A Times article this week breathed new life into the specious Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistics (the long-abandoned idea, simplified, that if one lacks a word for a thing then the thing cannot be known). In short, the new take on this canard is actually a reversal of it: rather than language imposing limits on our thinking, it forces extra layers of meaning onto an objective reality. Our words create our world, and vice versa.
Although discredited among the pros, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis lives on among the plebes for popularizing the “many Eskimo words for snow” myth. In truth, the Inuit peoples have roughly the same amount of words for snow as anyone else, and even then they serve the same purpose of classifying degrees: flurry vs. flake, blizzard vs. dusting.
If this revelation removes from you a cherished gem of folk wisdom and you remain convinced that, because of its cultural importance, a people surrounded by the white death simply must have more words for it than do retirees in Miami, then consider how many words you know for “vomit” and get back with me. OK, Ralph?
The Times article rightly points out a hole in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: man’s puzzling nature demands we feel some things out prior to our ability to articulate them. For example, one need not speak German in order to feel Schadenfreude. In truth, one need only be a college football fan.
If time were measured experientially, this off-season would have begun in the Mesozoic Age. A thousand lifetimes ago, Lane Kiffin and Reggie Bush were both in the USC Trojans’ past. But today, one is their present and the other never was.
In but a few tomorrows, the Big XII will have ten teams and the Big Ten will have twelve, and we were but a hair’s breadth away from Oklahoma being a “Pacific” school. That we do not yet have words for what college football will become reinforces the fallacy of Sapir-Whorf’s limits.
Anyone who enjoys reading poetry in translation can attest to the slightly askance yet thrilling connections made by vowels and nouns grasping for missing modifiers. A Portuguese poet once described his native tongue to me as a rainfall of words flooding the banks of their sentences to overflowing.
“And English?” I asked.
“English,” he said, “is a madman hurling bricks off a rooftop, hoping he builds a house.”
The same could be said of pre-season polls and late-August expectations. Alabama finds itself held the highest by both those markers and coming off arguably the greatest season in the Crimson Tide’s century-plus history. Yet, as evidenced by our Great Leader’s dispensation to ESPN’s cameras, the players wish not to maintain those standards but exceed them.
Such glorious irrationality is afforded youth as it awaits tempering by life’s fires. However will we manage our cynicism if they continue proving even the most inflated hubris a failure of the imagination? Whatever becomes of college football this season, and in future seasons, assure yourself that, when needed, we will find the words.