Implications of Linguistic Relativity

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Implications of Linguistic (and cultural) Relativity – here and now

Authored by Greg Thompson, PhD

In addition to these implications for cultures around the globe, there are those who have begun to explore the role of relativity within our own culture. One standout in this regard is Carol Cohn’s study of defense intellectuals (click to download).

Although she was generally opposed to many of the policies that emerged from the world of defense intellectuals, Cohn decided that she wanted to study them in order to better understand their frame of reference. Although she saw their policies as inherently irrational, she sought to understand  To this end, she conducted ethnographic research where she became a participant observer in a community of defense intellectuals.

She found that these defense intellectuals had a different language that they would use to describe the act of war. For example, as many Americans will recognize, defense intellectuals don’t speak of “accidental death” caused by bombs but rather, they refer to “collateral damage.”

Examples abound in weapons and war talk. Missiles intended to kill people are called nuclear missiles with up to 400 times the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima are called “Peacekeepers”, bombs that kill people by explosive power rather than radiation are called “clean bombs”, and devices attached to missiles to help them go further into their target are called “penetration aids.” And this is where things take an interesting turn that makes one wonder What is this bomb-talk really all about? Back to that in a moment.

Cohn was particularly interested, as any good ethnographer or good GS thinker would, in figuring out how it is that people can talk this way without even noticing that they are doing it. How can people talk about killing people in terms that make it sound like a game of cricket. What she describes is that, as she becomes increasingly indoctrinated into the culture and the language of defense intellectuals, her thinking begins to change. As she writes:

“But as I learned their language, as I became more and more engaged with their information and their arguments, I found that my own thinking was changing. Soon, I could no longer cling to the comfort of studying an external and objectified ‘them.’ I had to confront a new question: How can I think this way? How can any of us?” (Cohn 1987, p. 488).

Cohn’s method of approach here is very much the kind of open-mindedness that one needs to do be a good ethnographer. Just as with the examples of “bride kidnapping” and “FGM/FC”, one needs to begin from a place of non-allness by acknowledging that the seemingly irrational acts that other people are engaged in may not be as irrational as they seem to us. Key to gaining this understanding is understanding their frame of reference. And most important to a frame of reference is the language that is used.

So what then does the language used by defense intellectuals mean?

Here is a passage from an earlier article of hers on defense intellectuals that should give us some clues as to what else might be involved in the bomb and missile talk of defense intellectuals (and note that this was recorded in the mid-80’s well after feminist critiques of weapon-as-phallus had been made – a point that Cohn was particularly struck by since nobody she observed using this language seemed at all aware of this interpretation of their language):

“Another lecturer solemnly and scientifically announced ‘to disarm is to get rid of all your stuff.’ (This may, in turn, explain why they see serious talk of nuclear disarmament as perfectly resistable, not to mention foolish. If disarmament is emasculation, how could any real man even consider it?) A professor’s explanation of why the MX missile is to be placed in the silos of the newest Minuteman missiles, instead of replacing the older, less accurate ones, was ‘because they’re in the nicest hole–you’re not going to take the nicest missile you have and put it in a crummy hole.’ Other lectures were filled with discussion of vertical erector launchers, thrust-to-weight ratios, soft lay downs, deep penetration, and the comparative advantages of protracted versus spasm attacks–or what one military adviser to the National Security Council has called ‘releasing 70 to 80 percent of our megatonnage in one orgasmic whump. ‘ There was serious concern about the need to harden our missiles and the need to ‘face it, the Russians are a little harder than we are.'”

Now, thinking about this in terms of general semantics, we would want to better understand what kinds of semantic reactions might come from making these kinds of associations between armaments and masculinity? (I could get more specific here with terminology, but that would be impolite). Cohn suggests one possibility: “if disarmament is emasculation, how could any real man even consider it?” Whether or not this is precisely what is going on here is certainly up for debate. But it nonetheless raises some interesting questions about whether or not this type of language might not be making the world a much more dangerous place than it really needs to be.

You may want to visit Cohn’s website for more.

Once again, we see that choice of language can potentially have very serious consequences.

Personal Examples

Indicate whether you are mono-lingual (English-only, in this case), bi-lingual, or multi-lingual, and tell us which languages you speak. Then provide an example from your own life where language proved particularly consequential.

For bi- and multi-lingual speakers

This could be an instance where there was a problem with translation from one language to another. Or, it could be a general experience that you have of feeling like you are one kind of person when speaking one language and an altogether different type of person when speaking another language. Or, it could be a difference that you experience in your ability to think about particular topics in one of the languages that you speak (assuming that this isn’t just a matter of insufficient vocabulary).

For mono-linguals

Describe some domain in which you had to learn a new set of terms (e.g. a job specific language or perhaps a mathematical language). How did learning that new set of terms affected how you understood the behavior that you were engaged in?

You cannot see others’ replies until you’ve posted your own.

Module 4 Assignment

Pick a controversial issue that you have heard practiced in another culture and do some web research in order to better understand the cultural frame of reference within which that practice is understood. By “controversial,” we mean an issue that is considered normal when seen from another culture’s frame of reference but which may not be seen as normal or acceptable from your own or someone else’s cultural frame of reference. Pay particular attention to the way language and labels encourage you to see the issue in a particular cultural frame of reference.

Here is a short list of some possible controversies:

  • eating dogs in some countries
  • Muslims chopping off hands of thiefs
  • Americans with guns
  • Americans with the death penalty
  • female genital mutilation
  • honor killings
  • arranged marriages
  • death penalty for gays

Write a short essay (250 words or less) describing what you learned from your research. You can type in the box below, or copy/paste from another application. If you found a particularly helpful online resource, include the link.

Module 4 Pages

Linguistic Relativity | What We Do With Language | How Language Shapes Thought | Implications of Linguistic Relativity
Assignments, Discussions and Quizzes | References and Resources