Language

02007-06-02 | Internet, Musings, World | 9 comments

Is it true that the language I speak shapes my thoughts?
People have been asking this question for hundreds of years. Linguists have been paying special attention to it since the 1940’s, when a linguist named Benjamin Lee Whorf studied Hopi, a Native American language spoken in northeastern Arizona. Based on his studies, Whorf claimed that speakers of Hopi and speakers of English see the world differently because of differences in their language.

Seed: I Can’t Believe It’s Science (for May 28, 2007)
A new study published in the journal Science shows that four-month-old infants can discriminate between languages just by looking at the person who’s talking, but by eight months, only bilingual children retain this skill.

9 Comments

  1. Steve

    Isn’t this what Ludwig Wittgenstein said in 1918 in the “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” and again later in 1953 in “Philosophical Investigations?” The second work took the concepts of TLP and developed it further, dropped some stuff, added some stuff, and the rest is (philosophical) history.

    It is from Wittgenstein, for example that we have the notion of “Language Games.”

    c.f., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language-game

    Reply
  2. Shawn

    The problem with arguments like those posed in the article is that there is no actual logic involved, the points are all over the board, and also that it really speaks in a not seeing the forest for the trees kind of way.

    Linguistics can be fascinating – language is pretty amazing. But language is just a group of symbols that we’ve come up with to describe things, events, and feelings. The problem with many linguists is that they get caught up in the origin of these symbols – for example, the root of (insert word here) is (insert the long ago source of said word here) so therefore it comes from (insert place here). Because of this, they often disregard the fact that many words are used in ways not originally intended, but the symbols are readily understood by people today.

    We don’t need a sophisticated language to understand a gutteral scream of anquish. But a sophisticated language allows us to analyze and communicate with others what that cry might have meant, what caused it and the feelings it evokes.

    Anyway, a large vocabulary doesn’t make a people more intelligent than someone with a smaller one – but it does allow for more subtleties of language and thought and that, in turn, allows for more insight and intelligence to be gained.

    It’s interesting to think about it all though.

    Reply
  3. ottmar

    Shawn: the deeper we get into any subject – whether it is words and writing, or playing guitar, cooking, philosophy or making pottery – the more subtlety we discover and the more words we need, yes? I imagine a greyscale, with high contrast simplicity on one end and millions of shades on the other end.

    Anyway, a large vocabulary doesn’t make a people more intelligent than someone with a smaller one – but it does allow for more subtleties of language and thought and that, in turn, allows for more insight and intelligence to be gained.

    Just wondering out loud: if a person is intelligent, would they not naturally gravitate towards more shades of grey, and doesn’t that equal greater depth? Wouldn’t they want more subtleties of language as you say… Maybe there is a relationship between vocabulary and intelligence – see the movie Idiocracy… :)
    And by vocabulary I don’t necessarily mean language – could be any area with lots of shades of grey…

    Reply
  4. Will

    But do the words ever convey the true meaning and is the meaning often lost in the words?

    Reply
  5. Steve

    “… But language is just a group of symbols that we’ve come up with to describe things, events, and feelings …”

    Well, isn’t it more than that? Especially in Western culture. We pretty much believe that if we don’t have a word for something, a thing, an event, a feeling, it basically doesn’t exist. We view it as “nonsense” or “illogical” to discuss something that we don’t have have a word for. I think this is what Wittgenstein was referring to in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus where he wrote,

    “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

    Reply
  6. ottmar

    Will: Yes and no. We must try anyway.
    Steve: I find that what makes English so interesting is that it has absorbed so many words from other languages, starting with French and German. English can absorb more words or maybe we can at least learn to have a deep respect for the depth of other languages/cultures regarding certain subjects.

    Reply
  7. Steve

    “…English can absorb more words or maybe we can at least learn to have a deep respect for the depth of other languages/cultures regarding certain subjects…”

    Agreed … but I do wish that we in the West had a more developed respect for the non-verbal, and trans-rational. The Tao Te Ching opens with the sentence: “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao … The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.”

    So, one asks: ” … is the Tao real?” I mean, if you can’t NAME IT, does it truly exist?

    A Western mind will have a tendency to dismiss such things out of hand, and I do believe this to be an inheritance from the discourse in the Platonic dialogs and our obsession with “scientific method” and “logic.”

    I think Ken Wilber had some very interesting things to say about this in his book “The Marriage of Sense and Soul.” Particularly where he writes about concepts like pluralistic worldviews.

    Reply
  8. Shawn

    “The deeper we get into any subject – whether it is words and writing, or playing guitar, cooking, philosophy or making pottery – the more subtlety we discover and the more words we need, yes?

    Ottmar – Yes, absolutely. I think that the beauty of language – be it spoken, written, painted, or played – is that it allows us to convey ever more subtle thoughts. Budhism is a great example for me. It was not until I learned more about it that I realized some of my simple concepts of things like nirvana were flawed by being oversimplified.

    But I also think that as we develop a deeper understanding of things, we sometimes find that we actually need less words. Again I think of some Budhist concepts that I now realize weren’t as complicated as all the language describing them made them seem. It wasn’t until I worked through the process of learning more that I could see and understand them on a simple level.

    I guess it’s a bit of circle. We learn things and want to describe them so we make words for them and that allows us to learn and share more things.

    It’s also interesting that different languages have different levels of effectiveness in conveying different things. English is a vital language that incorporates a lot into it – so it is a great language to communicate with. But sometimes it’s easier to convey a thought in another language – like the Brazilian word suadage which explains a feeling of homesickness for one’s homeland that doesn’t translate well to other languages.

    And it’s not just verbal languages either. Maybe a written description of the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish civil war would have conveyed the horror well, but it would have been much different than Picasso’s interpretation of it in paint on canvass.

    Sorry for the ramble, but this subject does make one think.

    Reply
  9. Eddie Russell

    i can see many different perceptions in relation to language as defining perception, anthropologists have found that many different culture had no words for ownership, deceit ect…the world is the same, but the perception of it is limited by the conceptual network which is taught to us by our forbears…..so therefore no one ever views the world the same

    Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Archives

Images