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Don't Believe the Hype About Aborigines, Yiddish, or Ebonics


Judging from how the Times magazine’s excerpt from Guy Deutscher’s new book has been one of the most read pieces in the paper for over a week now, the book is on its way to libating readers ever eager for the seductive idea that people’s languages channel the way they think--that is, that grammar creates cultural outlooks.

“Oooh-mmmm!” I heard in a room once when a linguist parenthetically suggested that the reason speakers of one Native American language have prefixes instead of words to indicate mixing, poking, and sucking on food is because they are “culturally” attuned to such things.

But don’t we all cherish poking and sucking? As cool as it would be if grammar were thought, the idea is a myth--at least in any form that would be of interest beyond academic psychologists.

Deutscher is to be commended for noting that the original version of this idea has not held up. Fire-inspector-by-day Benjamin Lee Whorf claimed in the thirties that Hopi has no way to indicate tense, and thus created a cyclical sense of time among its speakers. But Hopi has plenty of words and suffixes to indicate tense, and the whole idea that Hopi was a substrate for a mystical frame of mind has fallen to pieces.

But Deutscher’s idea is that a new thread of work is showing that language does create thought patterns nevertheless. The upshot is supposed to be that human groups are going about with their grammatical structures lending them fascinatingly different Ways of Looking at the World.

Deutcher’s favorite evidence is peoples who sense direction not as a matter of front and back but as north, south, east and west. In their languages you say not “in front of me” but “west of me” and so on--meaning that where if we were turned around after saying something was in front of us we’d say that it was now in back of us, speakers of these languages would still say that it was west of them.

Neat. But are these people’s languages making them sensitive to direction rather than position--or is it, as almost anyone would intuit, that the culture focuses on direction and thus the language does? Americans have a plethora of terms referring to psychology--complex, affect, syndrome, superego, compensation. Yet who would say that it’s the English language that makes us sensitive to these things? It sounds like something a Martian anthropologist might come up with, too eager for the exotic to perceive--or settle for--the more mundane truth.

In the actual book, Deutscher attempts to flick away objections like this by noting that groups next door to direction-focused ones, culturally similar to their neighbors, often just refer to front and back like we do--and that this must mean that cultural differences of some kind drive the difference in grammar.

And that’s right--but it undercuts Deutscher’s initial argument. Sure, there are cultural differences--but the idea that the reason the direction-focused group thinks the way it does is because of their language puts the cart before the horse.

Nor does other evidence Deutscher shows indicate that grammar gives people “different ways of seeing the world” in the sense that most of us would find earth-shaking. Speakers of languages with gender are more likely to imagine--if asked on a survey, which typically they never are--feminine nouns talking with higher voices than masculine ones. So, your French friend, if you woke her up in the middle of the night, would be more likely to imagine a table--feminine la table-- talking like Meryl Streep than you would. OK--but is this “a way of looking at the world”? Does your friend think of tables as ladies? Ask her--she doesn’t.

Or--many languages have a word that covers both green and blue. Call it “grue.” Their speakers distinguish blue and green very slightly less quickly than English speakers do. Is this a “world view”? I can only quote my erstwhile UC Berkeley colleague Paul Kay with Willett Kempton here: “If the differences in world view are to be interesting, they must be sizeable. Minuscule differences are dull.”

Yet the coverage of the book will leave an implication that there are people thinking of boats as having to shave. This is to be resisted. One reason is that some languages have more grammar than others. Treat the north/south language as itself creating a “world view,” and then think about a more telegraphic language without endings and much of what makes grammars especially complicated, such as Chinese.

Some decades ago, a researcher floated the idea that in leaving the difference between “If you see” and “If you were to see” to context, Chinese renders its speakers less sensitive to the hypothetical than English speakers. I don’t even need to describe the response to that one--suffice it to say there wasn’t a hint of “Oooh-mmmm!”


On a regular basis the media tells us that Yiddish is dying--in that there is a shrinking market for literature in the language. Alas, one cannot keep a Yiddish bookstore open even in New York City. And although there are students learning the language in college and a healthy amount of activities and programs seeking to preserve it, there are those who say that the very existence of efforts like these signals that the language will never truly live again (with the revival of Hebrew being the one true exception).

But what about the hundreds of thousands of people who use Yiddish as an everyday language in the home decade after decade--namely, Hasidic Jews?

For example, 90 percent of the 13,000-plus residents of the Hasidic town of Kiryas Joel in New York State speak Yiddish in the home. And they tend to have huge families--that is, kids are being raised in it, as I have twice seen in Hasidic families I encountered on airplanes. (To wit: My intrusive question “Excuse me, are you speaking Yiddish????? And the answer, “Oh, yes... ” with a slight perplexity that I would even find it interesting.) At last count in 2006, about 150,000 Americans alone spoke Yiddish at home. There are about 20,000 more in Canada, and many more elsewhere.

Whence the idea, then, that Yiddish is dying? The problem is a notion that a language doesn’t really exist unless it is thriving on the page. But that is, frankly, an illusion due to the invention of print just several centuries ago. There are about 6000 languages in the world, and only about 200 are written in any real way. That is, there are 5800 languages that are only spoken--and yet tell their speakers that the languages they learn on their mommies’ knee are not “real”!

Remember that New Yorker piece a few years ago about the Amazonian tribe called the Piraha who don’t really have numbers? It’s never written except by linguists, but it’s surely real. I study an English-Portuguese-Dutch-African hybrid spoken by 20,000 descendants of escaped slaves in the Surinam rain forest. It is written only by linguists and missionaries. Yet the number of its speakers stays relatively constant; it is not endangered. Saramaccan, as this language is called, is surely real--albeit spoken by a mere seventh as many people as Yiddish is.

Yiddish, then, is not dying in the least. There would seem to be a notion that if it is only being spoken casually in homes then it is not alive--but this is nonsensical. I know what a dying language is--a Native American language now spoken only by people in late middle age or older that youngsters of the culture only know some words of. That is, most Native American languages or the Aboriginal languages in Australia. Languages die, as I have commented on in this slot.

That is not Yiddish. Is Yiddish literature no longer what it once was? Obviously. Is there a strip of Yiddish-language theatres on Second Avenue in New York City? Last time I checked, no. Are there now Molly Goldbergs saying “Yoo-hoo” out of their tenement windows speaking a Yiddishe-inflected English? No--and for the record, even Gertude Berg didn’t actually talk that way in real life. But is Yiddish dying? Feh! Languages like Navajo should have it so good.

Language likely traces to the birth of our species 150,000 years ago. Writing started about 5500 years ago. Which means that if language had only existed for 24 hours, writing would only have come along after 11 PM. A language is what people speak. Any sense that its robust persistence among Hasids is somehow “not real” is, if you think about it, a claim that they are somehow not real people. Upon which they might venture “Geh kaken oifen yam!”


We are much affected by the queer fact that while whites are supposed to think of the N-word as the most taboo word in the English language, black men can call each other IT with abandon. It’s what did in Dr. Laura’s radio career.

But too often the in-group use of the N-word is treated as something modern. Supposedly it was something that happened in the wake of, maybe rap? The common notion seems to be that black men calling each other N-word is about 25 years old.

Wrong. The black use of the N-word is not something unique to our times and whatever is wrong or right with them--it’s old, old news, which a certain kind of music happens to have made more obvious to people beyond black America.

First let’s go back to the fifties--i.e. when Martin Luther King was starting to turn America upside down in Montgomery. Here is Claude Brown’s biographical account of growing up in Harlem in the 1940s and 1950s, Manchild in the Promised Land. Someone warmly counsels Brown in the fifties:

You’re one of these complacent niggers out here who managed to get by and not have it bother them directly ... when the shit comes down on you, you’re going to be one of the angriest niggers out here on this street, man ... you see all these niggers running out here talking about they want some white girl. Damn, I don’t want me nothin’ but a nigger woman.

Note how “nigger woman” is intended as a compliment, and examples like these are hardly rare.

The fifties too recent? In the thirties in Mules and Men, Zora Neale Hurston collected black folk tales full of warm references to blacks themselves as “niggers”--and it was warmly reviewed in none other than the NAACP’s house organ The Crisis. Hurston herself had Big Nigger as the working title for her (autobiographical!) novel Jonah’s Gourd Vine.

We can go even further back, with equivalent words. Here is a song lyric from 1898 by none other than one of the Blacks in Wax Paul Laurence Dunbar, with music by imperious, mustachioed black Will Marion Cook who smashed his violin to pieces when identified by a white man as the “best colored violinst”:

Warm coons a’ prancin’ / Swell coons a’dancin’. / Tough coons who’ll want to fight ...

They were knuckling under to what whites wanted? Tempting and reasonable supposition, but we have to be careful in painting people from a hundred years ago as versions of ourselves except with fancier clothes and no internet. Cook came away from the premiere of the show that lyric was sung in crowing that black people had arrived on Broadway at last, pegging it as one of the milestones of his life. And we can know how a Cook would have felt about that lyric, from the kind of thing now hidden in ancient numbers of black newspapers.

The Indianapolis Freeman’s Sylvester Russell, its main drama critic, knew his racism quite well and staged a sit-in sixty years before they became common. He had no use for “nigger.” Yet he casually noted in 1904 that “The Negro race has no objections to the word “coon.” And in his time, “ace boon coon” was current slang among blacks for “best friend”--and is still used in warm irony now in some black quarters.

To be sure, the word elicited controversy just as nigger does now. The following year Russell interviewed black stage composer superstar Bob Cole, who was dedicated to showing whites blacks’ dignity by doing his vaudeville act in black tie and writing gem-like “genteel” songs (the one with any resonance today is “Under the Bamboo Tree”). Cole said “The word ‘coon’ is very insinuating and must soon be eliminated.”

But then, Cole had no problem with, of all things, “darkey”!

The upshot of this gaslight-era ethnic lexicography is, quite simply, plus ça change.

The reason one might feel that one has been hearing the black use of the N-word “lately” is because one has heard rap only “lately,” and because only “lately” has there been a regular string of black stand-up comedy shows on television and black comedy films. Before all this, the same stuff was going on, just largely unrecorded--i.e. in spoken language, always thriving, be it on the streets of Detroit or Kiryas Joel.