Here’s where we left off in ‘le premier part’:
My other studies led me to brief forays in Italian, German, Latin, and soon, Arabic. Throughout it all, I wondered how it was changing me, this constant attention to other languages. Okay, I’ll occasionally throw in a Turkish hedging technique (şey, yani) and I apparently believe that lights and computers are now open or closed rather than on or off, but apart from that, did my relationship to English or thought change?
The languages I’ve studied had strange new rules, fun pronunciation, and interesting idioms…but what did that all get me? What did I gain beyond the practical issues of eating, drinking, or buying souvenirs while on vacation? Did these languages add anything more significant to my life, even if I’m not using them on a regular basis? What can I take away that will increase my understanding not only of myself, but of all of us?
Thus began my re-education of the issues surrounding language and thought. I started with the big three: Vygotsky, Sapir, and Whorf. These men would have me believe that what I got out of the experience of learning other languages was the opportunity and the ability to understand previously inconceivable concepts. The reason they would be inconceivable was because I grew up speaking English as my native language, and that was the language that shaped – no, dictated my thoughts. If English did not have an expression for a concept, then it might as well not exist as far as the English speaker is concerned. In other words, I could think only what English allowed me to think.
Lev Vygotsky was a law graduate in Moscow who was influenced by the so-called “structural revolution” in linguistics and literature in the 1910s. He went back to school and in 1925, he published The Psychology of Art. His main interest was the social influence in the development of consciousness. He claimed that intellectual abilities and higher mental functions were specific to a person’s culture. “Socially meaningful activity” is what fed cognitive development and may “serve as a generator of consciousness.” Language – a “socially meaningful activity” – is the medium through which this cultural (and intellectual) information is conveyed to children. In this view, language feeds mental activity, not vice versa.
Vygotsky unfortunately died of tuberculosis in 1934. He was just 37 years old. Enter Edward Sapir, a Yale linguist and anthropologist who worked with Native American languages. His work in the 1920s and 30s led him to theorize that a person’s native language not only influences the way a person perceives the world, but determines and constrains that world view. Based on this, people who speak different languages would therefore have completely different conceptual understandings of the world.
Sapir had an unlikely disciple at Yale. Benjamin Lee Whorf was not a trained academic, but rather a chemical engineer who worked as an inspector for Hartford Fire Insurance Company. His knowledge of linguistics was largely self-taught, but he did take classes with Sapir for some more formal training. He not only agreed with his teacher about the relationship between language and thought, but he developed it further and in 1940, one year after Sapir died and one year before his own death, Whorf published the article that would make him famous and/or infamous.
The article “Science and Linguistics” published in M.I.T.’s Technology Review spelled out what would be called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothosis, or eventually, the Theory of Linguistic Relativity. Whorf’s main evidence came from his work with the Hopi language. He found that the Hopi had no word or grammatical construct in their language for time. He believed this linguistic constraint put on the thoughts of a Hopi speaker made that person unable to understand the concept of time the way an English speaker would.
These ideas seemed to capture minds and hearts and for a long time after they were first put forth. Ultimately, the stronger version of Whorf’s theory – that language determines and limits a person’s world view to only that which the language can convey – was discredited, though not before it became the basic framework of George Orwell’s Newsspeak in 1984. Whorf’s methods, actual understanding of the Hopi language, and theoretical conclusions were all called into question or dismissed. Guy Deutscher wrote a thorough and interesting exploration of this last year in the New York Times.
This linguistic Chicken or Egg game is fairly tricky to keep straight, quite honestly, though sorting through concrete examples can help understand the objections to the Linguistic Relativity Theory. Has anyone else had the sense that you have something that you want to say but just can’t get it right when you try to say it? You try, maybe come out with a few attempts, but you know they’re just not quite right. The thought is there in your head, but you can’t express it. This would suggest that ideas are conceivable even in the absence of the words to express them. Deutscher uses the German word Schadenfreude to illustrate this. We don’t have that word in English, but we seemed to adjust awfully quickly to the concept of feeling pleasure at another person’s misfortune. We had the feeling but needed German to give us the word for it.
Turkish uses a suffix to convey the fact that information is secondhand. Let’s say I ask Roommate A for some wine, but she tells me that there isn’t any left. No worries – I’ll have a beer instead. Later, Roommate B asks me why I’m drinking beer. Isn’t there any more wine? “No,” I’d say, “There’s no more.” In Turkish, I would put a suffix on the word yok (none) that would indicate that I got this information from someone else: yokmuş.
Does this mean that the concept of secondhand information is something I never would have come up with as an English-speaker? After all, we don’t have a dedicated suffix or tense to convey this, right? No, but we do have other ways to express it: “Apparently, there’s no more wine.” “The wine is gone, so I’m told.” “That lush drank all the wine!” So we can express and understand the same meaning, but we do so differently, if less efficiently.
The weaker version of the Whorf’s theory – that language simply influences thought and understanding of the world – is not as easy to sort out. Languages don’t only enable us to express things, but they also require us to express certain types of information, and these vary amongst languages. In English, we have to convey when an action happened by using a verb tense. Not all languages require this. Romance languages, among others, require speakers to choose a gender even for inanimate objects. They are obliged to categorize objects and ideas along these lines, and this, according to Deutscher, does influence the way they view these objects.
This is easier for me to live with. It’s possible that learning other languages did not give me concepts that I wouldn’t otherwise have access to, but it probably helped me to develop areas of cognition that may have languished otherwise, or given a certain adaptability and flexibility to my thinking process.
The task of sorting out what those areas might be depends on reliably recalling how I thought before I learned the language in order to compare that to my thought patterns after I learned that language. The key word here would be reliably. It’s been at least 25 years since my first language-learning experience, and arguably, my experiences started before that. Being this far removed from my ‘uncorrupted’ brain makes it hard to make clear before-and-after comparisons. The best I can do is conjecture and try to identify possible influences.
For instance, I may be more inclined to accept uncertainty because of learning the subjunctive structures in Romance languages that are much more nuanced and detailed than our meager vestigial subjunctive in English. I even remember the Eureka! moment. Our high school French teacher had just asked us how the Little Prince knew that the narrator had fixed his plane. The line was:
“Je suis content que tu aies trouvé ce qui manquiat à ta machine.” (I am happy that you have found what was wrong with your machine.)
I stared and stared and stared at the line, trying to figure out what was trying to get my attention. Finally I had it. I was so excited that I called out the answer without even raising my hand.
“He didn’t! He didn’t know!” I said. This was the correct answer. The Little Prince didn’t, in fact, know that the plane had been fixed. He had used the subjunctive tense, used to express hypothetical situations.
Being required to encode uncertainty in Romance language verbs may have affected the way I view problems or their possible solutions if I can more easily see the situation from other, more hypothetical angles. Perhaps learning American Sign Language improved my spatial recognition or made me more attuned to what information body language conveys. Manipulating the relatively flexible word order in Turkish might have given me different ways to understand relationships between ideas as I put focus on one aspect or another by altering their expression in a sentence.
Or perhaps I would have developed these skills anyway, regardless of being exposed to other languages. Is language the egg or the chicken? And if we figure that out, we still aren’t sure which comes first. There is ongoing research on this subject, though any discussion of emerging evidence is well beyond the scope of this already-lengthy post. For the moment, I’ll just have to accept the uncertainty, and possibly thank the Little Prince for helping me know how to do that.
Still here? Made it to the bottom? Yay! So, do you agree or disagree with the Big Three?