Friday, May 23, 2014

Cars have universals; languages have funny sounds

When I went to Korea, I was curious about why people walked to the left on sidewalks, in order to avoid bumping into each other. The question was, basically, whether it was possible for a whole culture to be what appeared to us to be "left-handed" - which, if you think about it, is just another way of saying that it's opposite of what one has come to expect. The language always had verbs last, and had post-positions instead of prepositions. So I began to wonder: Is it possible for people to just be oriented in another direction?

But alas, they drove on the right, like we do. So I said, why don't you drive on the left, like the Japanese? Is there a reason for these things? And someone said, well, that is the reason, if the Japanese drove on the left, we didn't want to be like the Japanese. At the time we got roads, we were more inclined to imitate the Americans.

I studied these phenomena for a while because of my general sense that language is kind of like random human cultural behavior, which as you can tell from the above anecdotes, is far from random, yet at the same time, does not seem to have a rational physical explanation. In the search for universals, you might do what the Chomskyists did, which is to say that every culture sticks to one side or the other, it's just that the culture determines which side. But I ran across the British, who, when walking on the street, don't stick to either side. Apparently they use a different system to avoid bumping into each other. And keep in mind, virtually every other cultural tendency, starting with the language but including law, we seem to have either gotten from the British or adapted from the British. But my point is, if there are cultures in which people don't stick to either side when walking in the street, then there are really no universals about walking in the street. You can't say that if someone bumps you with their left elbow, they're more likely to bump you with their left foot is a universal.

So it is with language. Some universals, for example, all languages have vowels and consonants, appear to apply to all languages, at least all the ones that are primarily oral, but even that opens up a can of worms. But the ones that deal with word order all assume that word-order restrictions are an inborn part of our language mechanism, and they're not. Plenty of languages have no word-order restrictions whatsoever. So what they refer to as "universals" sound more like physical movement regularities like the one with the left elbows. These are not universals. Some languages use order to express things. Some most definitely do not.

I was most provoked by the assertion that sticking to one side of the road, when driving, is a universal, while the culture itself determines which side. This assertion relies on the assumption that roads have room enough to actually have two sides, which in my experience, is a false assumption. But, allowing that the vast majority of one's roads have plenty of room, I still see no reason why a person born into a world with no cars, few cars, or random cars would necessarily feel compelled to stick to one side, except when encountering another car, or as a cultural habit developed upon encountering other cars regularly. In other words, there is no genetic imperative to stick to one side regularly. It is a cultural habit that people develop for their own convenience (and to save lives, generally) and they might choose either side depending on their whim or their political inclinations (people in the Falklands, for example, might prefer aligning with Britain to aligning with Argentina). People who regularly have entire roads to themselves have no special reason to stick to one side or the other at all, and generally don't. We are in the habit of taking our Western obsessions with word order, road alignment, etc. and imposing them on other cultures, as if, if you don't have this particular obsession, then what are you, radically chaotic? I think the example of British sidewalks, if true, though, reminds us that a culture can be quite rigid and regular about a number of things, and still have no cultural agreement about which side of the sidewalk to walk on. Sometimes people don't agree. Sometimes they have other methods to avoid bumping into each other.

The story of the wave brings up an interesting point. In that story, people in stadiums (stadia?) around the world have taken to standing up, and by the movement of their bodies creating a wave that moves around the stadium, clockwise in the northern hemisphere and allegedly counter-clockwise, more often, in the southern hemisphere (as evidenced by the Olympics in Sydney). Now if it is true that the spontaneous movements of large groups of people can be influenced much in the same way water goes down the drain, then an argument can be made that when there is movement, the movement can be influenced by certain external factors. I'm not sure I buy that argument, or that that argument could apply to language, where Japanese and Korean have post-positions, but English has prepositions. So we place certain things to the left or to the right. But this doesn't come from the movement of the earth, or from our relation to the magnetic pole, or from the fact that we are in the "west". It's simply a cultural agreement, and we could change it if we agreed to change it. That's actually kind of scary, but it's true.

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