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.

2 commenti:

  1. Absolutely true. And language tells more about culture than anything else, really.

  2. language is fascinating, although i've never had a linguistics professor that could keep me awake >.< still, i find it funny that languages with the same roots can't translate terms in between or just blatantly steal words.