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Language and Communication - Introdution Vol.4 - Linguistic Classifications of the World

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Language and Communication

Contents

1. Quote

Linguistic Classifications of the World

  When we learn a language, we learn a system of classification of the objects of the world.  We laern to make a distinction of between living things and nonliving things, between plant life and animal life, and between humans and other animals.  Learning to make these distinction is a consequence of learning a language.
  In general, corresponding to each word is one or more concepts.  Interestingly, there are many concepts which we cannot express with a single word.  Although, we have an English word that we use to refer to a male sibling (brother) and a female sibling (sister), we do not have a term for 'male cousin' or 'female cousin'.  However, we clearly have the concepts of "male cousin" and "female cousin".  And, we have no individual term covering the meat from such animals as cattle, hogs and sheep.  The best we can do is the phrase "red meat."  Similarly, we have no individual word for such root vegetables as beets, carrots, potatoes, turnips, etc., but we clearly have the concept.
  There are very subtle features to linguistic classifications of the things of the world.  In English, though we can speak of one carrot, two carrots, and three carrots, etc., we cannot speak of one wheat, two wheats, or three wheats.  To count wheat, we must speak of grains of wheat or bushels of wheat.  Interestingly, words for other root vegetables like potatos and radish patterns like the word carrot and words for other grains like corn, barley, and rice pattern like the word wheat.  This deep grammatical similarity between corn, barley, and rice is not one that speakers of English are consciously aware of.  Nevertheless, these ways of classifying foods must be learned by English speakers if they are to use the language correctly.
  Within any society, there may be a number of ways in which we classify the objects of the world.  Cooks have ways of classifying plants that are based on the rules of these plants in cooking.  Gardeners, on the other hand, may have somewhat different systems of classification based on the growing habits of the plants.  And, scientists classify plants according to their structure.  To a scientist, a tomato may be a fruit, but to a cook, it is not.  We are accustomed to taking the scientist's classifications as being better than the others, but this may not be the right attitude.  I would rather eat food prepared according to the ideas of cooks rather than the ideas of scientists.

(Michael L. Geis, Language and Communication, Oxford, OUP, 2001, pp.3-5, ll.16-1)

2. Analysis

2-1. Language and Classifications

We learn how to make distinctions between living things and nonliving things, plant life and animal life, humans and other animals at the same time when we learn a language.
But all concepts do not necessarily have their corresponding words.
We use red meat to express the meat from livestock and root vegetables to refer to beets, carrots, potatoes, turnips, etc.
There is no choice but to compound existing vocabularies to express these.

Also, there are differences between English and Japanese.
For example, we have 兄 as an older brother and 弟 as a younger brother in Japanese vocabulary, but English doen not.
This is also an example of the concept that does not have a corresponding word.

2-2. De Facto Standards of Classifications

Cooks have ways of classifying plants that are based on the rules of these plants in cooking.  Gardeners, on the other hand, may have somewhat different systems of classification based on the growing habits of the plants.  And, scientists classify plants according to their structure.  To a scientist, a tomato may be a fruit, but to a cook, it is not.  We are accustomed to taking the scientist's classifications as being better than the others, but this may not be the right attitude.  I would rather eat food prepared according to the ideas of cooks rather than the ideas of scientists.

This is the same issue as "Is watermelon a vegetable or a fruit?"
Botanically speaking, wantermelon is a vegetable and tomato is a fruit.
We cannot help felling uncomfortable with the classifications, but why?
That is because treat matermelon as a fruit and tomato as a vegetable in cooking.

We make a distinction basically based on science, but we switch the standard once the principle does not agree in daily life.
The distinction above is an example that the standard of botany is overwritten by that of cooking.

It is not wrong that we believe that science is more trustworthy than the others.
But it is not correct that we always take it right.
I am afraid that this is an warning from the writer, Michal L. Geis.

3. Reference

Michal L. Geis, Language and Communication, Oxford, OUP, 2001