Sunday, September 5, 2010

How your language affects your thinking

As a science fiction fan of many years standing I've been aware of the idea that your ability to deal with certain concepts is constrained by the language you speak. Apparently this is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis which comes in a strong and weak version. The strong version posits that you cannot think things for which your language has no words.

One of my favourite books in my teenage years was Babel 17 by Samuel R Delany, based on the strong version of the hypothesis. This is a wonderful book in many ways whose central conceit was that your mind and intentions could be completely subverted by speaking and thinking in the constructed language, Babel 17, to the extent that you would betray your country and be unaware of it.

The Languages of Pao by Jack Vance has a similar central idea where societies are manipulated by the languages they are taught to speak. When I wiki'd Babel 17 the piece cited Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin and The Dispossessed by Ursula K LeGuin along with The Languages of Pao as similar books. I don't quite agree with this.

Native Tongue and the follow up, The Judas Rose, are books written by a linguist with language as a central theme but although the women's language, Laadan, is transformational, it does not seem to make the ability to think about concepts impossible. Indeed, Suzette's language is designed to give words to things that are common experiences for women but which cannot be easily expresses in English and so necessitate endless words being used to try to approach the concept, in some ways the opposite of strong Sapir-Whorf as it is plain that the concepts can be approached but not with any grace or economy. I've just taken the book off the shelf to remind myself of some of the words given in the appendix. I particularly like to words beginning with 'ra', words about not doing or being something, and the words ending with lh which seem to imply intention for wrongness. Examples that I like:
ramime: to refrain from asking, out of courtesy or kindness
ramimelh: to refrain from asking, with evil intent; especially when it is clear that someone badly wants the other to ask
Another that I think very useful:
raheena: non-heart sibling, one so entirely incompatible with another that there is no hope of ever achieving any kind of understanding or anything more than a truce, and no hope of ever making such a one understand why ... does no mean enemy.  
This last gives a flavour of how I felt about my ex-husband, David. We could talk and talk and he would rarely understand what I was talking about.

So what got me started on this? I came across an article, via Ran Prieur's site, about language and how it affects thinking that is quite fascinating. It's called, 'Does Language Shape How You Think?' and it's well worth reading the whole piece. It gives a history of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and gives some very interesting examples of the weak SWH, that colour perception is influenced by words, e.g. if your do not have separate words for blue and green you will see them as essentially shades of the same colour, and in languages where objects are allocated sexes, this will subtly affect how you perceive the object. Examples are given of words allocated opposite sexes in German and Spanish. The really intriguing example is the difference in perceptions in languages who view direction as person centred (front, right, behind, left) and those that are geographic (north, east, south, west). The implications of this to the way we use our minds are huge. 

I wonder how many similar language based differences may eventually be discovered. Because our thinking is enveloped in our language I imagine it is difficult to see outside it. We all sort of assume everyone else perceives things the way we do.    

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