Field of Science

Word meaning as a window into thought

Benjamin Whorf has perhaps the best name recognition in psycholinguistics, being known for the Whorfian Hypothesis: the idea that the particular language you learn constrains the way you think about the world.

This hypothesis has made its way into popular culture (or, perhaps it predated Whorf). Many essays -- and sometimes large sections of books -- make a big deal of etymology. That is, the origin of a word is supposed to tell us something about culture. A popular example is the Mandarin word for "China" means, literally, "Center Country." This is supposed to tell us something about how the Chinese view their place in the world.

Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't. But certainly in some cases etymology tells us nothing. Here's a quote from "Formal Semantics" by Genarro Chierchia:
To make this point more vividly, take the word money. An important word indeed; where does it come from? What does its history reveal about the true meaning of money? It comes from Latin moneta, the past participle feminine of the verb moneo 'to warn/to advice.' Moneta was one of the canonical attributes of the Roman goddess Juno; Juno moneta is 'the one who advises.' What has Juno to do with money? Is it perhaps that her capacity to advise extends to finances? No. It so happens that in ancient Rome, the mint was right next to the temple of Juno. So people metonymically transferred Juno's attribute to what was coming out of the mint. A fascinating historical fact that tells us something as to how word meanings may evolve; but it revelas no deep link between money and the capacity to advise.
Back to Chinese. Another good example is the word for turkey: huoji. Literally, it means "fire chicken." Anyone who wants to make a story about how that explains the Chinese psyche is welcome to give it a shot.


meteorplum said...

It's worth noting that there are entire classes of Chinese "words" which have been created/derived in the last hundred years, and for which the etymology is fairly clear. For example: telephone is "electric speech", computer is "electric brain", automobile is "gas (as in air) cart", train is "fire cart". In particular, it's interesting to see the emphasis on the electrification of speech and "braining" in Chinese, versus that of distance in "telephone" (which is itself related to telegraphy, technically, syntactically, and semantically) and numeric calculation (and practitioners thereof) for "computer". One might even argue that had the Chinese technology curve been contemporaneous with the West, they might have come up with similar metaphors for the phone and the computer.

In terms of more historical "word" formation, there is a rich set of accounts of the legendary "Cangjie", to whom the creation of written Chinese is attributed. For example, this ur-lexicographer was driven out of his house when his mother and his wife had a fight, so he decided to create the logogram for "trouble" with two pictograms for "woman" with a pictogram of "roof" over them. Another misogynistic story tells of how Cangjie was kicked out of his house when his wife's two sisters came for a visit, which caused him to create the logogram for "rape" out of three pictograms of "woman".

And to tie this up, the Chinese for America means "beautiful country" and France is "lawful country". The use of those words are homophonous: the Mandarin for "beautiful" is "mai3" and "law" is "fa3". It is probably not the case that all Chinese speakers think of America as being particularly pretty or France as being very rule-based, but I suspect that the those who might have a specific point of view on either the US or France would happily use original meaning of these characters to their advantage. In this, they would be not unlike those Victorians who decided that "butterfly" was a folk spoonerism for "flutterby". It does sound pretty.

Anonymous said...

A friend said that the word casket ( for a dead body) came from the word hope chest, as in a place where things needed for a wedding were kept awaiting the groom and the wedding. The logic was that early Christians viewed the body in the casket as just waiting for the bridegroom, Jesus, to return and change it into the glorified resurected body like His and to join Him at the marriage supper of the Lamb. Do you know if there is any thing to back this idea?