26 March 2009
Linguistic relativism 1
Multilingual literary criticism can most probably contribute to the current debate about linguistic relativism, popularly but inaccurately known as the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis. If it is true in some way that language determines the way we see the world, then a writer using only one language, more precisely his/her own mother tongue, necessarily is able to mirror only a limited aspect of the real world (assuming, for the sake of argument, that there is indeed a real world, something some philosophers contest). If we want poetry to mirror (I am using the traditional word, which is a general synonym of the classic "imitate") reality, then poetry that mirrors only a small part of reality should surely be inferior to poetry that mirrors a greater part of reality. In theory, therefore, assuming that some version of Whorf-Sapir is correct, a multilingual or at least bilingual poet must enjoy an advantage over a monolingual poet, in that the multi-lingual or bilingual poet sees more of the world than the linguistically-challenged one does. One way to test this is to read a poem containing more than one language and to see how it compares with a monolingual poem. Of course, sampling will always be debatable, but if we take two poems considered classic or excellent by most critics and compare them, we might be on to something.