Monday 26 November 2018

How Language Connects Mind, World, and Reality

The Chinese characters for not only ‘meaning’ but for ‘connotation, denotation, import, gist, substance, significance, signification, implication, suggestion, consequence, worth, nuance, association, subtext, sense’  and more!

Posted by Keith Tidman

‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world’, observed the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in his 1922 book Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. To that point, we might ask: How does language relate to the world? And, more particularly, does language shape human experience — our shared reality and our individual reality? Built into these questions is another — about how language connects mind and world, and in doing so arbitrates our experience of what’s around us.

At a fundamental level, words and ideas describe the world through things (people, horses, pomegranates), properties (purple, octagon, scratchy surface), relations (the moon is 384,000 kilometres from Earth, the flu virus infects millions of people globally, the calamari sits on her mezze plate), and abstractions (thought, value, meaning, belief). That is, language serves to create and aggregate knowledge, understanding, and experience. That’s broadly how we know what we know about reality. But language — the sounds made as people talk and the inscriptions made as they write — is more than just, say, a meta-tool for informational exchanges.

That is, people issue commands, share jokes, welcome visitors, pledge allegiances, pose questions, admonish, lie, explain feelings, threaten, share stories, exaggerate, sing, and so on. Body language (a suddenly raised eyebrow, perhaps) and tone (gruffness or ecstasy, perhaps) add an important layer. An observation by Willard Van Orman Quine, the 20th-century American philosopher, that ‘Language is a social art’, rightly captures this function of language in our lives. There’s a complex harmonising between what we infer and internalize about purported reality and the various kinds of things, properties, and relations that actually exist.

Language thus shapes our thoughts and changes how we think. The relation between thought (mind) and language is synergistic — that is, the combined effect of language and thought is greater than their separate effects. In this manner, a Chickasaw speaker, a Tagalog speaker, an Urdu speaker, a Russian speaker, and an English speaker perceive reality differently — the fundamental building blocks of which are words. As the British philosopher J.L. Austin noted:
‘Going back into the history of a word . . . we come back pretty commonly to pictures or models of how things happen or are done’.
The tie, we might say, between language and perceptions (‘pictures’ and ‘models’) — both concrete and abstract — of how reality, in all its nuance and complexity, plays out.

Correspondingly, the many subtle differences across the world’s roughly 7,000 languages — across vocabularies and other linguistic elements — frame and constrain the way we experience the world. That is, languages differ enough to lead to singularly dissimilar views of reality. Word choice, meaning (both denotation and connotation), syntax, metaphors, grammar, gender, figures of speech, correlation and causality, intent and expectation, and context all influence our perception of the world.

It is thus understandable, amidst this mix of languages’ ingredients, for the German-American philosopher Rudolf Carnap, writing in the mid-20th century,  to have counseled, ‘Let us . . . be tolerant in permitting linguistic forms’. Whether despite or because of this mix, language directly influences culture, which in turn bears on how we talk and what we talk about. Cultural norms influence this process. Yet, notwithstanding the power of perceptions, there is a world independent of language — empirically knowable — even if external reality may not be independent of observation and measurement. Galaxies and microbes exist.

As one illustration where language intervenes upon reality, it has been pointed out that the Native American language Nootka has actions as its principal classification of words. Emphasis is on verbs that describe reality not as physical objects (where subjects act upon objects) but as transitory occurrences — like ‘a meal occurs’ — or longer lived — like ‘shelter occurs’. The result ‘delineates’ the Nootka notion of reality, distinguishing it from others’. It is in the context of this rather expansive view of language that Noam Chomsky, the American linguist, is surely right in saying:
‘A language is not just words. It’s a culture, a tradition, a unification of a community, a whole history that creates what a community is. It’s all embodied in a language’.
Extending this theme, of tying together usage and perspective, in some languages there is no front, back, left, and right; instead, there is north, south, east, or west of something — a geographical kind of view of place. Two languages with just such a sense of location and cardinal direction are Guugu Yimithirr, which is an aboriginal language from Australia, and Sambali, spoken in a province of the Philippines. Another example entails agency for an accidental action: ‘Sebastian, the lead lab scientist, dropped the test tube’ (agency pinpointed, as in English) versus ‘The test tube dropped’ (agency hidden, as in Japanese). These rich differences among languages have implications that ripple across society, affecting, for example, values, norms, law, economics, and political policy.

We might argue that the plasticity of language — and the consequential differences in how language, over time, shapes our understanding of reality — affects how the mind distinguishes between fact and fiction. This observation hints at the subjectivity associated with postmodernism in defining the truth and falsity of perceived reality — at least in a linguistic context. In this view, a subjectively conscious reality — differing among the native speakers of diverse languages — and the external world do not intersect, or if they do, it is but imperfectly.

As such, purported knowledge, understanding, and belief are likely to be contested among partisan cultures, each embracing its own conventions regarding how the mind might describe the world. Writing in the mid-20th century, Algerian-French philosopher Jacques Derrida pointed to this issue of defensively shielding one’s own language, saying:
‘No one gets angry at . . . someone who speaks a foreign language, but rather with someone who tampers with your own language’.
And yet, with Derrida’s cautionary words in mind, whose truth and falsity is it? And whose perspective is valid, or at least the most valid (that is, the least flawed)? Does it come down to simply a catalogue of rules for usage prescribed within each community speaking and writing a particular language? Perhaps J.L. Austin got it right in opining, ‘Sentences are not as such either true or false’.

Perhaps, too, it is as Humpty Dumpty famously declared in Lewis Carroll’s book, Through the Looking Glass, when he said:
 ‘When I use a word,  it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less’.
That’s not too far off from the latest thinking about language, actually. Why so? It’s not only that different languages seem to lead to a different knowledge, understanding, and experience of reality within the mind. Rather, the effects of language seem more granular than that: Users within each of the world’s thousands of languages have different understanding of reality than even their fellow native speakers of those languages.

There are thus two levels of reality in the mind’s eye: one based on shared languages, such as NorwegianKhmer, and Maori. And one based on individuals within each language group whose personalised understanding and application of language uniquely and subtly differs from one person to another — quite apart from the differences in how, as individuals, we stamp our customs and norms on language.


Thomas O. Scarborough said...

The Oxford Concise Dictionary of Linguistics states that a word is ‘an invariant form with an invariant meaning’. This is a concept that Bloomfield struggled with greatly. It does not do justice to what you call the ‘plasticity’ of language, which seems a far more realistic approach to language.

I take the view, in my metaphysic, that each word contains, not only unnumbered connotations, but all of our life experiences. Individual words (lexemes) absorb our world in every way – and with that, culture and history. As an example, the philosopher-theologian Francis Schaeffer wrote, ‘There is a certain memory in a culture that is carried on in its language.’

This is the reverse of the received view, which says that words are what remains after connotations have been cut away. But if we understand each of our words as a ‘discursus’, as Aristotle suggested, we approach a more sophisticated and, I think, realistic view.

Keith said...

Your views, Thomas, are spot-on! I agree with all you said. The dictionary definition you cite that condemns words to an ‘invariant form with an invariant meaning’ boggles my mind. No natural language, that I’m aware of, is rock-solid invariant — or am I averring the obvious? ‘Invariance’ cedes no ground to the living, evolutionary nature of natural languages, whose genes get enriched by the ebb and flow of history, culture, environment, and what you rightly refer to as ‘our life experiences’. In that way, I suggest language is bidirectional: it’s both reflective and absorbent. Also, as much as someone might argue that words ‘are what remain after connotations have been stripped away’, it’s dubious at best. The DNA of words cannot be tinkered with in that manner, as if their connotations (inspired by multiple influences) can be handily snipped away in some reductionist fashion, to suit arbitrary whim. One cannot shoehorn language into a mold. Denotation and connotation are complementary, forming an indissoluble whole; I suggest that how words fluidly fit in context is where variance (not invariance) applies.

Martin Cohen said...

Keith talks about the Nootka language and its emphasis on actions and verbs... which reminds me that so much of the mystery of language lies here and not at all in nouns which do seem to sit there passively as labels. The famous Hopi language "time disappears and space is altered" as Whorf put it, while allowing the possibility of abstractions that our rigid verb structures exclude.

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