Thursday, 1 November 2012

Safe as houses

What do we mean by safe? The question was occasioned by a news story I heard recently, which reported that driver deaths had declined while there had been a more-than-proportional rise in deaths of  'other road users'. As a lifelong member of the ORU club I can only say 'No sh*t Sherlock'.

Cars are getting 'safer', say various partis pris; fewer motorists are being killed. Well bully for them! - I'll tell you what a safe car is: one that instead of a driver airbag has a fixed bayonet mounted on the steering wheel, its point aimed at the driver's heart. Safe. Hmmm....

A mature student, Benjamin Whorf (of whom students of linguistics may have heard, in connection with the so-called Sapir/Whorf Hypothesis, which Whorf himself preferred - not without a measure of grandiloquence - to call 'The Principle of Linguistic Relativity') funded his studies under Edmund Sapir by working for the Hartford Fire Insurance Company. In his former life he had been a chemical engineer, so it was natural for his employers to get him to vet insurance claims relating to chemical fires. He noticed (in one of those aperçus that is blindingly obvious but thitherto not taken seriously) that the way someone described an accident could contain the seeds of an explanation of the accident itself: certain words are catastrophe-ogenic. For example, a claimant might refer to 'empty petrol drums'; and the way they dealt with them suggested the sense 'null/not worthy of consideration' - as in, say, 'an empty threat' . The way they used 'empty' suggested a belief that the drums did not contain highly flammable gas. When they exploded, the threat turned out not to be empty at all.

I shall have more to say about Linguistic Relativism. It was very popular when I was studying this in the seventies (three quarters of the way through what I have to admit was last century). But I remember Steven Pinker being rather sniffy about it more recently. However, nearing the top of my pile of unread books is Guy Deutscher's Through the Language Glass (there - considerate old Amazon is warning me that I've already bought it).  And I'll read that before saying any more on this topic (although I fully intend to update this post with a decent Pinker reference* in the mean time).


Update: 4 November 2012: Added PS and updated the TES view-count at the foot.

*The passage I remembered was in The Blank Slate, p. 208 (the link is to the paperback edition published a year after the one I'm referring to, but the pagination will be the same). But Pinker, a formidable scholar (he must be in the top 5 in the references per published word stakes, perhaps second only to Arnold Toynbee - whose posthumous The Greeks and their Heritages [now out of print, but whose notes featured correctly inflected Latin abbreviations - not just idem , but eosdem, eamdem and so on] I once edited) referred to his own The Language Instinct for a fuller account. I'm not sure I'll follow this up. To (very slightly) misquote Shakespeare, 'Methinks the linguist doth protest too much' when he dismisses other thinkers as participating in 'a conspiracy'.
+ various updates to the footer, the most recent being on 2013.10.06.12:05

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