Sometimes… Just Sometimes… We Get It Right

Way back in 1958, in the so-called “Golden Age” of science fiction, Jack Vance wrote a book called The Languages of Pao, in which he postulated that language drastically affects human thought patterns and, thus, the entire structure of a culture or civilization.  A more scholarly statement of this is the linguistic relativity principle, otherwise known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, of which there are two versions.  One states that language limits and determines cognitive categories. A weaker version merely suggests that language  influences thought and certain non-linguistic behaviours.  The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was thought to be discredited by color-related experiments in the 1960s, because researchers  found that language differentials did not seem to affect color perception or usage.

Recent studies of human brain patterns and linguistic development, reported in the June 1st edition of New Scientist, strongly suggest that, first, there is not, as previously thought, a  genetically-determined “universal” human instinct/hard-wired pattern for language that is common to all human beings, but that languages are in fact learned and used in often totally different ways by those speaking different tongues.  Thus, as speculated by Vance, languages do in fact shape the way we not only think, but the very way in which we see the world.  And, as occasionally happens, but not so much as we science fiction writers would like to think or claim, one of us has actually anticipated a fundamental discovery, and one that has profound implications for human civilization, implications that I don’t think most people have fully considered.

If this research is accurate, then, for example, intractible cultural differences may well lie in the linguistic patterns of a culture.  A language that offers many ways in which to accurately express the same concept or thought would likely promote more openness of thought than a language in which there is literally only one correct way in which that thought can be expressed.  A language/culture that allows rapid linguistic innovation may promote change and development… but it might well have the downside of undermining standards, because standards, as represented by language, are not seen as fixed or immutable.   We already know that words expressing concepts, such as “freedom”  or “equality,” do not “translate” into the exact same meanings in different cultures, and this research offers insights into why the differences go beyond mere semantics.

These possibilities have certainly been considered in human history, if only instinctively or subconsciously.  For centuries, the Roman Catholic church resisted the translation of the Bible into any other language, insisting it be read and taught only in Latin.  Since 1635, with a few years in abeyance during the French Revolution, L’Academie Francaise has policed usage and linguistic development in France, attempting to restrict or eliminate the use of Frenchified Anglicisms.  And languages do affect other aspects of human behavior.  Recent studies have shown that speakers of tonally-inflected languages have far, far, higher rates of perfect pitch than do speakers of languages that are not tonally inflected.  Not entirely coincidentally, it seems to me, speakers of such languages also appear to have more successful classical musicians.

A more disturbing aspect of the research is the possibility that linguistic differences may well create cultural “understanding” divides that are difficult, if not impossible, to bridge, simply because the languages create antithetical patterns of thought, so that a speaker of one language cannot literally comprehend emotionally the concepts and values behind the words of a speaker of another language.  The initial research suggests that the magnitude of variances in languistic learning patterns ranges from very slight to quite significant… and it will be interesting to see if such differences can ever be quantified.  But it does appear that speaking another language goes far beyond the words.

And a science fiction writer pointed out the cultural implications and ramifications for societies first.

8 thoughts on “Sometimes… Just Sometimes… We Get It Right”

  1. Interesting. I learned in my Anthropology classes in the mid 1970’s that the color studies proved that Sapir-Whorf was correct – that although humans saw colors the same way, their languages described those colors differently, thus affecting human perception of color. So, for instance, a Navajo does not have separate names for green and blue, but rather uses the same term. He sees the different colors, but perceives them, because of his language as shades of the same color. Yet he has 3 words to describe the color we call “black”. And because of these three words, he perceives black as being three different colors. While English-speakers have one word for black. Yet if you look at an artist’s shop at oil colors you will see various shades of black in your choice of paints. We perceive these colors as different shades of the same color. But I am interested to hear of the brain pattern studies, and will use them in class! Thanks.

  2. Sorwen says:

    If true that would make me worried about those of us in the US. We’ve always had both the good and the bad of slang, but now when you add to that l33t speak which is now spoken almost as much as written? I really wonder what it could mean for us.

  3. Simon says:

    This is evident also with the Inuit who have several words for snow, describing texture, look, shapes and even time of season it falls as well as Amazonian peoples who have similarly several distinctions to their environment that to us would seem to describe only one thing.

    This is something though that has been known for quite some time by psycho-analysts and self-help authors who know the importance of how something is expressed and tells alot about the person saying, their past and immediate disposition.

    Also has been used for great sci-fi, a la PARAFAITH WARS (awesome, well-though-out novel and great critique on the current geopolitical/ecological situation we find ourselves in today)

  4. Bob says:

    While a youngster I read Vance’s book about the time it was published. A seminal concept which I have never forgotten; yet, uncharacteristically I have never re-read the story…it stuck. Experiences over the intervening years from youth thru maturity leave me convinced of the obviousness and truth of the concept.

    Sometimes I think it is applicable within the same language; e.g., speakers from areas with strong regional dialects. Although, national television and radio have done much to erase these differences in the last 60 years.

  5. Robert Harris says:

    I was under the impression that the idea that language imposes limitations upon thought was postulated by Ludwig Wittgenstein in the early 20th century. In particular he argued that mathematics needed to develop new languages in order to develop further, and that the greatest thinkers were able to overcome the limitations of the absence of language. A good example of this would be Newton and Liebniz developing the “language” of calculus. I believe he also wrote more about the “philosophy” and the cultural implications of this limitation.

  6. Robert Harris says:

    I suppose I should add (clarify) that it is new concepts (not purely thought) that Wittgenstein was talking about.
    So the concept of taking infinitesimal slices of an area under a curve and adding them together to get an accurate (algebraic) determination of the area was a completely novel concept, and the lack of a language (mathematically speaking) to describe it prevented anyone thinking of it. Three hundred years on it doesn’t seem like a difficult concept at all.

    On the other hand language can also describe things for which we have little imagination of. For example in Gravity Dreams you talk about seeing further into the infra-red and ultra-violet. Although I can :conceive” the idea, I can’t actually imagine what it would look like!

  7. K Benham says:

    I wish I kept up with this blog – Mr. Modesitt, you are always thinking deeply upon various wideranging themes. One theme that I enjoy thinking on is language. I have noticed that each language has a ‘flavor’. German tastes different from Spanish and from Welsh and Greek. So, it is not just how one thinks in the language that differs, I believe there is a personality inhering in each language, a shift in emotional response. German has such wonderful words like ‘Schadenfreude’ and Spanish has the idea of ‘duende’. Or could it be that languages do not have their own personality but rather that we as individuals (or bilinguals) will compartmentalize aspects of our personality in one language over another. But even compartmentalizing parts of one’s personality into a language that ‘fits’ suggests affinity of language to certain pathos… There has been some research into the idea that bilinguals do in fact change their personality when they change language. As the article linked below quotes the Czech proverb, “Learn a new language and get a new soul.” Alternatively, it may be that we all suffer from (or benefit by) having more than one personality and that the one best suited to a situation comes to the fore depending on the situations. And with that chosen personality comes the preferred language. The article quotes one subject as stating “… it is not a personality change but simply the expression of another part of our personality that is not shown as strongly in our other language(s)”.

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