If you’re gonna’ build an igloo, you gotta’ know the rules first.
The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is one of those things most people have heard about but don’t know the name of. It’s the idea that certain ideas are untranslatable over cultural barriers due to the differences of language we have. A really vulgar example is the myth that Inuit have hundreds of words for snow that we can’t understand, because our experience of snow just hasn’t shaped our language around ice formations as it has theirs.
Linguists argue about the degree to which the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis really affects the world of ideas, with the Hypothesis still holding its own. One of my sexologist friends likes to say that “The French just feel things more deeply than Americans” and points to the French word for orgasm, petite morte, or “little death” as her backup. I think if this were actually true then English-speakers like her wouldn’t even find the French term interesting. We would just shrug and not comprehend. Instead, we’ve adopted the word, and brought it into our conversation about the meaning of sex in our lives, because we’re actually all universally interested in the same things and language is just some ever-changing but inadequate tool we have to use to communicate.
There’s certainly some truth to the idea as it pertains to the poeticism of an idea, expressed in its own language. Spanish speakers have a word cotidiano to mean “everyday”. Cotidiano (or quotidien in French) is just nicer sounding than “everyday”. We actually have the word “quotidian” available to us in our language, but the overall feel is different. If you say Eso libro es cotidiano to a Spanish speaker, I suspect it means exactly what it’s supposed to–that the book is ordinary. The pedantic-ness of saying “This book is quotidian” to someone in English more or less undermines whatever everyday-ness you were trying to describe. You’ve used an un-everyday word to say everyday, and everyone save a handful of elitists knows it. You can just smell the snottiness of this person, their steamy espresso and smug beret, snapping their fingers at whatever beat poet just left the stage. Oh, that’s so banal, Frederico. Let’s go over to the other coffee shop in the West Village. I’m done with this place.
I bring up the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis because it affects an issue that I think is important in Providence. We’re currently approaching our 1950s zoning with the aim of removing a lot of bad things from it, simplifying it, and making it so that the actual practice of what we do comes in line with what the law says. We currently have outmoded ideas like parking minimums and density and height limitations that have either produced sprawly crap, or in the best case scenarios have at least forced businesses to jump through a bunch of hoops to get variances. And of course, one of the serious flaws of a variance process is that those with connections can get the change they seek, and those without–shall we say?–a “brother in law” to pull for them might not.
The Rhode Island transplant Aaron Renn of Urbanophile blog describes this brother’s keeper problem as it affects cities, using the window of “Srirachagate” to illustrate:
Urbanists put way too little thought into business climate, which can sound like such a shady way of saying cut services and taxes. But taxes are often the least part of it. It’s the regulatory apparatus that makes doing business in many places too painful to contemplate. This even affects city-suburb investment patterns. I’ve observed that in many places, the urban core is a flat out terrible place to do business, unless you’re very politically wired up.
This doesn’t usually bother urbanists all that much until a trendy business they like gets affected. For example, an urban farming supply shop in Providence called Cluck got sued when they tried to open. The beautiful and the bearded were outraged and the shop was ultimately approved. But there’s no similar visibility or outrage when a Latino immigrant runs into the red-tape buzzsaw when he tries to open a muffler shop.
One of the best ways I think we can address the problem Renn talks about, at least as it affects our immigrant community, is to make an earnest attempt to put important laws in multiple languages so that a Spanish-speaking (or Hmong-speaking, whatever…) businessperson can figure out the lay of the land on their own.
When I went to one of the Re: Zoning meetings in Providence, I heard a few people voice support for Spanish-language zoning as within the spirit of the idea that our zoning laws should be simple and easy to understand by all Providence residents. This idea wasn’t too popular with the audience, overall. There was a lot of squawking about how this is America, speak English, and so on. The politicians in the room, though careful to state that they wanted to create more access to people who don’t speak English, pretty much outright rejected the idea too. The argument they made was that to have a Spanish and an English zoning document at the same time has the danger of creating contradictions between the two documents. Languages aren’t exact. Translation is hard. We don’t want the courts to have to sort this out. This could get ugly. You know what I’m talking about. We agree with you, but it’s just not practical at this time.
It’s appropriate the zoning should be discussed in light of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, because it developed out of the practical considerations of daily life, rather than as some kind of abstract intellectualism. Sapir was a linguist, but Whorf was just an amateur who worked in insurance. He kept going to the sites of burnt factories to find that workers had lit their cigarettes around “empty” gasoline barrels. Whorf had an Aha! moment, and decided that this idea of “empty” shaped the workers’ views so deeply, that they couldn’t understand that an empty gas tank is more explosive than a full one. Zoning, like building insurance or safety rules, would be more effective if all of the people who used it could quickly understand what it means.
We might not be able to negate people’s base emotions about language, but we can address the practical issue of whether zoning can be translated. I spoke up at the meeting to say that I thought what is contained within a zoning law isn’t really the same as what’s in a Pablo Neruda poem. The ideas in zoning are all measurements of fairly objective things. How many stories can my building have? How many parking spaces do I have to provide? Can I pave over my backyard? Is this area an okay place to have chickens, smoke-stacks, food service, etc.? (Los pollos: seis por cada casa. Las chimineas industriales: cero, ellas salen el pais. Los restaurantes: cualquiere, muchacho, queremos la comida bueno),
I’m not fluent in Spanish, and I certainly struggle at times to translate certain (haha) quotidian ideas of my writing into another language, so while I’m toying with the silliness of saying we can’t translate our zoning, I don’t mean to deny that there would be challenges to it (my recent petition to get protected bike lanes in Providence is an example–I tried to translate that as best I could to Spanish but found myself struggling around ideas like “getting doored” and “taking the lane“. Do Spanish speakers use these words?) I sat with my own mediocre grasp of another language and an online dictionary and worked my way through the problem as best I could. But at the end of the day, even if the exact terms vary, there are terms for the things we want to describe, and if there aren’t terms now, there will be as soon as it becomes necessary for them to exist. Last I checked, Spanish speakers have bikes just like English speakers, so even if they don’t go around saying Ay Carumba, He puertado (Fuck! I got doored!) they still can say something akin to that, without the fancy noun-to-verb morphology.
While I’m on this idea of Sapir-Whorf, let’s approach something a lot harder: our emotions about languages. I’m guessing the regular readership of RI Future don’t object to Spanish translations of zoning. But perhaps our reasoning for this is off. I imagine within progressive white people as a whole, myself included, there’s a kind of charitable sympathy towards the fact that other people might not speak the native language.
The rightwing response to that is to scream xenophobia. I think we should accept that it’s totally practical, and yes, necessary that immigrants to a predominantly English-speaking place learn English, as a practical matter. But what’s missing is that we should be learning Spanish, Hmong, Tagalog, etc., with as much interest. Progressives are caught in their own Sapir-Whorf. We always want to frame things in terms of what the “other” has lost, and how we can “help” “them.”
What have we lost? We’ve lost the breadth of knowledge that comes from being multilingual, and it makes our lives a bit less interesting. Deeper than that, many of us have no ties to our own cultures because our grandparents or beyond made the same trade-off we’re now asking others to make. It would be really nice if the Irish and Quebecois ancestors in my family had not only learned English, but had kept a living community of Gaelic or Canadian French speakers right here in the U.S., that I might grow up speaking three languages instead of one. My partner Rachel’s grandparents, who are now in their 90s, still can speak Yiddish, which was their first language (their parents never learned any English) but Rachel and I, though very interested in continuing the beauty of her Jewish culture, struggle along to put two words together (Ay gevalt! Wo ist ein Yiddishkoph when one needs one? Oy!).
It makes me to sad to imagine that we would lose a Spanish speaking community in a generation or two, should these folks children all adopt English-only, not out of charity to them, but out of my own selfish desire to see a world of difference. Not having this difference would be no little death, but a grand one. Starting a conversation about the death of language communities is not only more progressive, but in its honesty about the issue, offers us the ability to really talk across the biggest language barrier: conservative to liberal. Any Ocean State Republican can understand the feeling of warmth he gets thinking about his grandmother’s pizzelles or Portuguese fish soup, and if we can get through to that universal feeling, maybe the opposition to Spanish speakers keeping the same will evaporate.
None of these feelings are very well transmitted through a boring document like zoning, of course. But it’s a first step. And whatever our feelings about the issue, I think we should leave Sapir-Whorf out of it.