceased to be independent cultural entities. In any case, the complex metaphysics/physics of the Hopi as interpreted by Whorf is in itself interesting and original enough to be well worth investigating further.

To return to language. Assuming for the moment there is some truth in the Sapir-Whorf theory that language structure reflects underlying physical and metaphysical preconceptions,  what sort of structures would one expect an ‘event-language’ to have?  Bohm asked himself this but sensibly concluded  that “to invent a whole new language  implying a radically different structure of thought is….not practicable”. I asked myself a similar question when,  in my unfinished SF novel The Web of Aoullnnia,  I tried to rough out the principles underlying ‘Lenwhil Katylin’, a future language invented by the Sarlang, the first of the  Parthenogenic types that dominate Sarwhirlia (the future Earth).
For his part, Bohm proposes to introduce, “provisionally and experimentally”, a new mode into English that he calls the rheomode (‘rheo’ comes from the Greek ‘to flow’). This mode is meant to signal and reflect the “movement of growth, development and evolution of living things” in accordance with Bohm’s ‘holistic’ philosophy. Whorf, for his part, finds most of what Bohm is looking for already present in the Hopi language which typically emphasizes ‘process’ and continuity rather than focusing on specific objects and/or moments of time. Although both these thinkers were looking for  a ‘verb-based’ language, they were also firm believers in continuity and the ‘field’ concept in physics (as opposed to the particle concept). My preferences, or prejudices if you like, take me in the opposite direction, towards a physics and a language that reflect and represent  a ‘universe’ made up of staccato events that never last long enough to become ‘things’ and never overlap enough with their successor events to become bona fide processes.

Thus, in Lenwhil Katylin, a language deliberately concocted to reflect the Sarlang world-view, the verb (for want of a better term) is the pivot of every communication and refers to an event of some kind. In many cases there is no need for  a grammatical subject at all: events simply happen, or rather ‘become occurrent’, like the ‘lightning flash’ mentioned by Whorf ─ in the Sarlang world-view, all events are, at bottom,  ‘lightning flashes’. The rest of a typical LK sentence provides the ‘environment’ or ‘localization’ of the central event, e.g. for a ‘lightning-flash’ the equivalent of our ‘sky’, and also gives the causal origin of the event (if one exists). We have thus a basic structure Event/Localization/Origin ─ although in many cases the ‘localization’ and ‘origin’ might well be what for us is one and the same entity.
As to the central events themselves, the Katylin language applies an  inflection to show whether the event is ‘occurrent’ or, alternatively, ‘non-occurrent’. One might compare the inflection with Bohm’s ‘is going on’ in his formulation “Rain is going on” ― in LK we just get Irhil~ where ‘~’ signifies “is occurrent”. Being ‘occurrent’ means that an event occupies a definite location on the Event Locality and has demonstrable physical consequences, i.e. brings into existence at least one other event. Such an event is what we would perhaps call an ‘objective’ event such as a blow with a hammer, as opposed to a subjective one like a wish to be somewhere else (which does not get you there). But the category ‘non-occurrent’ is much larger than our ‘subjective’ since it covers all ‘general’ entities, indeed everything that is not specific and precisely localized in space and time (as we would put it). On the other hand, the Sarlang consider a mental event that is infused with deep emotion, such as a flash of hatred or empathy, to be ‘occurrent’ even if it is completely private since, they would argue, such events can have observable physical consequences. This is somewhat similar to the Buddhist distinction between ‘karmic’ and ‘non-karmic’ events: the first have consequences (‘karma’ means ‘action’ or ‘activity’) while the second do not.
After the ‘occurrent/non-occurrent’ dichotomy, the most important category in Lenwhil Katylin is discontinuity/continuity. Although the Sarlang believe that, in the last analysis, all events are a succession of point-like ‘ultimate events’ (the dharma(s) of Hinayana Buddhism), they nonetheless distinguish between ‘strike-events’ such as a blow and ‘extend-events’ such as a ‘walk’, a ‘run’ and so on. Suffixes or inflections make it clear, for example, whether the equivalent of the verb ‘to look’ means a single glance or an extended survey. And the suffix –y or –yia turns a ‘strike-event’ into an ‘extend-event’  when both cases are possible. Moreover, ‘spread-out’ verbs themselves fall into two classes, those that are repetitions of a selfsame ‘strike-event’ and those that contain dissimilar ‘strike-events’. The monotonous beating of a drum is, for example, a ‘strike spread-event’ while even a single note played on a violin is classed as a ‘spread strike-event’ because of the overtones that are immediately brought into play.
A further linguistic category distinguishes between events which are caused by events of the same type and events brought about by events of an altogether different type. In particular, a physical event brought about by a physical event is sharply distinguished from a physical event brought about by a mental or emotional event: the latter case exhibits ‘cause-effect-dissimilarity’ and is usually, though not invariably, signalled by the suffix -ez. This linguistic distinction has its origin in the division of perceived reality into what is termed ‘the Manifest Occurrent’, very roughly the equivalent of our objective physical universe, and the Manifest Non-Occurrent which consists of wishes, dreams, desires, myths, legends, archetypes, indeed the whole gamut of mental and internal emotional occurrences. Nonetheless, these two domains are not absolutely independent and the Sarlang themselves claimed to have developed a technique (known as witr-conseil) that transferred whole complexes of events from the Manifest Non-Occurrent into the Manifest Occurrent and, more rarely, in the opposite direction. Whatever the truth of this claim, the technique, supposing it ever existed, was lost for ever when the Sarlang, reaching the end of their term, committed mass extinction.                                       SH  13/1/18

Note 1 The standard argument against the ‘Linguistic Relativity Theory’ is that, if it were correct, translation would be impossible which is not the case. This argument carries some weight but we must remember that almost all books successfully translated into English come from societies which share the same general religious and philosophic background and whose languages employ similar grammatical structures. Few books have been translated from so-called ‘primitive’ societies because such societies had a predominantly oral culture, while Biblical translators ‘going the other way’ have typically found it extremely difficult to get their message across when communicating with  animists.
There may be something in Whorf’s claim that the Hopi world-view was closer to the modern ‘field of energy’ paradigm than to the ‘force and particle’ paradigm of classical physics. ‘Energy’ (a term never used by Newton) is essentially a ‘potential’ entity since it refers to what an object ‘possesses  within itself’, not what it is actually doing at any particular moment. Generally speaking, primitive societies were quite happy with ‘potential’ concepts, with the idea of a ‘latent’ force locked up within an object but which was not accessible to the five senses directly. It is in fact possible to formulate mechanics strictly in energy terms (via the Hamiltonian) rather than on the basis of Newton’s laws of motion, but no one ever learned mechanics this way, and doubtless never will, because it requires such advanced mathematics. It is hard to imagine a society committed from the start to an ‘energy’ viewpoint on the world ever being able to develop an adequate symbolic system to flesh out such a vision.


The Western world-view, at any rate since the Greeks, has concentrated almost entirely on ‘things’ to the relative exclusion of ‘events’. But has this not been the case everywhere and during all epochs? If we consider the religions and philosophies of the East and the beliefs of so-called ‘primitive’ societies, it is by no means true that a ‘materialistic’ slant on life is inevitable and universal.  Although philosophic ‘materialism’ —  in a strangely modern sense — existed  in India as far back as the time of the Buddha (Note 1), likewise in China, such systems never became dominant and the whole trend of philosophic thought in India, for example,  even up to the present day, has been ‘idealistic’ — probably one reason why contemporary Indians excel in the least materialistic science of the lot, so-called ‘information technology’. In India the two dominant religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, regarded ‘matter’ as at best secondary and, more commonly, as a dangerous delusion; similarly, in China Taoism, the philosophy of perpetual flux, for a long time more than held its own against the more rational and commonsensical (to our eyes) Confucianism.
One might, of course, wonder whether those persons who claimed that ‘matter’ and ‘self’ were illusory were being entirely sincere, or, if they were, whether they had a right to be : after all they were generally monks dependent on the charity of ordinary people who had to grapple with the very real problems of earning their daily bread (or rather daily rice). There is, however, also the testimony of language, for what it is worth.
Benjamin Whorf is out on his own amongst linguists : he trained as a chemist and, during most of his short life, worked for a fire insurance company, though his employers seem to have been surprisingly understanding about the time he was allowed to take off. Whorf had an amazing flair for picking up languages that scarcely any white Americans of the time had heard of, let alone learned to speak, and an even more remarkable flair for entering into the thought processes of ‘primitive’ peoples. He held to the notion, currently unfashionable in academia, that the structure of a language embodies a ‘world-view’ :

“We are thus intorduced to a new principle of relativity, which holds that all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same pucture of the universe, inless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated. (Whorf)” 

In particular, Whorf noted the striking differences between the structure of modern European languages and that of the languages of native American Indian tribes.

“Hopi, with its preference for verbs, as contrasted to our own liking for nouns, perpetually turns our propositions about things into propositions about events.” (Whorf, Language, Thought and Reality, p. 63, MIT Press 1991)

“The SAE (Standard Average European) microcosm has analyzed reality largely in terms of what it calls “things” (bodies and quasibodies) plus modes of extensional but formless existence it calls “substances” or “matter”. It tends to see existence through a binomial formula that expresses any existent as a spatial form plus a spatial formless continuum related to the form….
The Hopi microcosm seems to have analyzed reality largely in terms of EVENTS (or better “eventing”), referred to in two ways, objective and subjective.”  
(Whorf, op. cit. p. 147)

Whorf has many interesting things to say about Amerindian languages and the alleged philosophy behind them, but rather than repeat what he wrote I refer readers to Whorf himself. He died prematurely at the age of forty-four leaving various published and unpublished papers : M.I.T. brought about a selection edited by John B. Carroll in 1991 entitled “Language, Thought and Reality”.
My sketch of the language, Lenwhil Katylin, from my unfinished SF novel, The Web of Aoullnnia, incorporates several ideas I culled from Whorf, though they ‘rang a bell’ immediately. This novel — I hope it is a novel —  consists of a series of “transmissions from the future” emanating from a certain Yilkin I. Isellyion, a ‘mefam’ (male) living around the year 2260 “by your reckoning”.  Mr Isellyion has also communicated certain ‘explanatory notes’ about customs and behaviour that “will most likely appear strange to twenty-first century readers”. The following is one of them :

“Katylin is a language developed by the Sarlang during the latter part of the period known to us as the Abyss (and which is due to start shortly in your time) when they lived in underground settlements in North-West Territory (your USA). There are two forms, Lenwhil (or ‘true mode’) Katylin which is the language actually used by the Sarlang, and Sarwhil (‘easymode’) Katylin which is a simplified version of it with some borrowing from other languages. No one today speaks Lenwhil Katylin and it would be regarded as sacrilegious to even attempt to do so. However, a good deal of the chants and litanies to Aoullnnia are in a relatively pure form of Katylin and the Yther (a fanatical mystical sect only open to fam) use written Lenwhil Katylin for letters and certain documents.
Sarwhil Katylin is currently employed by the Interdominants as an official language somewhat analogous to your Church Latin in Europe in earlier times. The difference between the two modes of Katylin is essentially one of degree: the basic structure of the two languages is the same but is more strictly adhered to in the original Lenwhil form. Also, since the Sarlang had a much subtler perception of sound than we have, Lenwhil when actually spoken employed several different  tones – there were supposedly over eighteen in all.
The linguistic principles on which Katylin is based have their origins in the manner in which the Sarlang experienced reality — or, if you like, demonstrate  the Sarlangs’ philosophic prejudices. In Katylin the first word of every utterance is usually a ‘gerund’, a verbal noun. There is ‘action’, something occurring. Then comes a word or group of words giving  the origin of the action and finally a word or group of words giving the result of the action. Thus the statement “I am painting a picture” will in Katylin be thrown into the form

Painting / me / picture.”

As a secondary, or alternative, dual specification we might have the first word in an utterance giving the localisation of the origin of the action and the second word the localisation of the effect. Thus the ‘sentence’

‘Flashing/ sky/ ground’   

indicates that a flash (of lightning) has occurred, originating in the sky but having effects on the ground below.
Again, if I direct a beam of light upwards into the sky I might write something like


Because of the (to you) strange Sarlang conceptions of causality, there is often no great distinction made between the origin and localisation of an action even if the ‘origin’ is a human being. However, if the action is definitely the result of an act of will, a prefix  such as ‘en-‘ will make this clear, distinguishing, for example, between

“Shooting/I/him ”    and  “En-shooting/I/him ”

The first utterance is just a statement of fact, or supposed fact, with the implication being that the shooting was accidental (because of the lack of the prefix). Incidentally, though past, present and future actions can be distinguished if desired, there are no tenses as such in Katylin (cf. your Mandarin ?).
Katylin also makes several subtle distinctions between different types of  ‘fictitious’ events since, for the Sarlang, there were ‘degrees of unreality’ just as there were ‘degrees of reality’.     Yilkin I. Isellyion  (Note 2)

Notes: (1) “The Indian materialists denied the existence of any spiritual substance… to that, they denied every established order in the Universe, other than a haphazard order. They admitted no a priori binding eternal moral law. (…) They supported the established order and the religion upon which it was founded, without caring to be religious themselves. But not only did materialism flourish among the governing classes [at the time of the Buddha], it also had its votaries among the popular circles. From among the six most successful popular preachers  who were wandering through the villages of Hindustan during the life-time of the Buddha, two at least were materialists” (Stcherbatksy, Buddhist Logic, p. 16, Dover).  

(2) Anyone who wants to take things further is invited to peruse the opening chapters of The Web of Aoullnnia  on my website