Friday, August 17, 2012

Reflections: The Stuff of Thought

This was my second audio-book. My experience with this one was actually markedly different from the first audio-book. I was more interested and invested in this book than the first one - the subject matter is inexplicably closer to my heart, so I was more riveted to the narration. Secondly, I heard it during a couple of terribly long flight journeys, so it was ideal to just plug my earphones, close my eyes and concentrate on the content. For me, audiobooks seem to work best while flying. I can take notes in a separate book, doze off for sometime, refresh myself, and continue listening. I’m glad to have discovered this.

The narration of this book could have been better. I expected Steven Pinker himself to have narrated it (since I love his presentations), but it was a disappointment that he didn’t. The narrator seemed hurried and rushed in the initial chapters. There wasn’t much emotion or even respect for punctuation, as he just droned on and on. But the style improved in the subsequent chapters - he was more patient, measured, and even entertaining in a few places.

Onto the book itself - Steven Pinker meticulously analyzes how Language and its constructs play a complex role in our understanding of reality. He starts by delving into the ambiguous process by which the human-brain conceptualizes language and puts together grammar and semantics to communicate, and make sense of the world. He demonstrates that our verbs and prepositions reflect the innate ways in which the human-brain is wired. The semantics (meanings and definitions) that we develop through language and consequently, our experiences, influence our perceptions of Reality. Grammar, Verbs, Conjugations, and all the tedious linguistic structures - in any language -  are formulated by the innate process by which we dissect the world into its particulates - its objects, geometry, space, dimensions, time, and action.
For example, it can be argued that both sentences below are theoretically grammatical:
A: Water is poured into the jug
B: The jug is poured with water

Yet, those who are fluent in English, would hardly use sentence B. People who might use B would most likely be native-speakers of another language, and they might be literally trying to translate the sentence from their language to English. This is because, innately, our mental imagery struggles to agree with a Jug - a geometrically stable and solid structure, being poured - an action that indicates fluidity and movement. The verb Pour, and the action Poured, are associated more with the Noun Water, than with Jug. The innate knowledge and understanding of Physics, objects, space, and actions, is the reason why one mental imagery agrees more than the other. Speakers of another language would surely have their semantics and grammar aligned accordingly in their native language, but translations might affect the representation of their actual imagery in a foreign language. One might be quick to therefore conclude that our language, or rather, semantics and grammar, determines the kinds of images we have in our heads. Not exactly, and not always.

This is popularly noted as the Whorfian Hypothesis which basically states that Language can influence cognitive processes, due to the ways in which the linguistic structures shape one’s understanding of the world. Steven Pinker vehemently argues against this hypothesis of Linguistic Determinism. Through multiple experimental results and cogent arguments, he attempts to debunk the notion that Language determines structure of thought. I was initially in disagreement with some of Pinker’s arguments, but in the end we converge on essentially similar ideas. Language might influence, but does not determine thoughts. I do believe Language is integral to Thinking and Reasoning. It does play a vital role. But, I have come to agree that a particular Language doesn’t completely determine one’s thoughts and ability to reason or form newer thoughts. One language isn’t better than the other to make sense of the world better. In our head, we don’t necessarily think grammatically. Our thoughts are not stored or formed through the words or linguistic structures of any particular language. As a bilingual person, I can attest that I don’t think in one language or two languages. I might reason on pen and paper in English, but I don’t believe my thoughts are framed in any particular language. Anyway, this is a highly debated topic amongst Linguists. According to Pinker, Words are represented as far more richer and abstract clusters of thought. When we try to define the Word -  the clusters of our Thought - through Language, the linguistic structures might limit or influence our articulation and the many interpretations we might have of the Word. But within our heads, Language doesn’t determine our core cognitive processes of thinking or reasoning.

After much back and forth, though,  I still feel that there is some grain of intuitive truth to Linguistic Determinism. I’m not an extremist of the theory who would go all the way to state rigidly that one language might help in certain cognitive processes than the other... that German is a better language to learn math and science than another language etc. It’s not true in such specific, micro-level examples. Culture, environment, and so many other aspects might affect cognitive development in a certain country/place.  I believe that in the macro picture, the structure of a language does influence the abstract networks of thoughts we form. The imagery and metaphors in the language surely seem influential in how we interpret, imagine, and create newer thoughts. Speaking from the perspective of programming languages, I am aware of multiple experiments and studies that have evaluated the link between the syntax of the language and the eventual ways in which a programmer reasons to solve a problem or construct an algorithm through the language. The syntax and rules can sometimes inhibit certain kinds of thinking, and consequently affect the creative reasoning of a problem - it doesn’t affect one’s core intelligence or cognitive processes, but it does seem to be an agent in terms of how the processes are triggered. I know, this is also a hairy subject, so I will move onto another topic in the book.

Most of the book explicates each linguistic structure in detail - verbs, prepositions, tense, etc, to demonstrate that these structures were borne out of our mental conceptualization of Quantity, Amounts, Space, Geometry, Spatial relationships, Temporal relationships, and of course, Causality. Causality was an interesting chapter. In here, there are multiple examples of how a sentence structure can sway our logical perception of a situation (see, language does influence our logical thoughts). It’s all about how the situation is framed. It leads to multiple pitfalls in Logic and Fallacious interpretations.
* If widowhood follows marriage, then does marriage cause widowhood?

With so many variables abounding in every complex situation, navigating to the Cause from the Effect is tricky. It is even trickier when we begin to use Language, and its rules alone, to get to the Cause. This is probably why Lawyers make so much money on linguistic technicalities.

But then, I liked the part where Pinker shows that we are so inherently steeped with a moral sense that we can most often make our way out of ambiguous and sticky representations of a morally-dubious situation that’s cloaked in clever Linguistic acrobatics.

I also liked the chapter on Metaphors. There are many theories that Language by itself is a huge set of metaphors to our abstract thoughts. But that aside, metaphors and imagery help us grasp abstract concepts much better. Abstraction is diluted much better through relatable imageries and concepts. This is because the natural way of our thinking is through Metaphors - we constantly make connections of neural networks, relating one concept with the other. We therefore find it easier to imagine and relate.

Further, an entire chapter is dedicated on the subject of Social Niceties and Courteous Language. Why should we say “I was wondering if you could look at my document?”, instead of just saying, “Take a look at the document”, that’s precise and to the point. Language is to communicate direct requests and thoughts, after all. But all the hedging and polite rules are to conform to social protocol. It satisfies the bigger picture of basic human evolutionary requirement - communal cooperation. We insist on using euphemisms even when everybody understands the inferences, we force ourselves to be politically correct despite the other person being aware of it, etc. In the end, we feel far more worse, far more hurt, to hear the brutal truth, the callous sentences, than recognizing a forced-politeness. Most of us can deal with the latter better than the former brutality. We do appreciate the fact that the other person at least respects our feelings a tiny bit to frame their unpleasantness in a polite manner. And hence, we have devised language structures to suit this need - to maintain a measure of fragile harmony.

Finally, do names, even those without an actual meaning, evoke some abstract meaning in you? Does “Tom” conjure a different picture than “Jim”? Why are there trends in names? Why do some names sound older, newer, cooler, sweeter, bolder? Pinker goes into a whole chapter analyzing the motivations behind Names and parents’ naming ideologies. This wasn’t a very interesting chapter to me, but it served as a nice break from all the heavy academic content from the previous ones.

Well, truth be told, I was expecting some content on Language and its correlation with Personality and an Individual's Nature. Along the lines of addressing these questions - Do adjectives, sentence structures, noun phrases etc. reflect a person’s inherent personality or character traits? Can one’s nature influence how they use language while writing versus talking? Can the use of language predict a person's innate nature? Etc. See, the phrase “Window into Human Nature” (from the title of the book) had a whole slew of meaning to me, inside my head. The way I interpreted it, the way my thoughts came together to understand it, was different. Steven Pinker concentrates on the broader aspects of Human Nature and Cognition, and not on individual personality. And the book has helped me appreciate this much better.

To summarize this rambling post, this was an interesting and educative read on linguistics and psycholinguistics. The human brain is far too complicated to arrive at definitive and conclusive facts about how exactly language and thoughts interweave and influence each other. But the book provides ample arguments and scientific experiments to help the reader slowly make sense of at least a part of the puzzle. 


Rituraj Verma said...


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Would you be interested in reviewing my new book "Love, Peace and Happiness:What more can you want?"

I could do an author interview on yours. I could also post your review on my fanpage referenced below which has more than 10,000 fans giving you a whole new set of visitors.

Let me know if this makes sense for your blog.

Rituraj Verma, author

Neeraja said...

Hello Mr. Verma,

Thanks for your kind offer, but I'm unfortunately not interested in reviewing your book at this time. Your book surely sounds interesting and it's great that it has many favorable reviews. Wish your current book and future projects continued success.