The Whorfian Fact

Fact: These use numbers. Real numbers.

Are facts influenced by language?

If you’re John D’Agata they are, according to the Lifespan of a Fact, a book which contains correspondances between D’Agata and his fact checker, Jim Fingal, for the essay “What Happens There.” For example, thirty-four sounds better than thirty-one when counting strip clubs in Las Vegas.  So D’Agata wrote thirty-four rather than thirty-one; it’s just a number that happens to sound precise and has a good ring to it.

Numbers are so important to the essay—at least the first free chunk online—that the reader is overwhelmed with fear of a pending arithmetic problem. It’s 113 degrees outside. Water is five bucks a bottle. Someone plays one 35-minute game of tic-tac-toe. Meanwhile, there’s a sixteen year-old boy and a 1,149-foot-high building and it’s a certain time and if you don’t practice mathematics, and if force, gravitational constant, mass and distance are all considered, your heart is pounding already.

You should probably have a cardiovascular response when you read about a suicide, so maybe the writer should work to create one. Remember, the argument in question is: it’s the mood, not the numbers, that matters.

When asked, “What about that fact that this [game of tic-tac-toe] didn’t occur on the day Presley died? It’s not accurate to say that it did.”

D’Agata says, “No, because being more precise would be less dramatic. I don’t think readers will care whether the events that I’m discussing happened on the same day, a few days apart, or a few months apart. What most readers will care about, I think, is the meaning that’s suggested in the confluence of these events—no matter how far apart they occurred. The facts that are being employed here aren’t meant to function baldly as “facts.” Nobody is going to read this, in other words, in order to get a survey of the demographics of Las Vegas or what’s scheduled on the community calendar. Readers can get that kind of information elsewhere.”

D’Agata says repeatedly that it’s the rhythm, the language that matters. Depending on whom you read, language is either a duvet for thoughts or a discrete controller on all of our actions. It’s either something that routinely fails to describe our inner life or the very thing that influences our thoughts, by distorting physical evidence to fit it within our understanding. We get a lot of this latter idea from Benjamin Lee Whorf, a linguist and such a proponent of “linguistic relativity” that it is known as the “Sapir–Whorf hypothesis.” Whorf maintains:

“[…] the world is presented in a kaleidoscope flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds—and this means largely by the linguistic systems of our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way […]”

Whorf was responsible for the snowclone, the myth that the Inuit language has more words for snow than we fair-weather folk will ever comprehend—such as, but not limited to the dry snow that scatters your tracks, wet snow that slakes your mukluks, thunder snow, margarita slush snow, etc.

The snowclone has become a type of telephone game. One might say to a friend that the Mayans had more words for processing corn than the Inuit do for snow. Or the hippies had more words for marijuana…you get the picture. Usually, there’s a number involved and it sounds concrete, documented–50 words for x, 100 words for x, or 500 words for x. The number is fake; it’s the meaning that counts, and when someone evokes the snowclone, they’re trying to say “this thing is very important to these people.”

So do the numbers matter, even though they are just acting as a linguistic vehicle to reinforce rhythm, to evoke an idea, an emotion, a physical response?

Heck yeah. A number is a fact; there’s credibility in it. The reader assumes someone spent a long time trying to wrestle that data into into an exact number. It seems like D’Agata spent a lot of time compiling those digits; they lend him a journalist’s air of credibility, even if the essay is meant to be lyric. You don’t need the numbers, the fuzzy math, the lazy journalism. For a good example of the same mood evoked in the essay, without numbers, check out Didion’s “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream.”

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