Your Language Is Holding You Hostage (And Why I’ll Be Flying Obama’s Private Jet As A Result)
February 15, 2010
Here's a disturbing thought: What if I were to make the bold claim (me? bold claim?) that there's no such thing as independent thinking. You're over there already, shaking your finger back and forth at me and saying, “Nuh uh, girlfriend. I don't know about you, but I have got a mind of my own!” Snap right, snap left, SNAP RIGHT.
To which I place a hand on one hip and say, “Oh yeah, suga'? That's because you don't know about the Hopi.”
And then you look at me with a semi-puzzled, semi-skeptical look on your face that says, “What the hell are you talking about, Ash?”
To which I raise a mischievous eyebrow and tell you that you'll have to wait until the end of the post to find out. Because right now, we've got some business to talk about. And that business looks a little something like Sapir + Whorf + Hypothesis + Understanding Of What That Is & How It Affects You = YOU, Exponentially More Awesome. And by that, I mean sassy little know-it-all who's busting some moves in the world.
Shall we, my dear?
A Badass Hypothesis
So Sapir. And Whorf. They were two dudes. Really intelligent dudes who studied linguistics. Just take a look at this gem of a statement that Sapir threw out there one glorious day (pay attention, this is importaaaaantttttttt):
“No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached.”
Deep. I know.
Basically, the premise is this: The language we speak affects how we view the world. It also can affect how we think or act, and asserts that all human beings do not think the same way regardless of what language they speak.
And I am just oh-so-in-love with this theory. To expand, it's the idea that the linguistic structure that we have available to us (i.e. verb forms, the order of sentences) influences our perceptions and, hence, thoughts.
For example, as humans we tend to put things, situations, ideas, people–you name it–into mental categories. Yet, these categories don't exist because they stare every observer in the face; rather, our categories are organized by our minds, and that means by the linguistic systems of our minds. Therefore, all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe.
And that's just all sorts of wild.
So, back to the Hopi. That clever bunch has two different words for “water”: One for drinking water in a container versus a natural body of water. Brilliant! To add to the envy, they also are said not to experience time in the same way that we do; to them, it is not linear out of the past, through a present and future (e.g. “Our future is ahead of us.”), but rather is a circular flow that is tied to the ever changing and returning seasons. Tell me that wouldn't lower your stress levels on your daily commute! Oh, I'm 15 minutes late? No biggie; that'll just be recycled right on back to my boss next year.
Some of you might know that I've got a master's degree in TESOL, which, in sum, is basically a master's degree in second language acquisition theory. I've had some really rad times studying the differences between Chinese & English, as I used to work with non-native English speakers, many of which were from China, entering into a local Penn State branch to help them foster greater academic language proficiency.
Two interesting things to note about the Chinese language:
1) There is no gender. Distinctions between he versus she do not exist.
2) Counterfactual statements don't exist.
For example, “If Darren from Problogger were to shut down his blog, there would be a lot of angry people.” This is counterfactual, because it isn't true. (The part about him shutting down his blog–not that the people would be angry, because they definitely would.) We're hypothesizing.
But the Chinese don't have this construction. They'd likely write this as “Darren from Problogger didn't shut down his blog; if he did, people were mad.” So what happens is that the Chinese have no way to express something that counters reality, and that is known to be false, simply for the purpose of drawing implications.
Because of this, researchers have posited that Indo-European speakers (us and everyone else with the ability to form counterfactuals) are more inclined to perform theoretical thinking, whereas the lack of it in Chinese induces a general disinclination for them doing so, which can be observed in their traditionally more practical, reality-centered approaches to scientific, social and moral questions. (Blame Alfred Bloom; he said it, not me!)
So, that's equally wild, eh?
So, I Discovered This Thing . . .
Now for my favorite part of this little discussion:
Do you know that we've now invented another language, similar to English, called “E-Prime?”
To my great disappointment, “e” does not stand for “electronic,” as one might be inclined to assume. Rather, E-Prime is short for “English Prime,” and it's a modified version of the English language which basically just kicked out any and all forms of the verb, “to be,” suggesting that the use of E-Prime leads to a less dogmatic style of language.
Essentially, the language doesn't make any absolute assertions. My homie Wikipedia states that E-Prime is also used as a mental discipline activity to filter speech and translate the speech of others.
For example, the sentence “Miller Lite is good,” translated into E-Prime, would read, “I like Miller Lite,” and communicates the subjective experience rather than judgment. This makes it a whole hell of a lot harder to confuse opinion with fact. (Are you stroking your chin with wonder and curiosity yet?)
Furthermore, passive voice is eliminated. Example: “The beer was spilt.” For all of you non-English language obsessed cool cats, that's a passive statement that pretty much takes the blame off of any one person, as if it sort of just happened. (The verb “to be” is hiding in the “was.”)
However, in E-Prime, the person who actually spilled the beer would have to suck it up and take the blame. So, in opposition, this is an active statement: “Karol from Ridiculously Extraordinary spilled the beer.” (I knew I shouldn't have entrusted him with it, him gallivanting all over the world and such.)
If this thought hasn't crossed your mind yet, imagine how useful to the American public E-Prime would be in politics.
There'd be no more, “A decision was made.” No, no, no. Someone over in that big, giant, white, massive house would have to own up to that decision. Is it reasonable to assume that this is one reason why English has become the international language of business? Just sayin'.
Spine-Tingling Implications (And The Jet)
If you've made it to this point, I'm proud. I know that English talk can get daunting, but it raises an interesting point: Does independent thinking actually exist, and to what degree?
If you can only think through a language, then doesn't that language automatically moderate that thought process? And if that's the case, then many of our thoughts could be out of our control.
But time out: What about the learning of second, third, fourth languages? What happens then? That interdependence of thought and language gets shaken up a bit, and perhaps allows us the possibility of a whole new system of conceptualization. New conceptualization = new perspectives = new thought processes = new ideas = new, more enhanced you.
That's kind of magical, actually . . . dangling additional systems of conceptualization over peoples' heads.
Is the learning of a second language a plausible first step toward the eradication of narrow-minded, closed thinking? Do I need to call Obama and see if we can make this a law?
Because, frankly, I wouldn't mind seeing a little less dogmatism, and a little more tolerance, or better–dare I say–acceptance? And then maybe for offering up such an exquisite idea, supported with the oh-so-official examples I cited here, he would consider lending me his private jet sometime. And then you know it's going down, if I'm driving Obama's jet.
Because you know in a heartbeat I'd be all like, “Yeah, so…Barack. I dunno, really. A decision was made and, the plane? Well, it was crashed, buddy.”