Monday, June 23, 2008

Language and thinking

Last week I had to travel by plane, going from one time zone to another that was 2 hours earlier, and then back home, so I had the curious sensation of time dilation where 3 hours converted themselves into 5 hours. Funny if you think about it, but if you apply relativistic considerations to my flight I can actually be dilating the time slightly more, but the effect would be probable imperceptible to my mind ,but not unmeasurable, so interestingly even if it doesn't exist in my consciousness, it still exists in reality. As always, depending on your basal philosophy you could say that the difference is only made when you actually measure it, or you could say that even the non measured events exist...but I don't really want to go that direction today.
Most of the times that we consider the relativistic events we don't realize that as much as we would like it not to happen, this is actually one of the factors that is keeping us from contacting alien cultures. Yes, that means extraterrestrial cultures, not cultures outside the united states...and I will use this nice segue to go towards the topic of philosophical language differences affecting our capacities to transmit the content of our thought to other peoples.
One interesting difference is that for example in Spanish you would NEVER have any confusion in between an alien (extraterrestrial) and an alien (foreigner). You can always say that there are synonyms that you could use and that would take away the confusion, and that is right, but the fact is that the meaning that can cause the confusion exist in the language can tell us something about the culture behind it.
Is this cultural factor taken for granted when I communicate with somebody else in English? The problem is that if you are a native speaker you may never see this factor coming and it could shape the way you think, even if you are trying to have an adequate mechanism of thinking. Everybody always refers to the fact that if you just use logical phrases you can avoid this, and there are people that have tried to make a language where due to the structure of the language you can't actually tell lies or make illogical statements, but you have to realize that our rate of success with the introduction of made up languages is pretty bad. Esperanto is probably as know today as the language of the Klingon, and I am almost sure that "Klingonian" is probably being taken care of better than Esperanto...whatever that can signify of our priorities as a culture.
Another thought that crossed my mind while I was writing this is that we could use the changes of a language over time to track the changes of thought pathways of the population that uses it. I am sure that this must not be an original ideal (remember, there is nothing new under the sun!). But I am always a little bit more Machiavellian...what if we could use this the other way around. What if we could have a group of peoples that are introducing a change in our language use with the purpose of changing our perception of reality. Again, you could say this is not that original, as in 1984 they had double speak and the restriction of language to force the population to obey and restrict the pattern of new ideas possible. But I think that Gene Wolfe in the Book of the New sun demonstrated brilliantly that even with a small range of expression, only by varying the context of a phrase, you can express many more ideas than what you would expect, something the author of 1984 didn't consider. See the part when they interact with a member of the "enemy" culture that is indoctrinated to only talk with phrases taken from a "sacred" book. The implementation by Wolfe is so astute, that I was floored the first time I saw it in action (read it in action?)
No, what I am going for is the idea of slowly modifying some impressions of the reality only by changing the perception of some words/groups of words. One example would be, if I may be ironic for a moment, the transformation of "alien" and "foreigners " into a dirty word. Only leaving another more difficult word or expression like "non X-country citizens" as the acceptable word usage. You could have a group of people respond to every usage of the word in printed/verbal/electronic media respond to an appearance of these words in a very negative fashion. After a couple of months/years, you could see the transference of the negative connotation to the actual alien people.
This phenomenon may sound familiar to you, as it did to me the first time I thought about it. Yes, it could be a sociological use of the politically correct language. The fact that words like blind, dumb, mute are becoming non-PC could also alter the perception that people have about this minorities. I am not sure if the people that decided to use this reductionist language were doing it with this purpose, but it has a good likelihood of doing this, even if it's not intended. Think about the "N" word, that I can't even put in my blog unless I want to become a target of all the hate mail of half of the country. The fact that we construed that word into a "bad" word carries the underlying effect of demonizing the word, and by verbal/mental correlation, making the people to whom you may apply this word carry a negative connotation that they don't deserve at all.
Now think all the subconscious messages that our words carry. Obviously some of them are due to forces of society that we all construe to (i am happy that calling somebody a Klansman is derogative). Notwithstanding that, the fact is that a lot of those messages are not very nice. What if there is a group of people that actually is voluntarily doing this. I understand that the general forces of society can't be reliably fought, but what about focused groups of people. Should we have a group for preventing the subversion of the meaning of words?
You may think that this is just conspiracy theorizing at its best, but I can see very nice commercial applications of this concept. I am sure that at this time the ad industry is using this concept, although it may still be more in a correlational stage instead of in a change of meaning stage. What I mean with this is that the industry right now wants us to correlate their products with a particular word that denotes or implies a concept. Think Apple products or IBM and its "think" motto. That is an obvious correlation of word to the product. But can they change the meaning of the words not to facilitate the selling of their product but to make our thinking patterns more accessible to buying them? If that is possible, and I think it is, the potential for abuse is huge, as we would NOT be able to combat it with rational thought, because it would be integrated in the modus operandi of our brains and as multiple persons that study reasoning have said, you can't really use the tool to detect the defects of the tool.
After all this digression, then I actually found a point to come back to my argument of being a multiple language user and the fact that this alters my perceptions or my thought patterns. Unless the Machiavellian group modifies multiple language at the same time (that would take serious money/manpower) then somebody that uses more than one language can actually detect this pattern of change and could actually contrarrest these modifications, by noting the slight discord between the intrinsic meaning of a word/concept in different languages.
So yeah, that is another good argument for having us aliens (not the extraterrestrial ones!) here to help...mmm...maybe I have something here...the protector of English language...Pedro Perez and Wi Xiang Fong...
Well, it's time to think another thought


Brian Barker said...

Did you know that Esperanto has been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature, through the Icelandic poet Baldur Ragnarsson.

Probably not.

Because there is so much ignorance about Esperanto, and the fact that it is now a living language, can I ask you to check

Yannis said...

Thanks for the information Brian. I also know that Esperanto is used by less than 0.03% of the world population, and it's the native language of approximately a thousand people. It may be a live language, but sadly it's not as diffusely used as we could wish.
I was not discussing the intrinsic value of Esperanto compared to other constructed languages, but the relative importance in our modern society. I can't rationaly conclude if it's good or bad that Esperanto and Klingonian or other literature based languages(Tolkien based, Toki, etc) have proliferated in a similar magnitude as it is a matter of decision for social developers, not a thinking structure issue.
And I assure you that the Nobel nomination is not due to the use of Esperanto, but due to the quality of his poetry, that he has published both in Esperanto and in Icelandic, even though he was nominated by the Association of Esperanto Speaking authors. You are making a thinking error of conflating association with causality. If he had decided to translate his poetry to Klingonian, it would not take any of the quality of his work from it, just as Saramago's works are still great in English, Portuguese or Spanish.