This post will focus on some background for the very interesting but contradictory prompt two of this year’s University of Chicago application essays–the language prompt, probably better named the Whorfian language prompt. This post is Part 1 of two posts on this prompt. I will cover some background and get into a few ideas for approaching this prompt, then follow up with more specific ideas in the part II post on this prompt. Who should read this: Anybody applying to U Chicago in 2014-2015.
And we are off to the races, as U Chi gets their prompts out the door. Hopefully they establish a trend with this.
I say this because, in recent years, the Common Application has been going live right around August 1st, and increasingly, so have most universities, even those that do not use the Common Application. This has meant that most students have not had any certainty about essay prompts or short answers or anything else until they are just about ready to go back to school for their senior year. Students are often faced with five, ten or more essays, beginning in August. This has seemed odd and unfair to me, given the writing requirements for some university apps and the way most schools emphasize putting significant time and effort into application essays. So kudos to Chicago for breaking away from the peleton, so to speak, and hopefully establishing a trend toward earlier application and prompt releases.
And now, in the intuitively nonintuitive spirit of U Chi, let’s skip prompt one (for now) and go right to prompt number two.
Essay Option 2.
In French, there is no difference between “conscience” and “consciousness”. In Japanese, there is a word that specifically refers to the splittable wooden chopsticks you get at restaurants. The German word “fremdschämen” encapsulates the feeling you get when you’re embarrassed on behalf of someone else. All of these require explanation in order to properly communicate their meaning, and are, to varying degrees, untranslatable. Choose a word, tell us what it means, and then explain why it cannot (or should not) be translated from its original language.
— Inspired by Emily Driscoll, an incoming student in the Class of 2018
This prompt, and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that it is based on, represent a pretty simple idea, which is this: the language we speak shapes how we think. This idea is identified with a stance that is usually called Linguistic Relativism. Beyond those basic statements about what seems a common sense idea, there is an enormous amount of debate, from whether the idea is true at all, to whether Whorf’s ideas were hijacked and oversimplified to create a theory he would not recognize as his own. Neither Whorf nor his mentor Sapir every concocted their ideas as a formal theory in the way that, say, Einstein did.
I add here the observation that the way this U Chicago prompt is phrased suggests that Ms. Driscoll is really rehashing a very dated version of linguistic relativism, which is no longer really espoused in the doctrinaire way this prompt puts it, even by those who accept the basic idea. Language reflects culture which shapes thought, to a degree, but the idea that separable chopsticks is untranslatable is a bit silly. I mean, you get the idea, right? Even if it takes two words to get there?
I think language does reflect a view of the world and habits of thought, and sure, you can do experiments with things like color and provide evidence that language shapes how we view color, but how can you separate language from culture? Among other things. But I quibble too early, for I have yet to provide you with some background to the theory behind this flawed but fun prompt, and I don’t want to discourage you from writing about it. This prompt, even if it is a bit half-baked, should inspire some great essays. I just want you to be prepared. And at the least, this theory–and its misinterpretation–has helped supply plenty of college professors with employment sufficient to pay off their debts–or Schulden, in German, a word that also means guilt or shame–more on that later. And now this theory offers you the chance to get into U Chicago, so I guess it’s a good thing.
So let’s begin. It’s always wise to know a little bit about the topic area of any essay prompt, so here is a brief background on Whorf, then on “his” theory:
Benjamin Lee Whorf lived from 1897-1941. He was not originally a linguist, having studied Chemical Engineering at M.I.T. His day job was with the Hartford Insurance Company, where he was a fire prevention engineer and inspector, and after researching language and anthropology as a pastime, he went on to study linguistics under Edward Sapir at Yale University. It may seem odd that someone who did pioneering work in linguistics and anthropology worked essentially as an insurance executive, but the avante garde composer Charles Ives was also an insurance executive, and the poet Wallace Stevens also worked at Hartford insurance. Maybe it’s like Flaubert said, “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
In any case, studying people and their languages Whorf did. He was profoundly religious, and he started with Biblical Hebrew; hoping to reduce the conflict between religion and science, he began to pursue what he thought were similarities between ancient Hebrew and some Native American languages. It was while investigating Aztec that Whorf began to study under Edward Sapir at Yale. Sapir encouraged Whorf to study Hopi, which he did.
Whorf came to believe that the Hopi people had a whole different mental construction of the universe, and did not think in terms that an English speaker would recognize as past, present, and future. Whorf came to believe that Hopi language and thought divided the world into what he called the manifested and manifesting. In the first category, manifested, Whorf included the physical universe, and in the latter category, manifesting, Whorf included the future, which makes sense to English speakers, but he also included other conceptual categories, like desires, processes, power, intelligence, and life forces. I say Whorf included these things because these are his categories, which he used to describe Hopi language. Whorf thought that the structure of the Hopi language itself contained a different philosophy and view of reality than that of English speakers–so you can see the connection with the U Chicago prompt now.
The problem lies in both Whorf’s understanding of Hopi, which now appears to be flawed, and with his view of the power of language to shape thought. There are clear differences between Hopi and English; for example, Hopi has relatively few nouns, and tends to express concepts that would be nouns in English as verbs. The word”wave” in English is actually a simplification of a complex phenomenon and would in Hopi be expressed in words that more or less say “plural or multiple waving occurs.” Whorf argued that Hopi was in some ways superior to English and that the way Hopis viewed the world was in some senses better than the world view of English speakers.
But Whorf was mistaken about a number of features of Hopi. I add that Whorf was also one of the scholars who proposed, largely mistakenly, that the Inuit have multiple words for the single English concept of “snow.” You’ve probably heard that old chestnut about how English speakers have only one or very few words for snow, but Inuit (eskimo was the old and not very accurate word used for these people) have literally anywhere from seven (Whorf’s number) to dozens of words for snow. This sounds plausible until you start asking anybody who speaks English and lives in snow country or just likes skiing (Powder, corn snow, Sierra Cement. . . . ), then you realize that we have many English words for different conditions of snow, and researchers into Inuit have largely debunked these claims.