Sapir-Whorf, Domain Specific Languages & Gay Marriage

Written on 6:46:00 PM by S. Potter


A 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 Languages

A 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 Marriage

That 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 Marriage

My 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 Polls

The 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)
This puzzles me: how can 59 percent (and rising) respondents oppose gay marriage, and yet also 51 percent (and rising) from the same respondents also favor same-sex civil unions with all of the same legal rights as heterosexual married couples? Even considering the margin of error, in this case 3%, this poll strongly suggests that many Americans (assuming the poll respondents are representative of the general population) are not interpreting "gay marriage" and "civil unions" to be interchangeable as GLB groups that advocate "gay marriage" do. Now let us consider the demographic of the social conservatives that vehemently oppose "gay marriage": people that consider themselves religiously active. People in this demographic would probably use the term marriage in a way that emphasizes the religious sacrament of marriage rather than a marriage simply for legal convenience. Of course, people get married everyday for a combination of these reasons - sometimes even business reasons, but as you will see it does not affect the rest of my argument. In fact, the social conservatives' argument against "gay marriage" demonstrates their different interpretation of the term "gay marriage". I suspect social conservatives feel like their freedom of religion is being attacked, but this direction in the argument is long and windy.


My 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

  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
Immediately 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.

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  1. Montana Dave |

    Fascinating. I've always thought there was something wrong with the statistics, but could never put my finger on it.

    In a nutshell you're saying that the majority of people (and rising) are actually in support of "gay marriage", but they don't realize it because shades of meaning get in the way?

    Also, I don't want to nitpick because your DSL actually would help to clarify the debate. But, I can't resist. :)

    What about those of us who are not GLB, but are in support of GLB people? And what about GLB people who want more than a civil union, those who want, the sacrament as well? I happen to know a lesbian couple who are also ministers. They, refuse to perform marriages unless the participants (GLB or Straight) are entering into the sacrament for the right reasons (not "for the heck of it", "because it sounds fun", or "for business reasons").

    Now, I doubt the political debate would be helped at all by throwing in those sentiments, so I don't know it they should be included in the DSL, but I just had to add my $0.02. :)

  2. S. Potter |

    Dave, I totally agree that there is more to this issue for later debates, but if we try to tackle all at once I fear we may end up getting nowhere fast. Obviously there are undercurrents to the "gay marriage" debate and not all pro-GLB rights advocates consist of only GLB people.

    This was just an attempt to scratch the surface on the current hot button issue related in this area and to apply Sapir-Whorf to something topical.

    PS The only reason I did not include the T in GLBT in my entry was because the "gay marriage" issue seems to only affect GLBs and not the Ts. Someone else noticed that earlier, so I wanted to clarify my reasoning.

  3. Anonymous |

    Interesting article!

    Sorry for the late comment, but I couldn't resist pointing out that this extends also to other debates that are polarising the US public opinion. Abortion, for instance, is an untractable issue because the basic question it poses ("should we allow abortion?") does not mean the same thing to the two opposing sides (Pro: "should people have control over whether they want to have children?", Anti: "should we allow people to kill other people?").. The debate is muddied because the right question isn't being asked, since each party is speaking a different language. My attempt at the "right question" in a common language, would be, for instance: "Of course it's wrong to kill people. So at what instant are foetuses considered people?"

    If people ask that question, then the argument will become rational again, about where to place that point - some will think it's at conception, others will disagree, but at least the argument is a rational one, with both parties speaking the same language, so that an agreement is theoretically possible!

    I'd also suggest that this split in the basic language can be extended to a polarisation like Democrat vs Republican... but that would make this comment far too long :-)

    Thanks for the article!



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