Friends entering our living room for the first time always ask the same question: “That palm tree – is it real?”
Yes, it’s real. You have to understand that my husband loves palms, so he has to have at least one to call his own – even though we live in a small fourth-floor condo.
Actually there have been two palm trees in that spot. The first – an unusual species called Chamaedorea erumpens – was later replaced by a Chamaedorea seifrizii, a widely available species commonly called a bamboo palm.
It would be logical to assume that the first palm succumbed to a disease, or outgrew the space, or no longer matched our decor. Wrong on all three counts. In fact we don’t know precisely when the switch took place. Call it the vanishing palm tree.
OK, I’ve teased you long enough. Here’s what happened: Palm taxonomists changed the name, deciding that there never was a Chamaedorea erumpens. Palms with that name were reclassified as variations of the familiar Chamaedorea seifrizii.
Does the name of our palm tree matter? Not to Charlie and me. We think it’s beautiful and admire it daily. But if we were collectors, the name might make a huge difference. Someone who’s trying to study as many species as possible wouldn’t want to allocate money and space for a duplicate specimen, even if it’s beautiful and healthy.
Why am I writing about palm trees on a language blog? I want to introduce you to an essential postmodern language concept: Language creates our reality. When we decide that the differences between two items are significant enough to be noticed, we give them different names. Things exist – in a sense – only because we name them.
Here’s what’s even more interesting: Postmodern language theory is simply restating what scientists have known for centuries. Names organize our world for us, via the same thinking tools that taxonomists use: splitting (separating members of a category) and lumping (finding connections between things that seem to be unrelated). In fact I think you could make a case for calling Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) one of the fathers of postmodernism.
Renaming is often the result of a complex thinking process. I just read a provocative article about ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder): No Diagnosis Left Behind: The Not-So-Hidden Cause Behind the A.D.H.D. Epidemic.
ADHD is a psychiatric diagnosis for children (and some adults) with persistent behavior problems. Medication can make a huge difference for these patients and the people who live and work with them. But some pediatricians are raising important questions about the way ADHD is diagnosed today: Are medical professionals overdoing it?
Sometimes it comes down to a naming issue: Where do you draw the line between a “behavior problem” and “kids just acting like kids”? Some professionals are worried that an ADHD diagnosis could result in future legal and medical problems for a group of children whose only problem is that they can’t sit still in school. [Please note that no one is denying that ADHD exists and that treatment is valuable.]
To put it differently: When we’re talking about a large number of childen, it makes a huge difference whether you lean more towards “splitting” (placing many kinds of behavior in the “psychiatric disorder” category) or towards “lumping” (assigning most childish misbehavior to the “normal” category).
The debate belongs to the professionals, and we’ll leave it to them. My point is that when we view the debate from the vantage point of language, we add another whole layer of meaning to the discussion – and that, in my opinion, is a good thing.
There’s much more to say about classifications, categories, and naming, but I just want to introduce these topics today. Here’s a project for you: Start thinking about naming. Here are two activities to get you started:
- Criminal Justice – can you think of any behaviors that used to be labeled crimes but are now perfectly legal – and vice versa?
- Health – can you think of any substances that used to be labeled dangerous that are now considered safe – and vice versa?
If you’re multi-lingual or multi-cultural, you have an exceptional doorway into the ways that language organizes experience. Does your first language make any distinctions that other languages ignore? And were you introduced to any new concepts when you learned a new language? (I’m thinking of the Welsh word hiraeth, the Finnish word sisu, the Spanish word duende, and the Danish word hyggelig.)
Bottom line: Think about any great writer, and you’ll find that they used words in new ways to expand and explain human experience. Understanding the significance of names is the first step.
I’ll have more to say about this later!