Language and Social Identity is a collection of fascinating sociolinguistic papers. Dealing with gender and ethnicity, the researchers seek to show how stereotypes often arise from simple linguistic misunderstandings. For example, one paper argues that speakers of Indian English tend to use pronouns, conjunctions, and intonation very differently to speakers of UK English. UK speakers typically fail to pick up on the Indian English speakers’ cues and assume that what they are saying is confused or incoherent. Conversely, Indian English speakers think the UK English speakers must be either daft or extremely patronising because of their apparent failure to understand very simple logic. Another paper claims that men and women typically use utterances like “mm hmm” to mean different things. Women mean simply “I’m listening”, whereas men mean emphatically “I agree”. Men then think that women keep changing their minds and women think men just aren’t listening!
The most relevant paper from a taxonomic point of view was one on the highly charged political nature of language use in Montreal. The need to cut across language differences and negotiate norms of communication when diverse groups feel they have something to lose through compromise mirrors the inter-departmental language mediation that usually needs to happen in taxonomy projects.
Lots of gems in Sociolinguistics: the study of speakers’ choices by Florian Coulmas (2005; Cambridge University Press). A serious introduction to the field aimed at students, with discussion points and references at the end of each chapter, with plenty of pointers to further study. I am interested in how language choice affects taxonomy, in labels and names, and what we perceive to be “natural” or “obvious” categories. Linguistics is a huge area of study, and even ignoring everything other than sociolinguistics still leaves an awful lot to take on board, so this clear and straightforward text was very helpful as a starting point. Coulmas says the “principal task of sociolinguistics is to uncover, describe, and interpret the socially motivated restrictions on linguistic choices” so I believe its findings must have some relevance to taxonomists, in that our main tool is language. I also think there are interesting parallels between what happens when governments try to define and impose language policies on people and when information managers try to impose “corporate language policies”. If they are welcomed and supported by the users they can bring great benefits, but can be disastrous if imposed dictatorially or when one group suffers at the expense of another.
Is there a language problem with quantum physics? – fundamentals – 05 January 2008 – New Scientist is a fascinating proposition. David Peat is a theoretical physicist who points out that European languages are bound up with notions of Newtonian physics and classical categorisation. He and the US physicists David Bohm held a meeting in 1992 with the elders of the Blackfoot, Micmac and Ojibwa tribes, who speak Algonquian langauages. The speakers of these languages don’t tend to divide the world into categories of objects but talk about things in terms of processes. They describe things and people as being in a constant state of change, appearing and sinking back into a flowing cosmos. Algonquian speakers even have rituals designed to stop objects from being reabsorbed back into the universe. The physicists were amazed at how close the elders’ way of thinking seemed to mirror quantum processes. Peat suggests that such languages and ways of thought could be what western physicists need to help them create a better framework for discussing problems in quantum physics that might lead to solutions to current problems.
This resonated with my wonderings about where categories come from and how language, culture, and society affect the way we organise our thougths and our things. (I have just started reading Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What catergories reveal about the mind by George Lakoff) but it also reminded me of something Patrick Lambe discusses in his excellent book Organising Knowledge: Taxonomies, knowledge and organisational effectiveness where he talks about taxonomies as processes and how they need to flow with changes in organisations and the wider world.