Monday, December 21, 2009

The Language of Thoughts

Professor Lapin and his assistant were quite excited about their current research that involved developing a lexicon for a previously unheard and unknown language. The first identified word in the newly found tribal language was "gavagai". They heard this word being used whenever a rabbit was present, so Lapin was ready to associate the meaning of the word "gavagai" to rabbit. But his assistant intervened by pointing out a possible confound. For all they knew, "gavagai" could mean "hey look! Rabbit!", or "a single rabbit" etc. It could also be embedded with some other cultural or physical adjectives that they were unaware of. In order to thoroughly establish the validity of the word and meaning, Lapin and his assistant need to not just make more observations, but essentially live long enough with the tribe to get a grounding of their culture, so that they understood the ties it has with the formation of words and the language. Is it true that one needs to understand culture to comprehend its language? Is there any way by which the "truth" of the words can be objectively ascertained? Does truth become subjective to language? (Original Source: Word and Object, by W.V.O. Quine (MIT Press, 1960))

I can very well see through the challenges that emerge from a research standpoint. I have no idea how linguists work, but I'm certain that the standards for establishing validity are same across all disciplines. There are two parts to this excerpt - one deals with the effect of culture on the evolution of language, and the second deals with how language by itself can afford how we form concepts and thoughts and can thus influence the way people think and behave, therefore affecting how the culture evolves. It's sort of like a symbiotic feedback loop - culture->language ->thoughts->concepts->culture. Since culture is on either sides, envisage a circle instead of my linear diagram.

Those of us who know at least a couple of languages (or better yet polyglots), will be well aware that each language has its own set of unique words and grammar rules than cannot be translated to other languages. Many friends of mine have raved about books in a certain language that can never be translated into other languages without losing some of their truest literary beauty and form. I've even struggled to explain the meaning of certain very common words in my mother-tongue to another person from the very same country and culture, but from a neighboring state. This is because each language is heavily based on metaphors that are relevant to the nuances of a culture. Such is the confluence of culture, traditions and the physical nature of our environment, found in our languages. A popular example is how the Eskimos have a large array of words differentiating the various types of snow. Due to their climatic conditions, these people were in need of forming different words in their language to specifically relate to the subtle gradations and kinds of snow. In South-India, there is no word for snow, except of course if we are to adopt the English word into our vocabulary. Or our leaders would be kind enough to expend their time in inventing authentic and convoluted words from the root of the language.

Consequently, it is also true that our concepts and thoughts concerning the word "snow" will be constrained because of the language. If we don't have words to define and conceptualize different kinds of snow, our knowledge/truth about snow is also limited. Similarly, our abilities to express ourselves and communicate meaning among others are also dictated by the rules and structures afforded by the language. The more poorly designed the language, the harder it is for us to think in terms of the language, the lesser concepts we can frame, the more time it takes to express, the greater the complexity of the expression, and less information or misinformation gets communicated, thus jeopardizing meaning and truth. Another favorite example of mine is that of computer programming languages (despite them being arguably different from natural languages). But a programmer will largely agree that the rules of a programming language can either constrain or expand their abilities to not just program efficiently, but also afford unique thought processes for problem solving and expression. With dynamically typed programs and object-oriented programs, the consensus is that these languages provide more scope and freedom for solving problems and expressing the solutions more effectively. In effect, they allow us to conceptualize and think differently.

This notion, that language structure affects the way we think and form cognitive concepts, is called the Whorfian-Hypothesis. Science is a little divided on this hypothesis. While many (including me) agree that there is some truth to it, it doesn't extend completely to all cognitive concepts or processes. There have been many scientific studies disproving this hypothesis. A popular experiment proved that a culture in which people have no linguistic representation of any color except black and white, still formed cognitive concepts of the primary colors "blue", "red" etc, such that they could arrange the secondary colors around them. Some argue that this is merely perception, rather than conception, but there are many more studies that have attempted to disprove it.

Therefore to a large extent we think in terms of our language, and our cognitive boundaries are sort of determined by the scope of our language structure. But as evidenced in the current generation, the use of SMS-English has led to additions and abbreviations of "words" to our daily vocabulary, such as "lol", that even the structure of the language seems to slowly change. This is due to the technological instant-messaging culture. Hence language is sure to correspondingly evolve. It leads to an interesting question of how this change in language will affect the thought processes of the future generations.

Finally, does all of this relativity with language and culture imply that the expression of meaning will be affected? Two people speaking the exact same language are prone to multiple misunderstandings. Given that, is it plausible that the "truth" remains relative to every language, for we cannot completely express and translate the meaning and embedded context, however expressive we try to be? To a certain extent, yes; which is probably why we resort to Logic, Mathematics and equations to be more objective about what we want to convey. But the field of Logic has its own can of worms, so I'm not going there :).

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