Written on 6:46:00 PM by S. Potter
Sapir-WhorfA while ago I was introduced to Sapir-Whorf, which is an intriguing linguistics hypothesis. Informally (my definition) it states that the language you use to describe a subject shapes the way you think about that subject. Formally Wikipedia defines the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as:
there is a systematic relationship between the grammatical categories of the language a person speaks and how that person both understands the world and behaves in it. This controversial hypothesis is named after the linguist and anthropologist Edward Sapir and his colleague and student Benjamin Whorf.Almost everywhere I look these days, especially in the domain specific language design discussions, Sapir-Whorf is cited.
Domain Specific LanguagesA domain specific language (DSL) is a programming language which may or may not be Turing complete that was design for the purpose of executing specific tasks. Examples of DSLs include:
- rspec - a software requirements specification DSL
- Maven POM - a project comprehension tool's DSL
- awk - processes text data DSL
- XSLT - XML transformation DSL
Gay MarriageThat all sounds very academic, so I wanted to take a few steps back to have a look at a real world example and extension of Sapir-Whorf, especially applicable to the US audience today. Until 2004 I do not believe the majority of voters in the US had considered what "gay marriage" actually meant. During the 2004 presidential elections it was at the forefront of the social issues in the debates even though both major presidential candidates (George W. Bush and John Kerry) were both against "gay marriage". In the public and media debate on "gay marriage" the social right characterized "gay marriage" as breaking down the "institution" of marriage. On the GLB and liberal side people characterized "gay marriage" as one step in a broader campaign promoting equality for a minority group analogous to the civil rights plight in the 1950s through 1970s but for the GLB minority. Today "gay marriage" remains a hot button issue for many Americans as we head into the mid-term elections.
Sapir-Whorf & Gay MarriageMy personal (religious/political) opinion on the matter of "gay marriage" is irrelevant to my application and extension of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in the discussion below. To understand my lay person's (note: I am anything, but an expert on this subject) linguistics argument you should also try to keep your personal opinions out of your mind when you process the discussion. According to Wikipedia:
A marriage is a relationship between or among [two] individuals, usually recognized by civil authority and/or bound by the religious beliefs of the participants.Let us investigate what the GLB and liberal groups advocating marriage are referring to. Many references to gay marriage on the HRC (Human Rights Campaign, which advocates "gay marriage") website use the terms "gay marriage" and "civil unions" interchangeably and the meaning of civil unions seems pretty clear - a set of legal rights between individuals that enter into the union.
The PollsThe Washington Post and ABC News conducted a poll of 1,202 randomly selected adults in US in March 2006 found the following:
- 59 percent of respondents oppose gay marriage (up 4 percentage points from February)
- 51 percent of respondents favor allowing same-sex couples to enter into civil unions with the same basic legal rights as married couples (up 6 percentage points in less than a month)
ConvergenceMy suggestion then on the issue of "gay marriage" in the US is simple: the social conservatives and the advocates of "gay marriage" are not talking about the same thing at all AND they are NOT talking in the same language. Whether you agree with allowing same-sex couples to enter into a relationship recognized for legal purposes or not, let us all agree that there is a mismatch in meaning between what GLB groups are promoting as "gay marriage" and what the social conservatives who oppose it denounce as "gay marriage". I also suggest that the reason why these two groups on either side of the debate are talking about different things is because the dialects that they each use, while both are American-English in a broad sense, the meaning of words have subtle differences due to cultural nuances such that on this issue cause a potentially unnecessary collision of large proportions. Below is a proposal for a domain specific language for the purpose of defining political debates. It would look something like this for the issues of Gay Marriage:
political_debate "Gay Marriage" do argument_for do define :glb_people.includes :gay, :lesbian, :bisexual define :civil_union, legal_contract.between.2.individuals define :gay_marriage, civil_union.for.glb_people end argument_against do define :glb_people.includes :gay, :lesbian, :bisexual define :sacrament, :religious_contract.with.god define :gay_marriage, sacrament.for.glb_people candidate_affiliation :george_w_bush, :john_kerry end endImmediately from the snippet of code using my fictitious Political Debate DSL (PDDSL) that the primary for and against arguments have different definitions and that the debate needs to be restructured so that both sides are actually talking about the same thing. My suggestion would be to call it a debate on "civil unions" and NOT "gay marriage". I think this would end a lot of unncessary disputes on the political air- and blog-waves. If you enjoyed this post Subscribe to our feed