Wild Wonder of Language 2: We are Not Victims of Lingual Programming

In The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker tackles the idea of linguistic determinism, the idea that language determines how people think. If our culture uses the phrase, "Where no man has gone before," we have no choice but to be sexist! We are only saved from our sexist thoughts when some inventor suggests, "Where no one has gone before."

Pinker points out the utter absurdity of this. He starts, naturally, by focusing on basics. Nearly all cultures have words that relate to fundamental colors ("black, white, red, etc."). People in varying cultures tie the words for those fundamental colors to the same external colors (i.e. everybody picks the same crayon for "red"). In other words, the differing words for the colors don't create a differing understanding of color. Human wiring precedes language.

Pinker tackles the myth that the Eskimos have ever so many words for snow. First of all, the myth is false. The Eskimos have as many differing words for frozen falling water as, well, everybody does (snow, sleet, blizzard, etc.). Pinker quotes from an extremely funny essay by Geoffrey Pullum, who points out how utterly non-amazing this apparent cultural glorification of snow would be--if it was even true:
Horsebreeders have various names for breeds, sizes, and ages of horses; botanists have names for leaf shapes; interior decorators have names for shades...printers have many different names for fonts. [Take] the earnest assertion "It is quite obvious that in the culture of the Eskimos...snow is of great enough importance to split up the conceptual sphere that corresponds to one word..." Imagine reading: "It is quite obvious in the culture of printers...fonts are of great enough importance to split up the conceptual sphere that corresponds to one word..." Utterly boring, even if true. 
C.S. Lewis's Boxen images
Language accommodates human need, not the other way around. Our thoughts are in fact more tangled than what language can satisfy.

In proof, Pinker points out that many people trace their process of thought--a process that ends with lingual communication--backwards NOT to language but to an image. Two examples (from my own reading) are C.S. Lewis who reported that he began the Narnia series with an image of a faun in the snow. And Stephen King who compares writing  novels to uncovering the buried bones of a dinosaur.

A stunning number of scientists would agree. The few mentioned in Pinker's book include Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, Nikola Tesla, Friedrich Kekule, Ernest Lawrence, James Watson & Francis Crick, and Albert Einstein. All of them "saw" solutions as images before writing them down in the available language. Based on my own research, mathematician Alicia Boole Stott apparently also visualized and crafted dimensions before she wrote down her theories and discoveries in the language of mathematics.

A geometer
Pinker doesn't make the comparison to religion (at least not in the particular chapter that I read) but the gap between what one "sees" (through dreams, visions, revelations, what-have-you) and what language is available to the writer (dreamer, visionary, revelator, etc.) explains a great deal of scripture, including the Book of Isaiah. It is far easier to understand such passages if one actually doesn't let the so-called left brain get in the way. Listen to Handel's Messiah first. Then try to reason it out. The part of the brain that understands without attaching a label to everything might actually get there first.

The point is: Our brains are not comprised of a bunch of refrigerator word magnets that were inserted into our brains by our culture. Language is way too symbolic, at its core, to reside in the brain quite so literally.

Since it is the Christmas season . . .

1 comment:

FreeLiveFree said...

In Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series, there is a country where people only speak in quotes from a certain text. Essentially the Soviet Union if people could only quote The Communist Manifesto or Nazi Germany and Mein Kampf. At one point in the series, there is a story telling contest that involves soldiers fighting that country and one of their prisoners. The prisoner uses quotes from the sacred text to tell a story (translated by another) that is quite critical of the government of the country. Wolfe uses it tell a story quite the opposite of the meaning of the text.