Sapir-Whorf fallacy

The language of suicide

By William Wetherall

First posted 20 December 2005
Last updated 16 May 2011

This is a draft of an article in progress.
Please to not quote or cite without permission.

Suicide researchers who don't go beyond dictionaries can get into trouble.

In the 1970s, Stuart Picken, a British professor at International Christian University in Tokyo got off to the wrong start by arguing that there was no anti-suicide tradition in Japan. Picken's argument was partly based on a long list of words in Japanese, which he had compiled from Japanese dictionaries to show that Japanese had more expressions for suicide than English, and that this favored a tolerance for suicide in Japan than in European countries.

However, Picken, a former minister who wrote a lot of popular books about religion in Japan, failed to examine the history of the country's anti-suicide tradition. He did not bother to undertake a serious study of classical literature or other sources which would have made it very clear that suicide has never, in Japan, been something people have looked upon any more favorably than in Europe.

Picken was simply preconvinced that Japan had a suicidal culture -- a common misconcption almost as prevelant in Japan as elsewhere. And to support his belief that Japan had no anti-suicide tradition, he listed dozens of expressions for suicide in current Japanese dictionaries -- and contrasted his list with the poverty of expressions he found in English dictionaries. Since Japanese appeared to have more words for various styles and circumstances of suicide than English, Japanese must not be as opposed to suicide as he claimed Europeons have been.

Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

What Picken did was akin to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis about words of snow or sand, or whatever, in countries that have lots of snow or sand. However, he overlooked something very important -- how dictionaries are constructed, and what qualifies as a "word" for inclusion.

In fact, for practically all standard Sino-Japanese words or Yamato expressions (many of which reflect translations of Sino-Japanese expressions), there are English expressions that are just as "standard" and "prevalent" and well known to speakers and writers of English. Here are just a few examples.

Sino-Japanese toshin and its Yamato translation mi o nageru are rendered in English as throw [oneself] into a river, sea, well, whatever, with the intent of killing oneself. Idiomatic phrases like throw [oneself] from/into/on/before [something] -- for exmaple, he threw himself onto his sword -- are not considered lexical items, yet they are highly productive, and native speakers and writers have no trouble generating large sets of very specific suicidal expressions.

The word shinju alone, and expressions created by prefixing shinju with words like muri, boshi, ikka, among others, all have patterned equivalents in English that are known to everyone who needs to write about such things. In fact, such behaviors are common on police blotters all over the world, including the United Kingdom and the United States, where expressions like murder-suicide, homicide followed by suicide, suicide pact, among other generic expressions, are common.

Some English headlines

Journalists writing in English, all over the world, have no trouble writing headlines like these.

9-Year-Old Kills Mom, Self
Arcola, NC, 17 April 2005

He shoots teen son, kills self
'Depressed' banker in Queens rampage
Queens, NY, 6 October 2005
New York Daily News

Fla. Man Kills Man, Ex-Girlfriend, Self
Lakeland, Fla, 31 May 2004
All Headline News (AP News) (The Associated Press)

Mom strangles son, hangs self
Pietermaritzburg, SA, 11 October 2004
News 24

French teens jump to death in front of boyfriends
Paris, 28 September 2005
The Sydney Morning Herald (The Guardian)

Woman burns kids alive, kills self!
Kaushambi, UP, 5 April 2005
Hindustan Times (Press Trust of India)

All such headlines reflect underlying formulae that allow a writer of English to describe, in highly stylized phrases, the same sorts of behaviors which in Japanese are more likely to be typologized in headlines with the sort of Sino-Japanese expressions that facilitate generic usage. The expressions are essentially phrasal compounds, or strings of graphs syntacitcally threaded to describe the general features of a patterned behavior.

"boshi shinju" as a phrasal expression

The sort of detail that is likely to be included in an English headline usually come in the lead of an incident report in Japanese. How much detail is embedded in headline depends on its length, but grammatical constraints like number and agreement in English prevent the sort of conventionalization possible in an expression boshi.

I say "expression" because boshi is really a phrase. As a noun phrase it could mean

1. mother and child
2. mother and children
3. mothers and children

among other possiblities, depending on context. Whereas boshi shinju would be

1. mother and child in murder suicide / mother kills child and self
2. mother and children in murder suicide / mother kills children and self

if referring to a specific case, but

3. mother-child murder-suicide

if used as a generic expression for all cases of shinju that involve boshi, regardless of number or other particulars.

To be continued.