mercoledì 15 giugno 2011

Random speculations about language and thought

I've been thinking a bit about language lately. It is believed we don't only use language to communicate with each other. Language is not simply a common interface, a set of conventions we use to communicate with other human beings. It is also the system we use to think. We think through language.

That statement has some very important consequences. Would we be thinking in the same way, would we reach different conclusions and answer the questions we ask ourselves differently, had we learned a different language? Keep in mind that different languages do not simply associate different sounds (or patterns of symbols if we're talking about written language) to objects, actions and so on: different languages describe the same concepts in different ways. Maybe language A has a word to describe a certain type of object, and maybe this word comes from the action you perform when you use the object. Maybe language B has a word to describe the same object that doesn't come from the action you perform when you use the object. As soon as you dive into complex and abstract matters, you get to use unusual terms. Language A might have a word for the X concept, while B might have no words for it. Maybe I'm being way too abstract, and I'm sure my English isn't helping. I'll try with an example: the german term "Sehnsucht" has no direct equivalent in Italian. Nor does it in English (according to wikipedia at least). Is it the same to describe such a concept with a periphrasis? I'm not entirely sure about that. What about the associations that word has with other words in the same language? They are not there in other languages. My question is: does this change your thinking patterns? Would two exact copies of Fred think the same way, reach the same conclusions about the question xyz, if they knew only one (different) language each?

This leads me to another related topic: how important is your vocabulary (what I mean is: your knowledge of words and their precise meaning) when it comes to thinking? All around me I see language butchered and simplified, with the vocabulary of the average person getting thinner year after year. Maybe I'm particularly worried about this because the country I live in has a very low books_read_per_year/people ratio. TV slang, oversimplified language: is this hampering our thinking?

I think I'll do some research on this topic as it seems particularly interesting.

It's late, I shouldn't be asking myself these questions right now. It would be better do think about such matters in the morning, when one is fresh and full of energy. But I don't know why, I usually ask myself this kind of questions late in the evening. Maybe it's just because I enter a more thoughtful mood. I don't know. Anyway, I hope I haven't bored you too much.

martedì 14 giugno 2011

Yet more Douglas Hofstadter!

Since I've started with some original content, I thought I could slack off a bit and just offer you a nice video I found on youtube. It's a lecture about analogy Hofstadter held at Stanford. Very interesting (this one was obviously not recorded by me and so it has good audio quality and the image doesn't shake all the time).

I suggest you skip the introduction and start directly at 13:30.

And yes, I know I still have to edit my video and upload it to youtube: I will as soon as I get to spend some time on my computer (I'm on my netbook right now).

lunedì 13 giugno 2011

Here come the videos..

I still haven't found the time to edit these, but I've converted them into .avi and uploaded them to megaupload for now. You will probably have to turn up the volume to hear what he's saying.. but this was the best I could do with my cheap digital camera.

Here are the links:

sabato 11 giugno 2011

Douglas Hofstadter in Bologna (10/06/2011)

For those who don't know him, Douglas Hofstadter is an American philosopher and scientist, best known for his book Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1980.

This is kind of a cult book for many, especially for those who are interested in Artificial Intelligence. When I heard Hofstadter was coming to Bologna to paticipate in a conference I knew I had to go and see him.

I shot some videos which will require some editing (volume is really low) and conversion. As soon as I get everything right I'll upload them.