Ming the Mechanic:
Language and World Views

The NewsLog of Flemming Funch
 Language and World Views2003-05-03 16:13
picture by Flemming Funch

Some people are having a discussion about whether and how language shapes how we experience the world. Stavros the Wonder Chicken has a very long post examining different academic models, and using Korean as an example. And David Weinberger has an excellent post talking about Heidegger.

I enjoy philosophical discussions, and I particularly enjoy examining how world views are constructed. But I guess I have somewhat limited patience with academics, and I'm not overly educated in traditional philosophy. I tend to be most interested in examining other models to possibly improve on the model I already have, and I have little interest in models that are more limited than my own, even if they are maybe of historical interest.

Anyway, I find it quite obvious that people being native speakers of different languages see the world a bit different. Western languages tend to construct sentences out of subjects and objects. That creates a certain separation between things, which doesn't necessarily exist, but which makes native speakers of for example English often believe that they can say things really precisely in their language. And because the sentences fit together well, and seem to fit with each other, they often end up with the misguided belief that their language provides a complete description of physical phenomena. Which is borderline insane, in my view.

I've noticed how Chinese or Japanese speakers often will make certain consistent mistakes in English. Like mixing up singular and plural. Some people figure it out eventually, but some people never do. For an English speaker it is obvious that noodles is plural, because there are many noodles on a plate. A Chinese person is just as likely to call it "noodle", not because he can't count, but because he's seeing it differently. I suppose focusing on the substance, not on the individual pieces. A Korean person leading a Yoga class might say "Touch your left feet". I only have one left foot, but in Korean thinking it makes sense that he's talking to the group, and there obviously are a whole bunch of left feet there. The English speaker will be very focused on himself individually, whereas a Korean will think more as a group.

From what I understand here, a couple of linguistic researchers, Sapir and Whorf, are major proponents of the idea that language shapes our world. There are various degrees of that. Like whether the language absolutely and inescapably shapes our world view, or whether it just influences it greatly. And others again disagree altogether.

I think many humans, many scientific types in particular, have a great fear of admitting that they live within a certain world view, which isn't just The Way Things Are. Particularly it is difficult to admit that what you perceive around you isn't the real world at all, but only a vague approximation and interpretation of a very narrow band of what is really there. Quantum mechanics should have revealed that, but the realization hasn't yet crept into our way of thinking. In part because we still speak the same way.

I think we should learn general semantics in school. Alfred Korzybski's Science and Sanity is still one of the most important books I've read, even though it is a very difficult read. The map is not the territory. The word is not the thing.

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4 May 2003 @ 02:57 by spectragon : Constrained by language
There is a fundamental language we all share, regardless of heritage. It is the language of our system of cognition, a system of binary logic that relies on the switching between two potential electrical states (polarization/depolarization of neurons)much the same as circuits in all computer hardware. Since this is the "assembler language" of brain activity and all computer software, it defines the domain of what the mystic calls "dualistic thought": every concept is contrasted by it's conceptual opposite to give it meaning. This system results in experiential exclusion from the reality of unified existance. To "see" beyond this fragmented experience is to have all paradoxes, that constrain understanding, dissolve. Perhaps this was the aligory in the Genesis story alluded to as "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil".  

4 May 2003 @ 03:17 by shawa : In Spanish...
... the word "pareja" means couple, and it is understood as an INDIVIDUAL unit (=one) composed of two people; it is described as "one" unit. People of course understand that a "pareja" is composed of TWO people. When they say "mi pareja", they mean "my couple", a concept which does simply not exist in the Spanish unconscious. ("Pareja" corresponds to the catholic ideal of holy matrimony: the "pareja" is an INDIVIDUAL unit, composed of TWO people, one of which is invisible to the outer world, mainly the woman).
In French, a "couple" means TWO units in interaction. Like in, "a couple of things"... (=at least TWO).
In the anglo-saxon world, a "relationship" is clearly of two people, but it might not be a "matrimony" (which would include children).
So I am wondering about what spectragon says above, what would be the "conceptual opposite" of the Spanish word "pareja" ? ...Anyway, very interesting, thanks Ming and Spectragon.  

4 May 2003 @ 06:12 by spectragon : In Spanish
Invariably, the initial reaction to the proclaimation that concepts rely on their opposites for meaning is to search for exceptions to the rule. Thats good because it is the first step in a marvelous journey towards the essential nature of existance! The basic idea is that, in order to be aware of something we must be able to distinguish it from what it is not. In many cases what we take to be a concept is actually a combination of more elemental concepts. Pareja is an example of such a compound concept, the concept of two is distinguished from both unity and the set of all quantities other than two, so it is a subset of diversity. The two dichotomies that define "two" are therefore: first, not unity and second, not any other quantity. This may sound overly technical but the underlying principle will be revealed by a little consideration of the obviously elemental dichotomies like: hot/cold, hard/soft,up/down, etc.  

5 May 2003 @ 05:32 by shawa : Ah yes.
So the word "pareja" indicates a unit separated from what it is NOT (the rest of society) on one hand, and on the other, inside the category of "unit", it is "not unity", TWO, not one. A unit different from "undefined mass", and composed of two parts which are not a unity. Not like two EQUAL things, - rather like left foot/right foot. Different, but part of the same "unit", which is perceived as different from "mass", a "pareja" is a pod with two peas. To "walk", you need both feet. Society, a catholic society, would need "walkers" to move the social project. Just thinking, and having fun with it. Thanks.  

5 May 2003 @ 22:11 by phil jones @ : noodles
I think the chinese guy says "noodle" rather than "noodles" because there's no modification of the noun for pluralizing in chinese. Not because there's any difference in his conceptual model. I don't believe this witnesses any special focus on the substance.

For comparison, English speakers have a similar problem remembering to modify the noun with an augmentative just because something is big when trying to speak in some latinate langugages.  

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