LINGUIST List 15.243

Fri Jan 23 2004

Disc: Re: Gil & Boroditsky: Indonesian Linguistics

Editor for this issue: Sarah Murray <>


  1. Rose Thomas, Re: Gil & Boroditsky: Indonesian Linguistics

Message 1: Re: Gil & Boroditsky: Indonesian Linguistics

Date: Wed, 21 Jan 2004 06:43:02 -0500 (EST)
From: Rose Thomas <>
Subject: Re: Gil & Boroditsky: Indonesian Linguistics

I was fascinated to see the recent posting about Riau Indonesian,
largely because I have never before come across a language that wholly
fails to distinguish between nouns and verbs. I would dearly love to
see the data that this claim is based on. In particular, I'd like to
know whether it is possible to say ''makan ayam'' in this language,
and would this correspond to ''the thing (that is) eating is a

With regard to the experiment with the pictures of a man kicking a
football, it seems that this could be interpreted a variety of ways,
not just as indicating that English speakers focus on temporal
relations while Indonesian speakers focus on spatial. For instance,
it's possible that English speakers are focussing on the type of
situation depicted, and choose the two pictures that show the same
type of situation, while Indonesian speakers focus on the most salient
participant in the event, the man. Would there be anything in their
respective languages that would lend itself to this interpretation? Or
could the phenomenon actually be cultural in origin?

This leads me to the real problem I have with the Sapir-Whorf
hypothesis. It's not due to commitment to any particular theoretical
position, I'd just like to know the precise nature of these supposedly
''profound'' differeneces in thought, precisely how they are linked to
specific linguistic features, and just exactly what difference they
make to anything. Even if the experiment with the pictures indicates
some minor differences in thought, they hardly seem important. For
example, Riau Indonesian sounds a bit like Chinese, which also lacks
tense, and has very little morphology that could be used to
distinguish nouns and verbs. But does this make a difference to
anything? Is there anything, for instance, that Chinese speakers can
understand that English speakers can't or vice versa? The most subtle
philosophical abstractions have been getting expressed in both
languages for many centuries, for example. So what exactly are these
differences in thought, and do they make a difference to anything
important? Or is there some obvious thing that I'm missing here?

- Rose Thomas
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