Thursday, September 21, 2006

Language, Thought, Reality and Bible Study

In order to set up a webpage for a new ministry, I've been tooling around with CSS. The last time I had a good sitdown with any sort of computer language was back in those murky dotmatrix days when a professor friend (the "distinguished professor" he was lovingly named because he was indeed distinguished by a shock of dirty ginger hair, a bottomless collection of ugly patterned cravats and horrendously worse body odour) taught me HTML.
Computer Languages
Computer languages are things of real beauty that determine what data computers can process meaningfully. Is there a parallel in human terms? How much, if at all, do different human languages determine which aspects of objective reality humans can process meaningfully?*

The assumptions are, of course, firstly that humans have no means of construing and communicating our interpretation of reality effectively other than that which is linguistic; and secondly, that language is merely a finite means used to describe infinite reality. If, due to its limitations, language cannot help but be somewhat ambiguous, signs attempting to express that which is meant to be signified, then all our construals of and communications about the world must surely be limited in their capacity to convey reality, and our understanding of reality must inevitably be restricted by our language. (Anyone privy to discussions between programmers using their different pet languages to solve the same problem will know what this means!)

Edward Sapir
and Benjamin Lee Whorf are usually credited as the people who first brought attention to the relationship between language, thought, and culture (although Bhartrihari appeared on the scene earlier, as did Wilhelm von Humboldt with his Weltanschauung hypothesis. Ah, pipped again by the Americans!). The Sapir-Whorf theory of linguistic determinism that states that the language we speak determines the way that we will interpret the world around us, while their theory of linguistic relativism states that language merely influences our thoughts about the real world.

(This claim has been disputed by the Chomskyan follower, Steven Pinker, in this popularist "The Language Instinct", where he argues that language is, in fact, innate and that linguistic categories reflect universal, native conceptual structures. Whatever observable differences we find between languages are irrelevant. However, others have laughed off Pinker as attacking strawmen so the jury is still out.)

If we don't have a word or phrase for a certain feeling, a certain colour of snow, a certain inflection of smell, then in all probability, we wouldn't notice it nor would we distinguish it in our experience. Language draws our attention to certain facets of objective reality. "We do not say what we see," said Martin Heidegger in Sein und Zeit ("Being and Time"),"but rather the reverse, we see what one says about the matter". In Unterwegs zur Sprache ("On the Way to Language"), he added,"Only where the word for the thing has been found is the thing a thing. Only thus it is. Accordingly we must stress as follows: no thing is where the word, that is, the name, is lacking." Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote in his "Tractatus Logico Philosophicus" that "the limits of my language indicate the limits of my world".**

So George Orwell, who said that "if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought" ("Politics and the English Language"), showed how this might play out in a society where a language (Newspeak) was created to make thoughts unapproved by the state literally unthinkable by ensuring that there were no words in the language to express such thoughts ("Nineteen Eighty-Four").

So feminists are concerned with changing the English language to eliminate perceived discrimination, for example, by replacing the generic male gender with both the male and female genders. In eliminating discriminatory language, they hope to eliminate the concept of discrimination.

The irony of all this is, of course, that all these theories, discussions, arguments, experiments and reports themselves require the vehicle of language for their communication. It is also interesting to note that Sapir, Heidegger and Wittgenstein had German backgrounds. Heisenberg would have laughed.

However, all is not lost. A good awareness of the possibility of linguistic determinism or relativity could lead to a better understanding of cultural diversities and help to bridge intercultural communication gaps especially in cross-cultural mission work.

Also, if there is even a hint of truth in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and if, as nicely articulated by Bertrand Russell, "words may get meaning only by coming to represent some entities already encountered by us: We must attach some meaning to the words we use, if we are to speak significantly and not utter mere noise; and the meaning we attach to our words must be something with which we are acquainted", then Bible study is important (in addition to all those other reason why it is important) because it is only by studying the word of God that we are able better able to learn and flesh out what God really means by "Christian" words like "love", "sin" and "salvation". And by learning the language of God, we are better able to interpret the world as God sees it.

* naturally, questions of this genre have occupied a good many linguistic brains for centuries, the scope of which this post cannot even hope to address!
** Núñez and Sweetser recently published a paper demonstrating that the Aymara language reflects the idea Aymaran speakers have in their minds that the past is in front of them and the future behind them, that is, a reversal of the spatial metaphors we use in English. The New York Times, picking up on this, asks if human concepts of time can vary this much because of language and culture. Well, the Chinese talk about the future as 以后 and the past as 以前. Does this mean that a traditional Chinese speaker imagines that the past is spatially in front of him, and the future behind him?

PS: If the 6,912 or so different languages in the world are not enough for you, you can create your own language with the Alphabet Synthesis Machine, or add to the existing artificially-created language LOGLAN.
Ram Abuse
If the ram complains to the SPCA, wouldya call him a bleater?


At September 25, 2006 11:04 am , Anonymous Lambchops said...

AAAAAAAAHHHH!!!!! No more sheepish jokes!!!!!!! :D

At September 25, 2006 9:06 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Heh. Your ref to Wittengenstein reminds me of a joke that was sent to me yesterday

Ah Beng called up the radio to dedicate a love song to Ah Lian.

What song will he choose? That depends on whether he is a fan of...

Calvinism: "I knew I loved you before I met you" (Savage Garden)

Creationism: "Making Love Out of Nothing At All" (Air Supply)

Open theism: "I don't know much, but I know I love you" (Aaron Neville)

Wittgenstein: "It's only words... words are all I have to take your heart away" (Boyzone)

Foundationalism: "Girl you have to show me why this is not our time, When all the evidence is saying that you're wrong" (Cliff Richards - Somethin' Is Goin' On)

Pelagius: "She went to heaven so I gotta be good, so I can see my baby when i leave this world" (Pearl Jam - Where O Where Have My Baby Gone?)

Quaker: "I feel the earth move under my feet, I feel the skies tumbling down" (Martika)

NT Wright: "Heaven is a place on earth!" (Berlinda Carlisle)

Choo Thomas: "Nobody gets too much heaven no more.." (Bee Gees)

Emergent: "And life's a journey, not a destination" (Aerosmith)

At September 25, 2006 11:36 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

i don't know about chinese but here's an article on the Aymara speakers.

At September 27, 2006 2:40 pm , Anonymous yr sheep said...

my dear shadow....ewe are so baa-aa-aad!!!!!!


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