Monday 16 October 2017

Do We Speak Different Realities?

By Lina Ufimtseva
I have a vague feeling or concept in my head, yet I simply cannot put it into words—not even to those who are closest to me.  It certainly creates a barrier between me and whomever the message is intended for. 
Now imagine quite the opposite. I speak multiple languages in which I am fluent, and know the phrases which express the subtleties and layers of the meaning of each word.  Yet composing the same thought in different languages yields different meanings.  I feel that I am just as impeded as before.

Here is an example. In Russian we say, ‘We with our friends are going to dinner,’ not ‘My friends and I are going to dinner.’  If a Russian were to use the latter phrasing, the underlying meaning would convey that he or she does not want to associate with the group of friends, and dislikes the group. Saying ‘We with our friends or family or class’ reinforces the idea that you share the same values, and find identity in that group. In this case, therefore, we have an easy translation, but it is just not the same as that which is translated.

Many have attempted to explain the relationship between language and thought. My interest here is the question: do words create meanings, or do meanings create words—or is it both?

If we were to remove various words from a language, and thereby simplify it (think of Doublespeak in the novel 1984), our ability to express thoughts would surely diminish, and thus the breadth of our worldview would perish. Dictators have effectively done this when using language as propaganda to control masses of people. It would make sense to say that yes, language does create thoughts, and words create meanings. If you don’t have the words, you can’t describe it. Here, meaning is created linguistically, from without.

Yet when we come across a word which describes a very specific situation, there is a click, an a-ha! moment that is universal—whether your language includes the word in question or not. For instance, many have experienced what the Scots call ‘tartle’—the panic-like hesitation just before you have to introduce someone whose name you can't quite remember. Would this not indicate that actually, meaning is created cognitively, from within?

Then again, one word can signify different shades of meaning, even separate concepts. Let’s take the concept of time. Compare how the English in Britain speak about time—how precise and punctual they are about it—and the casualness of South African English. Terms like ‘now’, not to speak of ‘now now’ and ‘just now’, are much more than simply a label for ‘coming another 20, perhaps 25 minutes later’. Such ‘Englishes’ comprise an entirely different mind-set, and thus also, a different worldview to that of the English speaker in Britain or other English-speaking places.

The Germans have a special word: Weltansicht, which refers to ‘the general attitude towards life and reality that an individual or character demonstrates’.  Weltansicht is closely allied with the words which we speak, so that it is difficult to escape their pull. Thought is not objective, and some accidental difference in which language or linguistic dialect you were raised in can indeed shape the way you think and perceive things.   

I would suggest that language is ultimately not only culture bound. An entire cultural identity exists within it and is perpetuated by it. Even the same language spoken in different parts of the world evokes modified meanings.
Photo credit: Russian Report, with the caption ‘Everyone stands for the entire liturgy’.


Keith said...

Thank you, Lina, for an intricately thought-out discussion of an interesting subject.

The question in the essay’s title, ‘Do we speak different realities?’, suggests a systemic connection between language and reality — a language-based ontology, if you will, that frames the world as we perceive it. That linkage between language and reality seems, to me, to prompt other questions. I’ve jotted down a few such questions below — though, to be sure, they’re intended as merely conjectural (a thought experiment) rather than posed in expectation of answers.

So if, as the essay’s title suggests, language creates or is a derivative of reality. And given there are many living languages — currently around 6,900, each with unique characteristics and categories. Are there then different realities, rendering reality subjective — that is, a reality for each language — instead of objective and universal? (Which, perhaps, ties in with the essay’s assertion that ‘thought is not objective’.) To put a number on it, are there 6,900 realities, each with its respective ontology?

As languages evolve through time, do their associated realities evolve, also? And as languages die, estimated at one every fourteen days, do their associated realities die, too? That is, is each reality only as enduring as the language associated with it? If a formerly ‘dead’ language is revived, which happens, does its associated reality get revived, too — intact? And if reality is subjective — that is, contingent on the particular language spoken — might values within that reality also be subjective?

Again, all just conjectural what-ifs — thinking out-loud about the intriguing question posed by the essay’s title.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

The question: 'Do words create meanings, or do meanings create words,' is typically laden with theory. This post seemed to me to tend towards a statement of fact. Language expresses culture, and culture is manifested in language. It is as simple as that.

docmartincohen said...

"Many have attempted to explain the relationship between language and thought. My interest here is the question: do words create meanings, or do meanings create words—or is it both? "

Yes, this would seem to cover the posibilities - but not advance the search for answers! But I think it is great to have some new examples offered in the processof this post, thanks very much, Lina Ufimtseva, and 'if you're able' please come back and say a bit more sometime!

I think myself that Benjamin Lee Whorf is the great explorer of the issues - and his suggestion seems to be that language shapes our concepts, rather than anything more dramatic.

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