Sapir, Whorf, Language, Gender, etc.

Alexandre Enkerli (alexandre.enkerli@IMM.UNIL.CH)
Sun, 8 Jan 1995 16:02:20 +0100

No. I *do not* want to follow on on any kind of flame war. Absolutely
not. And I won't, if I can't, participate in any kind of personal debate.
My post is more on theoretical implications that seem to have been a part
of the debate in the beginning. I didn't really follow those threads (I
get anthro-l by digests and I didn't read much of what was going on there
since dec. 23rd) but I saw a message about "Sapir-Whorf on its head". As
an ethnolinguistics-oriented student, this got me interested. I thought we
could have a scientific/theoretical discussion about the concepts that
underly, according to some, the so-called "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis". When I
saw that this was not exactly the core of the discussion, I got
disinterested. So, if there have been a scientific discussion about the
"Sapir-Whorf hypothesis", I didn't follow it and would be very glad if
someone could send me everything about it.
And note that I'm not complaining about the way the thread has been
oriented. And I do feel that the "gender question" is very important. In
fact, as a Montrealer, Korp's comment about Poly's tragedy resonates in me.
The "bad" thing is that I'm a man and therefore cannot understand
completely how a woman feels in that "context", eventhough I try. For
those of you who don't know much about it, Poly's tragedy has been the
point of departure of a large amount of discussions about sexism and gender
relationship in Quebec and, in this sense, has affected gender relationship
in some way at the time. But, and to my very humble opinion it's the
media's fault, after a while this issue has been "forgotten" and almost
everything came back to normal. Oh, of course, there are commemorative
plates at Poly's doors and a Prize has been founded in the honor of the 14
victims. But I'm not sure that everyone is reading these plates and, what
I think is strange, the prize is only given in view of scholar success,
regardless of gender (and I know a man who received it).
All of this is very sad. Obviously. And there's nothing we can do to make
it a happy event. But we can, and should, try to understand what went
wrong and try to prevent anything of that kind to happen again.
I would emphasize that (maybe by an ethnocentric and gender bias) I feel
Quebec not to be very "sexist". What I mean is, gender relationships are
usually easy and peaceful. Sadly, there are sexists in Quebec as, maybe
anywhere else, and Marc Lepine was of the worst kind, but I feel that this
doesn't caracterize usual relationships. Also, now living in Lausanne, I
feel that gender relationships in Quebec are "relatively" peaceful, as
compared to the part of Europe I live in. I'm not saying this as an
anthropologist but as a human being and, facts are facts, as a man. I
might be totally wrong about this, of course, but I sometimes feel very
uneasy when I see some men behave like macho-sexists and girls accepting
this kind of behavior. As an anecdote, last week I saw a guy behaving so
abruptly with a girl in a bar that I thought it was sexual harassment. I
was trying to prevent anything bad to happen when I saw the girl was
responding favorably to this. I felt foolish and puzzled.

All of this to say I don't dismiss the importance of anything against sexism.

So, coming back to language, I feel that it is a very important aspect of
almost any aspect of cultural phenomena (because of my ethnolinguistics
bias) including gender relationships. Also, as a French speaker, I have to
"live" gender all the time. What I mean is, the fact that my language has
gender as an mandatory category (boasian, isn't it?) makes gender a very
vivid category "in my mind". Examples are numerous. I feel something's
wrong when I hear misuse of gender in everyday conversation. In reading
English texts, which is clearly "less-genderized" than French, I apply
gender categories to it, non-voluntarily. And so on. The idea of"
de-genderizing" language is, for me, very much complicated by language
habits. In French, like in many other languages without a specific netural
gender, masculine is used for neutral statements (i.e., statements in which
gender is not marked). Therefore, "de-genderizing", without the addition
of a neutral gender, would produce even more masculine statements. There
have been attempt to do the opposite: to use femine forms in neutral
context. Maybe, there again, I'm biased, but the results are not
convincing. "Quelle heure est-elle?" ("What time is it?") sounds either
a-grammatical or, at least, marked femininely, not neutral. In formal
texts, both forms might be used simultaneously: "L'etudiant(e) devra etre
pret(e) a..." ("The student-male (or student-female) should be ready-male
(or ready-female) to...")
This is perceived as a "heavy" practice and has been more or less
abandoned. Warnings about the "neutral" meaning of masculine statements
are now very common (for example, in job descriptions).

The preceding has been, in my sense, influenced by an ethnolinguistic
assumption that language habits are cognitively important. This *is* an
assumption. Nothing more. Well, maybe. Because some interpret this as
"language influences thought" the issue is more complicated. I think that
almost everybody know of this as the so-called "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis".
But I never saw it mentioned in Sapir or Whorf. Moreover, I think there is
a lot more to their work than this assumption-hypothesis. This is the
original intention of the present message (ok, I digressed a lot, sorry):
ask anthros on the list what they know as a "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis" and
what they think of such a hypothesis, scientifically-speaking. I realize I
might be very well off-topic about the original subject of the thread but I
feel this is an interesting subject. I guess we all hold on to unverified
assumptions and it can be very misleading. But it's also one way to make
sense of the universe without analyzing *everything*. The thing is, we
don't all hold to the same assumptions. And it can be a very good source
for hot debate.

Alexandre Enkerli (Unil-LAIP Lausanne) ___________ (UdeM Dept. d'Anthropologie Montreal) ____ ____
"Doue d'une naivete permanente, il vivait plus que les autres." ___
o ___
Boris Vian /Une penible histoire/ in _Le loup-garou_ (1970:126) __ o o __