Monday, July 26, 2010

Language as human nature

Languages, of course, are human creations, tools we invent and hone to suit our needs. Simply showing that speakers of different languages think differently doesn't tell us whether it's language that shapes thought or the other way around. To demonstrate the causal role of language, what's needed are studies that directly manipulate language and look for effects in cognition.  Lera Boroditsky in WSJ
This story in the Wall Street Journal was the most tweeted story of the past weekend. Nothing surprising there, the relationship of language to thought, lexis to logos, has long been investigated and reflected upon and is probably fundamental to our experience of the world. The discipline of philology seems relevant here, and reading seems highly relevant to philology. That is to say, when we read (especially if, along with Nietzsche, we read slowly), we make the effort to apprehend the sense of words, the play of figures, the relations of characters, the structure of the narrative, the allusions and debts owed to previous texts, i.e., tradition. We call upon our knowledge of grammar as well as of rhetoric, logic, history and culture. In Horace's "Epistle to the Pisos," the line between a strictly textual property, such as meter, and an extra-textual realm, such as the growing power and complexity of the Roman state, is not merely thin, but becomes a membrane in which the music of the Carmen and the manners of society are interrelated parts of some larger whole.

All of which is just to say we happily tweet about our metaphors, our languages, and our world, but to get beyond received ideas about such subjects takes some care, some reading, and some time. When Prof. Boroditsky writes:
Language is a uniquely human gift. When we study language, we are uncovering in part what makes us human, getting a peek at the very nature of human nature.
we nod in assent, but we also should continue to ask: if language is part of what makes us human, what is the proper way for we humans to "study language"? We can remark on different patterns, and linguistic structures found in diverse tongues, and make inferences about how different native speakers experience the world differently. That begs the question of translation, the carrying over of meaning from one tongue to another, which begs in turn the more basic question of meaning, its provenance, nature, action, and relation to what is real. One thing's clear: there's far more to language, and to human nature, than time sequencing and the direction one writes in. For some far-reaching aspects of language we literally may have no words.

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