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Tuesday, February 5, 2013


Something I learned today but should have always known. Cultural anthropology has roots in German romantic thought. People like Boas and Malinowski were steeped in Herder. The idea of the distinctive way of thinking of a particular people. That is the same origin of cultural exceptionalism when applied to nations. Of course I've never read Herder so I feel quite out of my depth. I got this from the SEOP.

Once again, you don't want to say that a tribe of people doesn't have a culturally unique way of looking at the world. There's a useful corrective here to a bland universalism. But we should also question the fetishization of difference. Look at what the differences and the specificities actually are, but don't construct a grandiose mystical theory of otherness.

This comes just in time for theory class tomorrow, when we are discussing Whorf.


Construct an argument that the grammar of a language shapes thought.

Look at the conjugation of the verb sit

I sit
you sit
he / she sits

We sit
They sit.

So English marks only the 3rd person plural morphologically in the present tense. So what? This is trivial. It doesn't mean that we think of the 3rd person in a fundamentally different way. We just accept the arbitrary way grammar decides to work. In the past we have I sat you sat he sat she sat we sat they sat. That works fine.

English marks the gender of 3rd person singular, and not of you, we, I, they. Does that mean that the gender of you is unimportant for an English speaker? Not at all. Grammatically, it is unmarked, but that has no influence on anything else. It could have just as easily been some other person of the verb that was grammatically marked for person and gender.

Spanish says "Buenas noches" and English "Good night." Does the plural have a meaning for the Spanish speaker? Is this conceptually different? Or is it a trivial difference? A difference from which no interesting conclusions ensue.

Japanese has different word and counting suffixes depending on the object being counted. People, animals, flat objects like pieces of paper, etc... Does that mean a finer attunement to the kinds of differences between objects when they aren't being counted? No. Maybe not.


Critics of Américo Castro point out that impoverished nobles in Italy and France also had a proverbial aversion to work. This isn't some unique Hispanic hidalguía, then, but part of a larger pattern. If you look just at Spain, however, it looks like a certain class of people are lazy on principle, because it is Spain.

1 comment:

Professor Zero said...

It is not the grammar of a language that shapes thought but the fact of having a language. I can remember this distinctly, acquiring language, the most important and interesting experience I have had; it was exciting but there was also a distinct sense of mourning, because I knew that by learning this I was reshaping my mind and losing touch forever with the immediacy of experience I had enjoyed heretofore.