About a month ago I learned a new word: whorfianism. Whorfianism describes the belief that language influences thought. I’ve long been a believer in this idea, and I felt delighted to discover that a word exists for it. Back in the dawn of time, when I attended university and we submitted our essays on clay tablets, I undertook a campaign to cleanse my vocabulary of words and idioms that contributed to sexism. When challenged, my friends would claim that they didn’t have a gendered conception of God, but try to get them to refer to God as she or it, and the resistance manifested like a mushroom in a neglected shower stall.
I love the fluidity and flexibility of language. I love to play with it, shape it and polish it the way some people mold clay. I once proposed a game with a friend who was on the other side of the world. We communicated by long eloquent emails, and we both share a fondness for words and language. I suggested that in each email exchange, we pick an avenue of human endeavour that has lent many rich metaphors to English, and see how many examples we could each come up with from that field: for example, sailing or agriculture. She hated the idea. Upon reflection, she explained that a well-employed metaphor stimulates the right brain, and trying to systematize them was a left-brain task: the dissonance made it a deal-breaker for her. As a balm to my frustrated left hemisphere, I offer a list of all the metaphors from sailing and agriculture I can think of: humour me, or just skip over….
Sailing: admittedly some of these fall into the category of naval generalities
- take a different tack
- lower the boom on someone
- a person with a large presence may be said to sail in and take over
- describing an ineffectual person as a figure head
- describing pointless items or people as ballast
- hit the deck!
- an exhaustive investigation into an idea may be said to be plumbing its depths
- “Sun’s over the yardarm,” as a way to say “It’s not too early in the day to start drinking!”
- the idea fell in fertile ground
- a child resembling the parent may be described as an apple that didn’t fall far from the tree
- you reap what you sow
- separate the wheat from the chaff
- one might be said to winnow the group of applicants to a short list
- someone in difficult circumstances has a hard row to hoe
Thanks for indulging me; I feel better.
In researching ancient cultures and the evolution of consciousness for my most recent novel, I came across a fascinating construction called E-Prime, short for English Prime. In this deliberately developed form of English, the verb “to be,” and all its forms may not appear. Why? Great question with a complicated answer, but so provocative! Consider the following pairs of examples:
- The Conservative Party is full of short-sighted capitalists.
The members of the Conservative Party strike me as short-sighted capitalists.
All the Green Party candidates are ineffectual dreamers.
All the Green Party candidates appear to me as ineffectual dreamers.
Even though it’s delicious, poutine is a heart attack on a plate, and it will kill you.
I love poutine, but I know it has too much fat.
When you have to construct a sentence without using any form of the verb “to be,” it becomes really difficult to confuse opinion with fact, because you have to write from your own experience, rather than as an omnipotent authority. It also pears down and tightens up your language and sentence structure. The argument has been made that languages constructed in this way reflect cultures which appear less dogmatic. This strikes me as a controversial position, but one definitely worth considering.
In keeping with my love of playing with language, apart from material in quotes, I wrote this entire post in E-Prime. Did you notice?