Sapir-Whorf revisited.

After my first day of Guaraní I’ve discovered a number of very interesting things. The nasality of the language makes me giggle to myself when I hear myself try to replicate it. I’ll absolutely inflict it upon you when I return… mostly because I’m so bad at it and, you know, “pain that is not transformed is transmitted,” as one of my few spiritual gurus likes to say.

Until the 20th century, Guaraní only counted up until the number “four.” After that, they used the word “many.” In the meantime, they’ve added numbers up to a gazillion. Do you remember the article about that Brazilian tribe that only counted up to two and that some offensive/problematic-sounding study showed they weren’t so hot at math, reigniting the debate as to how the structure of our language shapes/influences/limits our capacity to understand the world? I do. Here’s one quote from the lead researchers: "Producing simple straight lines was accomplished only with great effort and concentration, accompanied by heavy sighs and groans." To me it sounds like they might have just been tired from being poked and prodded.

Talking about the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is one of my favorite exercises in my Anth 101 classes, partially because it scandalizes the students twice. I start by having them spew out insults. Usually this produces awkward tension while someone musters up the courage to say “idiot” or “you dumbhead”—which we all know is not their usual word choice. When I ask them to notch it up to rated-R, they really squirm (although often someone gets into it and uses the customary bad words with a little too much glee). And then we look at the gendered nature of these insults and they are stunned to find how many of them have to do with insulting women.

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