Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Words Fail Me

Can we think things if we don't have words for those things? Are our imaginations limited by our language? Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote that "What we cannot say, we must pass over in silence." Some have interpreted this to mean that the words we possess determine the things that we can know. My interpretation of this is that there are some thoughts or feelings we have that we cannot properly express with the ready-made, accepted vocabulary of our language.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis suggests a slightly different premise: people experience and understand the world differently depending on the concepts contained in their language.
Sapir and Whorf asked people to describe how many stripes or bands they saw in a rainbow. Since rainbows are actually a continuum of color, there are no empirical stripes or bands, and yet people saw as many bands as their language possessed primary color words.
From Wikipedia entry on Linguistic Determinism

In August of 2004, Peter Gordon, a psychologist at Columbia, published a study which provided support for the theory of linguistic determinism:
Language may shape human thought suggests a counting study in a Brazilian tribe whose language does not define numbers above two.

Hunter-gatherers from the Pirah tribe, whose language only contains words for the numbers one and two, were unable to reliably tell the difference between four objects placed in a row and five in the same configuration, revealed the study. . . .

The language, Pirah, is known as a "one, two, many" language because it only contains words for "one" and "two" for all other numbers, a single word for "many" is used. "There are not really occasions in their daily lives where the Pirah need to count," explains Gordon. . . .

The Pirah also failed to remember whether a box they had been shown seconds ago had four or five fish drawn on the top. When Gordon's colleagues tapped on the floor three times, the Pirah were able to imitate this precisely, but failed to mimic strings of four of five taps.
From New Scientist.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has interesting intersections with deconstruction. If we accept the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the language we are born into controls our perceptions and understanding of the world. If, for example, we have a distinct word/concept for green (some languages do not), we will see it in a rainbow; otherwise we will not.

Deconstruction holds that we are not masters of our own speech or writing: speech or writing cannot faithfully represent us as it is always infected by other minds, both in the accepted, established structure and edifice of language that precedes us, with which we must make do, and the open interpretations other minds give to our statements, interpretations over which we have no authorial control; indeed, the very language we must use subverts our attempts to present a coherent and unified meaning. We make do with the currency we have, the language we our using, and do our best to fit our thoughts into available language.

But because the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis holds that our thoughts themselves are more or less formed by our language, it suggests that the collective process of creating a stable language in effect programs the minds of the language's speakers. If this is true, Wittgenstein (as I understand him) and Derrida are undercut to a certain extent: we are only capable of saying what we are capable of thinking, and we are only capable of thinking what we are capable of saying. This agrees with deconstruction to some degree: our speech is not our own; we are not able to present our "own" ideas or thoughts; we are only able to reiterate in new contexts the ideas made available to us by our language.

I have no doubt that this is too simplistic, and that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, in its vulgar "prisonhouse of language" form, cannot be true. How to account for emotions, images in dreams and imagination that we cannot articulate in words? How to account for visual art, music, dance? Surely these forms are able to communicate concept not contained in a particular language. Still, it is a fascinating concept, and surely good impetus to continually study other languages to expand one's capacity to imagine and experience the world.


Anonymous said...

I have musical and visual thoughts entirely free of "language" in the traditional sense of the word.

Seriously, though, I think you are taking Sapir-Whorf a little too strictly, leading you to the lingustic determinism you deplore. That makes it easier to attack Sapir-Whorf, but denies you their fundamental insights.

Namely, that the grammar and morphology a society develops shapes the ways in which it perceives and thinks about the world. Anyone who has seriously worked on translating poetry, fiction or philosophy from one culture into the language of another will intuitively understand that this is fundamentally true. There are not only expressions that cannot be adequately translated without explaning all the cultural baggage and Weltansachuung that goes with it. Even the grammar of some languages allows modes of thought that translate awkwardly at best. I always found translations of Kant inadequate when compared to the original, simply because other lanugages do not allow the complex parataxis of the German grammar. A non-casive language is always weaker to me in expressing relationships than a casive one.

National schools of thought and literary expression are not the mere byproduct of random political allegiances, but are to a great degree shaped (not determined) by the linguistic potential inherent in that culture. E.g. the beauty of the English language lies in its grammatic simplicity and flexibility, which allows it more than others to quickly absorb foreign concepts and make them its own. One of the beauties of German on the other hand is that it allows the instant creation of compound nouns out of existing words that allow the author to convey a precise meaning of a new concept without having to invent and define a new word. The meaning of a new word like "Weltanschauung", though a recent creation by enlightenment philosophers, will be obvious to a novice reader at first sight, since its constitutive morphemes "Welt" (world), "an" (at), "schauen" (to look)and "ung" (turns a verb into a noun) are already familiar.

This last example also shows what is wrong with a static, deterministic view of Sapir-Whorf. It is an example of living, actively developing language in order to express new thoughts and concepts, but nonetheless a language developing out of its own linguistic soil and fertility. If language determines thought, then who thought up language? If you don't concede to humans the ability to have extra-linguistic thought and then define linguistic concepts to communicate the same to their fellow man/woman, then the only two places a language could have come from is either our genetic code or God.

The probabilities shown by SW are just probabilities of collective behavior. As we know from statistics, probabilities of collective behavior are bad indicators of individual behavior. The likelihood of most individuals in a group being limited by their preexisting linguistic structure does not exclude the possibility of an individual needing new words and structures to describe his/her thoughts which then become incorporated as new words and structures in a developing, living language.

Rather than being a statement about linguistic determinism, Sapir-Whorf is a statement about human laziness. Our preexisting linguistic fabric predisposes us to see the world and think about it in already familiar morphological concepts and grammatical structures (a.k.a. prejudice, tradition). Grammatically and morphologically limited cultures will have trouble comprehending concepts for which there are no direct translations in their language. But, necessity being the mother of all things that will wake a sloth from its laziness, all cultures still retain the ability to transgress the boundaries of their linguistic limitations and create new concepts and structures that they can then incorporate into their language and make their own.

Thus, you see, there is no antagonism between Sapir-Whorf and deconstruction. SW say that linguistic limitations influence thought and perception. The body of preexisting thought and perception is indeed the very element that makes language not our own and denies us pure original authorship of our thoughts in the deconstructionist sense. We always stand on the shoulders of the gianst that preceded us. At the same time, SW doesn't deny the developmental potential of language inherent in the deconstructionist view: namely the fact that others, based on their cognitive prejudices, limitations and potentials will associate different meanings with our expressed language and interpreting differently our words (distorting them, if you will).

Even if you take a deterministic view of SW, you would have to have an unrealistically homogeneous population in order to prevent different individual backgrounds and prejudices from causing misunderstandings or at least incongruent interpretations which in turn must lead to the kind of cognitive and linguistic friction that is the motor of development of new ideas, concepts and linguistic structures. A linguistically predetermined, static society does not exist, nor did SW mean to suggest so.

Hope this made sense.


Anonymous said...

Boba tea good! Bush bad!


HH said...

There is also the Dale Bozzio (of Missing Persons) theory to consider as she sings in "Words." haha. What the hell is she saying? Oh well, I just like how she concludes, "I think I'll die my hair blue," which is always what you do when you're exasperated.

anyway, making new words is F-U-N.