Linguistic relativism 1

26 March 2009 at 5:58 AM | Posted in News | 3 Comments

Multilingual literary criticism can most probably contribute to the current debate about linguistic relativism, popularly but inaccurately known as the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis. If it is true in some way that language determines the way we see the world, then a writer using only one language, more precisely his/her own mother tongue, necessarily is able to mirror only a limited aspect of the real world (assuming, for the sake of argument, that there is indeed a real world, something some philosophers contest). If we want poetry to mirror (I am using the traditional word, which is a general synonym of the classic “imitate”) reality, then poetry that mirrors only a small part of reality should surely be inferior to poetry that mirrors a greater part of reality. In theory, therefore, assuming that some version of Whorf-Sapir is correct, a multilingual or at least bilingual poet must enjoy an advantage over a monolingual poet, in that the multi-lingual or bilingual poet sees more of the world than the linguistically-challenged one does. One way to test this is to read a poem containing more than one language and to see how it compares with a monolingual poem. Of course, sampling will always be debatable, but if we take two poems considered classic or excellent by most critics and compare them, we might be on to something.

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  1. Linguistic relativism — as opposed to linguistic determinism — hypothesizes that language “influences” the writer’s world view, while the latter “determines” his cognition, conceptualization, and his entire system of “knowing.”

    Assuming, for the sake of argument, that multilingual literature presents more worldviews (as languages are expressions of these world views), it does not necessarily follow that it is superior to a monolingual view.

    It is altogether possible that the multilingual view could be a series of “false” perceptions. Therefore, if language is the handmaiden of phenomenology, then language/s based on a false or erroneous worldview would be inferior as an equipment of epistemology (i.e., derivation of knowledge). Hence, an inferior rendition of “reality.”

    The “being” of a poem would be warped if based on erroneous worldview. (This premiss exposed Dadaism and Surrealism as “suspect” movements in the arts.)

    A “small reality” (shorn of other languages media), like those “mirrored” in Zen poetry (found in the Japanese Haiku), might have more puissant poetic energy than even a multilingual poem like Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” That “small reality” could, after all be a synecdoche (that reaches a universal truth via the specific reality used in the poet’s metaphors or imagery).

    How does Eliot’s “Gerontion” compare to Basho’s haiku on the onset of autumn (the fall being a correlative of ageing and a decline of verve):

    Eliot:
    “I, an old man,
    a dull head among empty spaces.”

    Basho:

    “Autumn–
    even the birds
    and clouds look old.”

    A multilingual poet would quite naturally have an advantage over a monolingual craftsman in terms of poetic and linguistic tools. But their poetry must needs be evaluated by the literary critic in terms of their “literariness”.

    Here’s another Basho haiku for good measure:

    Year’s end,
    all corners
    of this floating world, swept.

    How does this compare with Eliot’s “The Wasteland” (a multilingual poem) which veritably speaks of the same “end”:

    “April is the cruellest month, breeding
    Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
    Memory and desire, stirring
    Dull roots with spring rain.”

    A small reality is bigger than one thinks. Listen to this Kikaku (1661-1707) haiku:

    Leaf
    of the yam —
    raindrop’s world.

    The critic finds a place in this scene. He adjudicates which poetry speaks more powerfully to the ken. (That’s why Comparative Literature remains as an elective course in Litt.B programs.)

  2. Linguistic relativism — as opposed to linguistic determinism — hypothesizes that language “influences” the writer’s world view, while the latter “determines” his cognition, conceptualization, and his entire system of “knowing.”

    Assuming, for the sake of argument, that multilingual literature presents more worldviews (as languages are expressions of these world views), it does not necessarily follow that it is superior to a monolingual view.

    It is altogether possible that the multilingual view could be a series of “false” perceptions. Therefore, if language is the handmaiden of phenomenology, then language/s based on a false or erroneous worldview would be inferior as an equipment of epistemology (i.e., derivation of knowledge). Hence, an inferior rendition of “reality.”

    The “being” of a poem would be warped if based on erroneous worldview. (This premiss exposed Dadaism and Surrealism as “suspect” movements in the arts.)

    A “small reality” (shorn of other languages media), like those “mirrored” in Zen poetry (found in the Japanese Haiku), might have more puissant poetic energy than even a multilingual poem like Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” That “small reality” could, after all be a synecdoche (that reaches a universal truth via the specific reality used in the poet’s metaphors or imagery).

    How does Eliot’s “Gerontion” compare to Basho’s haiku on the onset of autumn (the fall being a correlative of ageing and a decline of verve):

    Eliot:
    “I, an old man,
    a dull head among empty spaces.”

    Basho:

    “Autumn–
    even the birds
    and clouds look old.”

    A multilingual poet would quite naturally have an advantage over a monolingual craftsman in terms of poetic and linguistic tools. But their poetry must needs be evaluated by the literary critic in terms of their “literariness”.

    Here’s another Basho haiku for good measure:

    Year’s end,
    all corners
    of this floating world, swept.

    How does this compare with Eliot’s “The Wasteland” (a multilingual poem) which veritably speaks of the same “end”:

    “April is the cruellest month, breeding
    Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
    Memory and desire, stirring
    Dull roots with spring rain.”

    A small reality is bigger than one thinks. Listen to this Kikaku (1661-1707) haiku:

    Leaf
    of the yam —
    raindrop’s world.

    The critic finds a place in this scene. He adjudicates which poetry speaks more powerfully to the ken. (That’s why Comparative Literature remains as an elective course in Litt.B programs.)

  3. Linguistic relativism — as opposed to linguistic determinism — hypothesizes that language “influences” the writer’s world view, while the latter “determines” his cognition, conceptualization, and his entire system of “knowing.”

    Assuming, for the sake of argument, that multilingual literature presents more worldviews (as languages are expressions of these world views), it does not necessarily follow that it is superior to a monolingual view.

    It is altogether possible that the multilingual view could be a series of “false” perceptions. Therefore, if language is the handmaiden of phenomenology, then language/s based on a false or erroneous worldview would be inferior as an equipment of epistemology (i.e., derivation of knowledge). Hence, an inferior rendition of “reality.”

    The “being” of a poem would be warped if based on erroneous worldview. (This premiss exposed Dadaism and Surrealism as “suspect” movements in the arts.)

    A “small reality” (shorn of other languages media), like those “mirrored” in Zen poetry (found in the Japanese Haiku), might have more puissant poetic energy than even a multilingual poem like Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” That “small reality” could, after all be a synecdoche (that reaches a universal truth via the specific reality used in the poet’s metaphors or imagery).

    How does Eliot’s “Gerontion” compare to Basho’s haiku on the onset of autumn (the fall being a correlative of ageing and a decline of verve):

    Eliot:
    “I, an old man,
    a dull head among empty spaces.”

    Basho:

    “Autumn–
    even the birds
    and clouds look old.”

    A multilingual poet would quite naturally have an advantage over a monolingual craftsman in terms of poetic and linguistic tools. But their poetry must needs be evaluated by the literary critic in terms of their “literariness”.

    Here’s another Basho haiku for good measure:

    Year’s end,
    all corners
    of this floating world, swept.

    How does this compare with Eliot’s “The Wasteland” (a multilingual poem) which veritably speaks of the same “end”:

    “April is the cruellest month, breeding
    Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
    Memory and desire, stirring
    Dull roots with spring rain.”

    A small reality is bigger than one thinks. Listen to this Kikaku (1661-1707) haiku:

    Leaf
    of the yam —
    raindrop’s world.

    The critic finds a place in this scene. He adjudicates which poetry speaks more powerfully to the ken. (That’s why Comparative Literature remains as an elective course in Litt.B programs.)


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