New World Whatnow?

A couple of weeks ago, on the radio on my way to work, I heard an interview with a band called “New World Alphabet”, which struck a dissonant linguist-y chord with me.

The interviewer asked the band to explain their name, and while I’m paraphrasing the response here (because I was driving and couldn’t write it down verbatim immediately),
typewriter-1782062_960_720they seemed to invoke about four different linguistic points in their answer. Basically, they said “we all know somewhere between 12,000 and 30,000 words. And the only thing we need to do to change things is change the order of the words we use. If we change the order of the words, we change the way we think, and we can use that to change the world. So that’s the idea behind creating a New World Alphabet”. The interview had been recorded earlier, and so the host, when he came back live, said “I have no idea what any of that meant”. I have to admit, in some ways, I don’t either.

The most salient point seems to be an invocation of linguistic relativity, otherwise popularly known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which basically suggests that there is a relationship between the way we think and the structural properties of the language(s) we think in. While a lot of linguists dispute the idea entirely, it’s somewhat more accepted by anthropologists in their examination of the myriad ways that language and culture influence each other. It’s also an idea that gets transmitted an awful lot through science fiction, since in imagining radically different types of intelligent beings or ways of being human, it’s not unusual to also hit on the idea that we need to re-imagine how these beings might think and speak. I’m particularly fond of the feminist sci-fi novel Native Tongue by Suzanne Haden Elgin, as an example, but a more recent one appears in the movie Arrival (which I still haven’t seen [Ed.: Wait, what? How do you even call yourself a linguist and/or nerd, let alone a linguist nerd, if you haven’t seen this movie? SS: I know, okay, I try, but give me a break, I have a job and little people in my house who demand to be fed regularly. Ed.: Excuses, excuses, Shulist, I’m not sure I can take you seriously anymore. SS: That’s fair]).

This New World Alphabet articulation of how relativity works is less thoroughly developed, but definitely seems to apply far more force and conscious will to the relationship than would be supported among any type of language scholars. The focus on putting words in specific orders – and I’ve yet to see examples of how they would change word order to produce these world altering changes – seems to either defy the existence of grammatical rules (which would make people even more confused than the radio host in conversation with these people) or to suggest simply shifting ideas around would have a lot more transformative power than it ever possibly could.

And yet, okay, I can at least see the hazy version of what they’re getting at with this. What I still don’t understand is how that is manifested in an alphabet of all things. Alphabets (there are many) are writing systems, not thinking systems, and they’re not made of alphabet-1679750__340words, but of symbolic representations of sounds. All I can get to with this part is that it confirms how much Western assumptions about how language works massively oversell the role of literacy.

So on the one hand, it’s kind of cool when bands and movies and stuff take their inspiration from linguistics. On the other hand, please don’t try to actually learn linguistics from 45 second radio interview clips.

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