Search This Blog

Monday, 10 November 2008

language and the world

How does our language shape our thoughts and feelings? If a language had a thousand words for despair would it tend towards being a more melancholic society? The old debate about language and the world came up again the Guardian this morning.

There was an article about an ex-missionary called Daniel Everett who had claimed that the language of an Amazonian tribe called the Pirahã had no recursion, ie the ability to include a an extra clause within a sentence. An example of recursion is extending the sentence "Daniel Everett talked about the story of his life" to read, "Daniel Everett flew to London and talked about the story of his life".

The point being that recursion was seen by most linguists as being part of an innate and universal grammatical framework ( a theory developed by Noam Chomsky) that we have hardwired into our brain. Obviously if the Pirahã did not have it then the theory is flawed as it would not be innate in humans. Either Daniel was right and Chomsky was wrong about innate grammatical structures in the brain or Daniel had just missed the use of recursion in the Pirahã language went the debate.

The article didn't suggest that either Daniel or his critics had considered the possibility that recursion may have been possible in Pirahã but that for other reasons it was not used in the language. Though to be fair I am not sure if it is possible to have a linguistic structure could be found in the brain but not used in the language.

But there were some other interesting aspects highlighted. Apparently the Pirahã have no socially lubricating "hello" and "thank you" and "sorry". They have no words for colours, no words for numbers and no way of expressing any history beyond that experienced in their lifetimes.

One can only wonder what this does for the ability to describe and feel emotionally. how much of emotion is contigent on the ability to express it. Could the Pirahã ever have the blues?

It reminds me of the Benjamin Whorf hypothesis that our view of the world is related to the language we use and our range of expression, both emotional and intellectual. Whorf suggested that the Hopi Indians of the southwest USA had no tense referring to time in their language (in the way we have past and future tenses) and that this must profoundly affect their relationship to the notion of time and therefore to the universe.

as the writer, Jeannette Winterson put it:
"The Hopi, an Indian tribe, have a language as sophisticated as ours, but no tenses for past, present and future. The division does not exist. What does this say about time?"

If one sees the past and future as part of a timeless continuity rather than seperated by the junctions of past/present/future then amongst other things perhaps one might act with more respect towards the environment as one's relationship to one's unborn descendants would be closer if they were seen in the same time frame and not some distant and less connected unrealised future.

Sadly though, Whorf's otherwise fascinating idea was based on some dodgy research - he had made his claims based on conversations with one Hopi speaker miles away from his homelands. Those conversations didn't cover how the Hopi do in fact use time distinctions and what linguistic forms they have to express such ideas.

But the seed of an interesting idea remains - how does one's language affect one's ability to feel. we casually talk of having indescribable emotions but this is often a linguistic cop out. what if it were true though - without a word for love we could not love as deeply as we do?

Do we need new words for different loves to comminicate our feelings more clearly? perhaps a return to eros, philia, and agape?


Anonymous said...

I do believe that a deeper love can be felt when limited words and
language is not a problem.

Thankyou for adding me to your followings Scot - You are now added to mine.

Speak soon i hope.

Anonymous said...

The article didn't suggest that either Daniel or his critics had considered the possibility that recursion may have been possible in Pirahã but that for other reasons it was not used in the language.

Exactly! Have a look at (click on the title or the word "pdf" to download) for this point (and answers to the remark that follows it), as well as other reasons to be cautious about Everett's picture of the Piraha people and language.

scot in exile said...

t'is a fine sentiment cory and i don't doubt the truth in them. and pleasure to follow a fine blog ;-)

anonymous, shame you're anonymous but thank you for the link, that was a really useful one.

Anonymous said...

Have you gone shy?

What happened to your facebook link Scot?

scot in exile said...

haha yes i did a bit, cory. i may put it back up shortly. i've been ambivalent about putting it up in case i was tempted to put in anything scurrilous about the industry i work in... but this blog isn't really a media blog so i figured why not put it up. and then promptly changed my mind! i'm sure i'll put it back shortly!

Anonymous said...

Well i got a sneak preview anyway..LOL

You looked good so dont be shy :)

Charli said...

Hi Scot. This is a fascinating write up you have here. Do you speak other languages? I have noticed little difference between Spanish and English which are really big differences. For example, where in English we might say, "I dreamed about you last night" in Spanish we would say, "I dreamed WITH you last night." An important difference.

I great topic for further research and discussion!

scot in exile said...

thank you both charli and cory!

sadly the learn arabic disc gathers dust in a corner and my language skills are limited to english... i like the idea of dreaming together with someone.

my favourite difference is between english and german because the english think it shows how superior they are to germans but it shows their terrible hypocrisy. english uses 'schadenfreude' to describe taking pleasure in another's misfortune and most english people think that such a concept is terrible so the germans must have an unpleasant streak in them to have such a concept.

in truth it shows that we will use the concept, but just acknowledge our capacity to such emotions by pretending it's foreign when the english know exactly it means and how the concept feels...

of course scottish i choose distance myself from such hypocrisies... ahem.

Linda S. Socha said...

Thought provoking post. I will be rereading it. I am taken with the concepts presented.

The thought of dreaming with someone reminds me of what is reality and what is dreaming...Are we dreaming now?
Thank you for lovely writing

scot in exile said...

glad you liked it, linda!

Belle said...

The Hopi, not having words to describe the concept of time....maybe they were a bit ahead of us in that they knew how to live in the present, in the truest sense.

I've been studying Spanish for several months, and have since grown more expressive when using my native English. Could be a coincidence, but I don't think so.

By the way, thank you for your comment on my blog. And thank you for writing such wonderful and thought provoking blogs!

scot in exile said...

i think the hopi did have words for the differences of time but that they were more about the process of ever fluid time and everything working in process rather than time and actions happening at fixed points. which is apparently very good for understanding quantum physics but i can't blame my lack of hopi for my lack of knowledge of quantum physics...

even they did have a sense of time in their language it is still a useful one to look at the world in a different way and consider how much of our understanding of the world is based of the structure of our language...

scot in exile said...

and thank you for the very kind compliment belle! i reckon you need another absinthe tasting night...