by Anniel 6/4/16
Thinking about words and how we use, or misuse them has always fascinated me. Confuscius often spoke of the need for clarity in speech and the free exchange of ideas based solely on understanding one another.
There are two very different ideas about language we need to consider if we can ever enter into a dialogue with people who speak a language different than our own. The first has to do with making a language our personal property in understanding (for want of a better description) and the second has to do with how language shapes our minds and culture.
Our eldest son is a linguist and also works in the field of semiotics and artificial intelligence. He speaks at least three languages that he is able to think in. When an advertisement for a translation app appeared on Facebook that would supposedly work for any language, he said that the idea is simply not feasible, and may never be so. He writes that the goal in learning any language is to be able to think in that language.
Consider the following language conundrums that might cause an English speaking person problems:
1. Many ancient languages and even some today, have no words for colors. They use only “light and dark” or “black and white.” Until the invention of dyes, color was considered to be intrinsic to the nature of an object. No need to say “the green grass of summer” because green is in its nature. There was no word in Greek for blue. When Homer spoke of the “wine dark sea” everyone knew what he meant, it was “dark”, as in a storm. Blue was the last dye formulated so there was no word for it. Just how do you explain the term “white as snow” to someone who has never seen snow?
2. Turkish is a language that grammatically separates direct and indirect experience. You arise in the morning and see puddles in the street, in English you would simply say, “It rained last night.” In Turkish you only use that form IF you were a direct participant in the rain, you watched it, or walked in it. Otherwise you would use a form that indicates it rained but you are reporting it as a supposition since you see evidence of it, but were not directly involved; the rain is just one example of how you would be lying if you used the wrong form. How do non-native Turkish speakers understand and think that way?
3. How do we understand humor from another culture? I heard a story about a famous English speaker giving a talk to a German audience. He had an “instant” translator who was only fractions of a second behind him in speech when he realized that the man’s joke was untranslatable in German, so he simply said, “The speaker is telling a joke, please laugh.” Being obedient Germans, they did, and all was well.
4. Can one play with words or puns in another language? A married couple who were native speakers of both English and Mandarin Chinese decided to translate James Joyce’s Ulysses into Mandarin. It was laborious and took them 40 years to complete. They told of how difficult the translation was and offered the following snippet as an example:
Some women have their will,
But Ann hath a way.
Pages and pages of footnotes follow. They have to explain who Shakespeare is and his place in English literature; how “will” is both short for William, and also indicates strength of character; then they have to explain that Shakespear’s wife’s surname is “Hathaway”; and then break the word down and hope that their readers might get the meaning of the pun, AND then think it’s funny. We might never understand what is humorous in a Mandarin Chinese joke, because their culture is so different.
And there are always other issues of syntax and grammar, so the search for truth might get lost in this mix. There are also the differing fields one might need to develop the grammar and vocabulary for, such as medicine (our daughter Cate is fluent in medicalese, which ticks off some docs), or music, law or dance. Universal translator anyone? Probably best not to lose your money.
The second issue concerns how our language might shape our minds and culture, and is that an unbridgeable gap between different societies?
Are our minds and culture shaped by the language we speak? It seems like such an intriguing question. The well-known linguist Noam Chomsky, says not, but he thinks he’s the smartest man in the world so we can safely assign him to his extreme liberal anti-American bent and ignore him.
Two linguists, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, have hypothesized that the language a person speaks is a determinate of what he knows. Called at first the Sapir/Whorf Hypothesis, it is more commonly now known as
The Theory of Linguistic Relativity.
As laymen we think the reality expressed by the spoken word is the same as the reality perceived in thought. We are, after all, truthful people. But is our speech based on our thoughts or do we encode and decode language in such a way that our thoughts are based on our speech? Basically the Theory of Linguistic Reality states that thought is formed from language first. What you see and believe is based on what you say.
Our language shapes our view of reality, and our world view may be strongly responsible for what we see in our minds. Some languages may not be so strong as to world view and leave one more able to consider differing views without angst.
Distinctions encoded in one language may be unique to that language, as in the Language of Turkey noted above. The structural diversity of languages has no limits. It appears that our Language habits within our group or country predispose us to certain choices.
I’m not going to get all fancy-fancy here so I’ll try to make my take on all this clear. If one is born into a warrior society, say Otto Von Bismarck is your Chancellor and even the music is martial, one would be predisposed to the glory found in exploits of bravery and battle for the sake of battle.
Or if you are born into a peaceful agrarian society, it might take a superhuman effort to go to battle. You might even be an easy society for a warrior to destroy. So Radical Feminism tries to destroy masculinity by the use of language. Men are constantly criticized. Children are subjected to abortion and other horrors, or constantly infantalized and miseducated. All by design.
Human communication is a very open field of study, and those of us who are Politically Conservative watch in horror as political correctness and moral decay are destroying our society. The first thing those who lust for power do is subvert the language of a people or nation to their own ends. The demise of a nation is sown in the demise of its language. The lies of Communist dialectics was a reality the western nations had to contend with during the Cold War.
There are endless lies today as the thugs shout slogans fed them by their leaders, creating and reinforcing neural pathways in their brains. Belief systems that teach what is permissible, linguistically and morally and that permit no other thought. Unfortunately, he who controls history also controls the future as true lessons and judgments are never learned.
So you and I are left struggling in a society where the enemy is often our own children and grandchildren, who no longer speak, nor think, in the same language we do. We need to have a clear-eyed understanding of the enemy within and what we face and always remember that “the truth sounds like hate to those who hate the truth.” You will not be loved for speaking truth, not even by your own families.
George Orwell wrote: “(Language) becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
Our only hope for the future is in Truth, and that Truth is in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, He who used His Word, His language to speak this world into being. • (1070 views)