Theiling Online    Sitemap    Conlang Mailing List HQ   

Re: OT: Categories (was: Re: OT: In the 'ignorance on parade' file)

From:Herman Miller <hmiller@...>
Date:Tuesday, August 21, 2001, 3:25
On Sun, 19 Aug 2001 05:55:50 EDT, David Peterson <DigitalScream@...>

>Industrialization introduced human thought to a whole new category in "tree". > There's no concept for "tree" in most languages in their infant stages, and >in the languages of "indigenous" peoples that still exist (I'm always unsure >of what word to use; my professors use "indigenous"). If you explained to a >native speaker of one of these languages just what a "tree" was, they >wouldn't be able to draw it. They might be able to draw a specific tree (an >oak, an elm), but the idea of them coming with one single image that >represented all trees would be nearly impossible. For industrialized me, >however, I think of a thing that sticks out of the ground with a brown trunk >and green leaves in a some-what circular shape around the top. It's easy for >me. I've become so urbanized, in fact, that I can't really name specific >trees, except for really non-central members, like palm trees and >weeping-willow trees. Thus, the true basic categories (oak, elm, palm) have >been lost for me, supplanted by this category known as "tree".
I can _name_ a bunch of trees in English and Czirehlat, but I have to admit that I hardly know the first thing about most of them (beyond whether they're coniferous or flowering plants). I have no idea what an ash tree looks like, for instance. I'm sure I've seen many pictures of them, but the connection between the name and the appearance hasn't registered yet. On the other hand, I wouldn't be able to draw an "oak tree", because I wouldn't be able to decide whether to draw a live oak or something more like a white or red oak -- two rather different categories of tree (and probably neither one typical of the whole range of oak trees, if I knew more about them).
> How did I get here? Oh, right, why languages don't categorize things >certain ways. There are some strange examples. I can't remember all of >them... Of course, there are things categorized by animacy, gender >(grammatical or physical), use, and arbitrary. Like Dyirbal (which I know >has been mentioned here before) with their categories: 1) Male, 2) Female, 3) >Plant, 4) Everything else. Seems pretty straight-forward. However, "sun" is >put into the female category because they have a myth about the sun and the >moon in which the sun is female and the moon is male (odd, huh? Different, I >should say). Also, since the sun gives off heat and is made of fire, so to >speak, "fire" is put into the female category. Fair enough. Since fire is a >dangerous thing, though, any dangerous thing is put into the female category: >knives, spears, guns. So now there's this association drawn from a myth that >one would have never guessed just looking at the language from the outside. >There are other weird examples from this language, too. Like plants are >usually put into the plant category, but there was a certain type of tree >they used for firewood, or something, and that was put into the female >category because of that (vague memories). Then I think all animals were put >into the male category except for this one insect... The hairy tick? Stink >beetle? Some unpleasant sounding thing that was put into the female category >because when it bit you it felt like your skin was burning.
The thing I find interesting about the Dyirbal gender system is how what seems at first to be a haphazard shuffling of ideas is revealed to have a more meaningful basis. But by their very nature, categories as broad as those are rare. Any one language only has room for a few of them. And concepts represented by words in general don't seem to be arbitrary groupings of unrelated things. I can think of some examples from English, like "bat" (which includes certain kinds of sticks as well as small flying mammals), but I think it makes more sense to think of "bat" as representing two different words that just happen to be spelled and pronounced the same (and probably also have different origins, if that's a relevant fact). Czirehlat doesn't a single word for "bat" in the sense of small flying mammal, by the way ... different kinds of bats have their own names. And the word for "vampire bat" (xuirva) has been generalized to include other animals that feed on blood (like leeches). -- languages of Azir------> ---<>--- hmiller (Herman Miller) "If all Printers were determin'd not to print any email password: thing till they were sure it would offend no body, \ "Subject: teamouse" / there would be very little printed." -Ben Franklin