Re: [xmca] Terms of Endearment

From: Paul Dillon <phd_crit_think who-is-at>
Date: Wed Dec 12 2007 - 16:56:09 PST

  The question of perception and language is pretty complictated. One of my first field work experiences involved tests of color perceptions among Mayan and Spanish speakers in the Yucatan. I haven't revisited that theme in a long time but I do remember those studies (kay, berlin?) showed a pretty consistent variation between the colors that people could remember and those they could successfully communicate to others and that these weren't the same between the two language groups.
  To me it seems obvious that Inuit or other arctic groups would not only have lots of different words for snow, but also would distinguish qualities of snow that folks who don't live in environments where snow is very important. Maybe these distinctions even involve the development of a concept of snow generative of snowy language and logics permitting an ontological relationship completely absent among, say, the Nuer.
  In Spanish the use of "tu" and "usted", seems related to the use of "Dr. Cole" and "mike", it's not fixed but situational, people with whom I use "tu" when drinking beer, I use "usted" in a faculty meeting. I think there might be situations in which mike is addressed as Dr. Cole, there might even be situations where he expects it. I wonder.
  p.s., I've never thought of myself as a "street fighting man", a "midnight rambler" perhaps.

David Kellogg <> wrote:
  Dear Mike:

The problem is that there are cultures (including ours) where it's really TOO intimate to address a colleague by their first name. In most families in Korea, a younger brother doesn't use the first name of an older brother though the older brother may use that of the younger (just as parents may use their children's first names but not vice versa in the West). I can never get my students to call me anything but "Professor Kellogg" even though I am really only a lecturer (and that's why we address everybody except Mike as "Professor" in our contribution to the discussion on development).

I gather from Paul's comments that "dear" as a letter salutation is also considered too intimate now, which was certainly not true when I left the USA more or less permanently in the early 1980s.

In English teaching we try (very stupidly) to teach terms of address as a set of rules, e.g.

a) WHERE INTIMATE: Never use a FIRST name with a title (except that of course here in Korea the last name comes first and the first name comes last)

b) WHERE NOT INTIMATE: Never use a LAST name without a title (ditto).

This succeeds in utterly confusing our learners and erects huge barriers to human interaction where none previously existed. Language is NOT a set of rules--not even grammar "rules" are rules, and to to try to teach respect and collegiality as a set of rules is almost a contradiction in terms (since rules will inevitably involve a clash between MY rules and YOURS and the way I end up expressing my respect for you involves NOT respecting your rules).

So what do I teach? Human interaction, of course. You ask somebody how to address them and then you forget your own bloody rules and just do what they tell you to do. In fact, a question like "What do I call you?" is EASIER to teach than the so-called "rules" above. But most importantly it is clearly LIMITING and LIMITED in a way that so-called rules are not. It's concrete and personal, one might almost say intimate, as human interactions have to be.

Last night I was reading Paul Bloom's book "How Children Learn the Meanings of Words" (MIT: 2001). He has a "rules and words" paradigm for language, so he spends some of the latter part of the book smirking at those of us who consider rules and words negotiable and not innate.

He cites the following parody of the Whorfian (and Vygotskyan) position on p. 244.

Whorfian: Eskimos are greatly infuenced by their language in their perception of snow. for example, they have N words for snow whereas English only has none. Having all these different words makes them think of snow very differently than Americans do.
Skeptic: How do you know they think differently than Americans do?
Whorfian: Look at all the words they have for snow!

First of all, if Inuit who see snow every day have exactly the same perception of snow as Americans who have never seen snow in their lives, it is the skeptics and not the Whorfians who have some tough explaining to do. Secondly, there is really NOTHING circular about language being both cause and effect: the language of previous generations is an effect for them and a cause for us. In the same way, a question like "What do I call you?" is both effect and cause, and so is its effect, namely the answer. What's so hard about that?

David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education


Actually, Paul, though I am not a Stones fan, at heart I am a street fightin' man like you.... But you can see that our Dear Mike takes his pastoral duties on this list very seriously indeed, and that's surely one reason why the list is such a nice quiet place to work.


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Received on Wed Dec 12 16:58 PST 2007

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