More Weird Assertions

Man, when will I learn?

So my writing class students have been working on compare-and-contrast essay structures — the structure of the essay, and the words used to make comparisons and show contrast. So I thought I’d get them working on a simple essay that would let them work on this a little more, and collaborate with a partner. What did I have them compare?

English and their mother tongue. I made sure the Chinese students were together. I didn’t think about what else might come up.

One essay, of course, was “Hangul is better than English”. The guys didn’t even get it for a minute when I pointed out that Hangul is the name of the alphabet, and Hangugeo is the language. (I remember someone, I think Oranckay or Marmot, ranting about this once.) It took a little strong suggesting before they admitted that description of difference doesn’t always need to translating to a better-or-worse ranking.

But the thing that killed me was that three groups all asserted that English is a color-words sparse language. I finally asked the third group why they claimed this, and they said a professor had said this in class. “In English, anything that is yellowish is called ‘yellow’; there are no other color words in English for shades or gradations of yellow,” is the gist of what one guy claimed they were taught in linguistics class the last semester. I asked these students to go look in a thesarus and see whether this is true or not. I can even accept that there might be MORE color-words in Korean in English, just as there are fewer words for sibling relationships in English than in Korean… or, indeed, that more color words are in general use in Korean than in English.

But to claim that words like “coppery” and “jaundiced” and “ochre” don’t exist, let alone the fine gradations between “banana-yellow” and “canary-yellow” and the rest of the compounds (a principle that should be obvious to a Korean speaker, since tons of Korean words are made by compounding roots), simply don’t exist, to people who don’t know better — that’s maddening. What a way to close horizons.

I should add that I don’t know that this is what the professor, whose identity was not revealed to me, actually said. I’ve told my classes things that they’re regurgitated in shockingly reversed form. So maybe I was a bit out of line saying, “Whoever said that is wrong, and doesn’t happen to know those other color words,” but I was annoyed. I was doubly annoyed since, to me, an assertion like that just looks so obviously wrong. There are no languages that are superior or inferior… they’re all just tools of communication. Why do people (Koreans and anglophones alike, mind you) get so wrapped up in them that they want to assert one as inferior or superior?

And then I think of how much effort it takes to get people that willing to swallow anything that facilitates assertions of superiority… except more and more, it seems to me, it doesn’t take all that much at all. It’s quite sad, really, how willingly so many people swallow this stuff.

2 thoughts on “More Weird Assertions

  1. Yeah, basically that it’s wrong and that there are maybe a couple more words in Innuktitut for snow than there are in English, I think? It was in the language instinct, when he was disembowelling Whorf & Sapir, if I remember rightly.

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