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.
To be fair, neither Whorf nor Sapir actually presented the ideas that bear their name as a cohesive theory, and reading Whorf, in particular, can be a bit like reading Nietzsche–what you think he means depends on which of his works you happen to be reading and where you are in it. Whorf is not as self-contradictory as somebody like Nietzsche, but he does present his ideas in relatively strong and in more relative terms, and the “theory’ itself really didn’t gain currency until after Whorf’s early death.
Here’s a brief summary of the fundamental idea, then a quote from Whorf himself to give you the flavor, then we’ll get to the problems with a rigid application of Whorf’s ideas:
A quick recap of the main idea of Linguistic Relativism, courtesy of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Many thinkers have urged that large differences in language lead to large differences in experience and thought. They hold that each language embodies a worldview, with quite different languages embodying quite different views, so that speakers of different languages think about the world in quite different ways. This view is sometimes called the Whorf-hypothesis or the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, after the linguists who made it famous. But the label linguistic relativity, which is more common today, has the advantage that makes it easier to separate the hypothesis from the details of Whorf’s views, which are an endless subject of exegetical dispute (Gumperz and Levinson, 1996, contains a sampling of recent literature on the hypothesis).”
For more on this, have a look here: Linguistic Relativism.
And now here is Whorf himself:
“We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds – and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way – an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees.” -Whorf (1940:213-14)
Despite this passage’s apparent claim that language shapes how we think, Whorf was not really a Linguistic Determinist–notice how he uses words like “largely. ” Whorf’s claims are limited and qualified, and this idea in the Chicago prompt that there are ideas that are untranslateable doesn’t really hold water.
The body of his writing shows that Whorf considered language to be fundamental in shaping thought, but that language was not the only way to think, and that the effect of language on thought was not absolute. This is something that both his critics and the proponents of the so-called Whorfian ideas about language tend to miss, and that now brings us back to the University of Chicago Prompt, and how it is self-exploding.
I say it is self-exploding because the examples it provides of non-English words seem to translate pretty easily. I think any person of high school age understands the concept of fremdschämen, of feeling embarrassed for somebody else–and while we may not have our own single English word for separable chopsticks, we all know what they are–the phrase separable chopsticks is an admirably clear “word” for this utensil. The French example, in which the English conscience and consciousness are the same in French is more interesting, but also not really accurate. Based on context, a French speaker would understand very well that former president Sarkozy should (though may not, given his immense egocentricity) have a very guilty conscience for taking money from deceased former Libyan chief of state Gaddafi.
Having said all this, I do think there are several excellent ways to approach this prompt, despite the apparent obliviousness of the prompt’s author to the contradictions in her prompt. Here is one way: language reflects culture as much as it shapes culture, and words like fremdschämen reflect a particular view of the world–you can see what is important to a culture in words like this, words which quickly allow people to identify and discuss a phenomenon or experience that may take a phrase or an involved explanation in other cultures. The words are translatable, but the fact that a more convoluted description or definition is needed to capture the essence of a single word says a lot, both about the culture that has condensed so much meaning into a single word or phrase and the culture that has not done that.
Which brings me back to the German Schuld, the word for guilt, shame, fault, blame and debt, among other things. Have a look here, at my favorite online German-English dictionary for an idea of the mental landscape represented by this word: die Schuld
And then consider the German response to the Euro-Crisis. Okay, I know, this started when you were in, like, 8th or 9th grade, but Germany profited immensely from selling its goods on a one-t0-one monetary basis against southern countries, where German goods were significantly more expensive prior to the Euro lifting the buying power of citizens in places like Spain and Greece. This meant a lot of profit for German companies and workers, who steamrolled southern competitors. And German banks, who were every bit as reckless as everybody else’s banks, and most German citizens and business people, have acted as if the massive Schulden of the southern countries and the debt crisis were a huge moral failing of those Latin types (I’m representing the view of much of Germany here, not my own view), and that hard-working, frugal German citizens should not have to pay more to bail out their feckless southern neighbors. Again, this is not my view, but this does represent the view of much of Germany. This after massive profits and massive speculation by their own banks, which stood to lose a lot of money until Americans paid the bill.
And while part of this is a natural reluctance to take on more debt and pain (they did a lot to reunite with East Germany, after all) some of this is also a narrow kind of moralism inherent in the culture, a not-my-problem moral prudishness which is divorced from the realities of how finance actually works, but which is clearly embedded in the moral categories of die Schulden, as you can see in a translation of the word. Selbst Schuld (Your fault, guilt, problem), as they say. But the Germans have some Schuld themselves, having let the U.S taxpayers bail out their banks during the financial crisis, banks who made very bad bets on our side of the Atlantic and which should have shared the pain with us, if we follow the same reasoning that has dominated in Germany. Our banks paid out on default swaps the German banks had on the crappy speculative bets and trash bond buys, which then helped push our banks off the cliff. But ask a German banker or citizen, and most will say it was the other guy’s Schuld. Denial is built into this conceptual framework, due to the moralism inherent in the term Schuld. And we can translate this easily enough, and even share some of this way of thinking, but it’s still more heightened in the German.
So I think the Sapir Whorf thing is a bit backwards–language affects thought, but you cannot separate language from culture, philosophy, history or psychology. It reflects all of this, describes all of this, and both shapes and is shaped by all of this. And I would argue that all ideas are in some way translatable. Whether you understand them, however, is a matter of experience–many concepts cannot really be understood only by way of words in the dictionary.
The thing to see in language differences is how language allows some cultures to discuss some ideas, or to capture some attitudes, more easily than other cultures, and to see how this reflects an outlook on the world. A world view. Which is why the Japanese have a word for those disposable separable chopsticks one gets with take-out foods. While we have plastic forks at the deli.
My most important piece of advice on this prompt is to challenge its assumptions, but then to look at how certain word capture concepts that show habits of thought–how a culture looks at the world. Weltanschaung, the Germans call it. A great word, and worthy of an entire essay by itself, I might add–have a look here, if you are curious: Weltanschauung, the biography of a word
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