I had done this for the first time last year, as memorialized here. The idea is to give a humorous talk that mocks academic seriousness, with different participants speaking on different subjects.
I agreed to do it again provided I could do a different subject, since - as I told the organizer - I had said every funny thing I had to say about Talmud last year. So this year I did Comparative Linguistics. I got lots and lots of laughs. I realize 25% of the humor is in the delivery, and another 25% is in the alcohol consumption of the audience, but here for your consideration is this year's speech, in the hope that it garners a laugh or two. It's behind the cut, with stage directions as needed.
Thank you, David, for kicking off with that…interesting talk. And thank you, Elizabeth, for inviting me back to speak again this year. I should say at the outset that once again I feel quite out of place here with all you professors and such like. You’ve all got enough letters after your names to make alphabet soup with. You’ve got those fancy robes. You wrote dissertations on something nobody ever wrote one on before – which, it seems to me, was likely a lot easier to do when they thought this system up in the Middle Ages.
And then there’s me. Well, you all know me. I’m just a plain-speaking, plain-thinking, plainly out of my depth gal from the Great Plains of North Dakota. So how can I compete with all you fancy people with your fancy degrees? I didn’t graduate from some hifalutin college like you did, but I did graduate from the School of Hard Knocks. ::Put on hard hat:: And I’ll tell you – this ::rap hard hat:: might serve me better with this tough crowd.
Okay, I’ll tell you one thing that makes my lack of education an advantage on this particular occasion. All these experts have to come up with something to say in their area of expertise that’s new, and interesting, and clever, and funny. Nice try, David. I, on the other hand, have absolutely no area of expertise. So last year I talked about Talmud and this year I can talk about something else I know nothing about. I decided on comparative linguistics. So, in the plain-speaking, uneducated, gosh darn down-to-earth manner I’m known for I present you with my lesson on the whole question of latkes vs. hamentaschen. It’s called “Comparative Linguistic Approaches to the Latke/Hamantaschen Problem Utilizing a Post-Whorfian Metasyntactical Framework.”
So, I suppose the best way to begin would be to review just what the Whorf Hypothesis was, how was it disproven, and how did Benjamin Whorf become a hissing and a byword wherever linguists gather to hiss and byword. Who would like to tell the class about the Whorf Hypothesis? ::look around:: Let’s not always see the same hands. ::call on someone and see where it goes::
Okay, to recap (or “to paraphrase” or “since none of you did the assigned reading” depending on what happened), Benjamin Whorf was a linguist who was best known for the hypothesis that is named after him. The Whorf Hypothesis says that the language a person speaks constrains that person’s thought processes. In a Whorfian world if there is no word in your language for a concept you cannot understand that concept.
Now, who here believes that? Common sense and common experience make clear that the Whorf Hypothesis is wrong. After all, if we could only understand concepts we have words for, how would we come up with new words? And how many times have you heard a word you didn’t know previously but you had often thought “there ought to be a word for that”? When I’m called upon to disprove the Whorf hypothesis – and I must live a peculiar life because people (usually children) often ask me whether it’s possible to have a concept if you don’t have the word – the example I like to give is Schadenfreude. It’s a good example because it’s a word most children don’t know, as well as many adults, but everyone understands the concept. Who here knows what it means? Who doesn’t know? ::Pick on someone:: Okay here’s what it means: it’s a pleasure – often a slightly guilty pleasure – in someone else’s misfortune. It’s the feeling you were just having thinking that you are sooooo glad it’s me up here making a fool of myself and not you.
Okay, so if it’s so obvious that Whorf was wrong, why did every linguist in the academy believe him for years, decades even? I guess linguists must be a particularly credulous bunch. Plus, Whorf was a protégé of Edward Sapir, who was the Chairman of the Department of Anthropology at Yale. But most convincingly, Whorf had what he claimed was proof: the Hopi language. As Whorf told it, Hopi has no way of indicating time. There are no tenses – no past, no present, no future – and the Hopi people, he claimed, live in a state of exquisite timelessness. They are completely unconcerned with when things happen, have no idea of sequencing of events, and just live in an eternal present. A whole lot of linguists found that argument persuasive – if a whole nation of people had no idea about time and their language had no tenses, well can that be coincidence?
Now there aren’t a lot of Hopis left – less than 7000, according to the 2000 census, and in Whorf’s time there were already very few, so it’s likely that none of his credulous linguistic colleagues were familiar with the Hopi language. Really, very few linguists had even met a Hopi. Whorf, on the other hand had met a Hopi man, something he continually mentioned at parties in the linguist’s equivalent of name dropping. But, then, it turned out that the Hopi man he met was a cab driver in New York City. What’s more, Whorf’s belief that the Hopi language lacked any sense of time came largely from one very long trip from Midtown to what was then Idlewild Airport, resulting in a missed flight. Well once that came to light suddenly the Whorf Hypothesis was deemed useless and linguists all over the world declared that there is indeed no relationship between language and thought.
But there has to be, doesn’t there? Not the relationship Benjamin Whorf… made up, but some connection between language and thought? Doesn’t common sense tell us that, as surely as it tells us that Hopi people must know the difference between past, present, and future as much as anyone else does? Surely anyone who speaks more than one language knows that some things are easier expressed in one than another. Surely there’s some effect on thinking in the way language is typically used.
For example, there are approximately 250,000 words in English and your average English speaker knows about 60,000 of them. Overeducated people with fancy degrees like Elizabeth, David, and Angela probably know twice that many. On the other hand there are only 16,000 words total in modern Hebrew. Does that really have nothing to do with the more direct – some would say blunt – approach Israelis tend to take to communication, compared to Americans? Let’s not throw out the Hopi with the bathwater here.
I submit that there has to be a relationship between words and thought, just not as simple a relationship as the one Benjamin Whorf… made up. And in this relationship is the answer to the question of which is superior – latkes or hamentaschen. I know – you thought I’d never get there. I propose that we replace the Whorf Hypothesis with the Rosenberg Hypothesis. The Rosenberg Hypothesis says simply that words are imbued with meaning that they’ve acquired as they develop and metamorphosize in their travels through different languages, both extant and extinct, and that that meaning interacts with cognition in a metasyntactical, subliminal and effervescent manner both affecting and effecting change in the synaptic connections and cultural referents that in turn impart understanding of the inherent and relative value of the items in question. Isn’t that obvious? In other words, if we look at the etymology of the words “latke” and “hamentaschen” we will glean clues as to the rightful winner of this debate.
Now this is the point in this discourse where Shabbat restrictions may make what I have to say a little hard to follow. Ordinarily I would draw the derivations on a black board, but since that’s not possible you’re going to have to just follow me carefully.
Latke and Hamentaschen both sound like Yiddish words, understandably so since that’s the language we got them from. But they have very distinct derivations and distinct original meanings. Let’s begin with Hamentaschen, generally thought to be derived from Haman in Hebrew and tasch in German, meaning pocket. Yet for some reason they are generally thought to be so named because they are the shape of Haman’s ears or his hat. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, Hamentaschen in Yiddish is derived from amentozhen-shchanko in Russian which comes from amenozhia-imtonteh in East Baltic, which is derived from ambrosia-biscotto in Greek. That’s a combination of the Greek word for “cookie” - biscotto - and ambrosia, which is of course the same in English as in Greek. And what is ambrosia? It’s the food of the gods. If we had a world map and a language genealogy diagram I could show you how it all happened, but the point is that the original meaning of the food we call hamentaschen is really “baked goods of divine origin.”
By contrast, latke has a completely different origin. It comes from lusshka in the Montenegrin dialect of Serbo-Croatian, which has ancient roots in the long dead language of Ugaritic, in which the word was alush-hash-kata. Alush – meaning an object of great horror. Hash being the Ugaritic word for oleaginous and kata being a meaningless ending that’s used to indicate a noun of the aboritic form. So, latke really means “disgusting or horrifying oily thing.”
What could be plainer than that? Divine Baked Goods or Disgusting Oily Objects? Which is superior? Really even Benjamin Whorf could get that one right.
Once again, it's a mixture of actual information and stuff I made up out of whole cloth.