Friday, 12 July 2019

Language Universals

The apparent great diversity of the world's human languages belie the fact that they all have things in common:

1. all human languages have nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, tenses, person, number, etc. These are called 'language universals'; they exist in all human languages but are organized differently from language to language.

In fact, it goes even further:

2. linguistic relativity (or, more precisely, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), an utterly disproven hypothesis, states that language 'fossilizes' its speakers' worldview and bars their ability to perceive and, therefore, express certain levels of reality. (see for more details)

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was used by the Nazis to buttress their claim of intellectual superiority over other races. It, in a different form, is still used today by colonial institutions to justify assimilationist policies, namely through

3. the principle of 'linguistic translatability', which states that languages must share commonalities in order to avoid what is called 'cultural untranslatability'.

To me, 3 is just so much of what is called 'caloric theory' (look it up). The inherent contradictions are laughable, like the caloric theory, but have sad, devastating consequences when implicitly applied to justifying language extinction.

4. as a novice linguist, I was immediately indoctrinated into the notion that what can be conceived of and expressed in one language can also be conceived of and expressed in another language; it may take time and effort, but it can be done semantically, syntactically and in all ways linguistic and psychological (hey, it's language universals at work again).

4 is a humanistic principle that makes all of our work possible: the teachers, the aboriginal students, translators, interpreters, social relations in diverse communities.