Wednesday, July 21, 2021

On Language… Yet Again

I have a thought which I want to convey to my Dutch husband. English is my language of choice, but then he asks me to write my thought in Dutch. I grew up in Holland, so you would think it wouldn't be such a difficult task. I find myself grappling for words, trying to construct logical sentences that mirrors what I think. I feel like an arthritic contortionist. It doesn't meet my expectations but that's the best I can do. 'I could say this a lot better in English, you know' I tell him.

But is language in general the best conduit for the multi-dimensionality of our mental world? I have to transpose something that is happening on multiple levels into one linear dimension. A thought is not just verbal, it has colors, a shape, a smell, a taste, speed and much more.

Wouldn’t it be truer to reality if we had a means of communication that includes all these dimensions in one package? I know what you are going to say: ‘that’s why we have art, music, dance, mathematics, etc.’ But aren’t those also limited by their own range? Can I do justice to quantum mechanics when I express it in music? Can I express the beauty of a sunrise using mathematics?

Couldn’t all these forms of expression be rolled into one super-language. This reminds me of ‘More than Human’, a science fiction story by Theodore Sturgeon. Even though Sturgeon’s story is about several ‘freaks’ (with telepathic, telekinetic and superhuman intelligence) that join forces to create a ‘Gestalt’, i.e. the next evolutionary step in mankind, it wouldn’t be too farfetched to artificially create a ‘language’ that would do more justice to our multi-dimensional ability to form thoughts.

On the other hand, although language might not be the best tool to replicate our ‘mentalese’ as cognitive scientists like to call it, it does have the advantage of sifting out unnecessary and redundant information. It wouldn’t be practical, I don’t think, if we had a form of communication that mirrors every single aspect of what we are thinking. It would resemble a ‘stream of consciousness’ scenario, to the point where nobody would make head or tail out of what is being said. Although famous writers have used ‘stream of consciousness’ in their writing superbly, to mere mortals like the rest of us, it would be like stepping into a mud-hole. *

If I use the sentence: 'Jean is going to be a grandmother soon', it gives you a lot more information than just those few words. It tells you that Jean has at least one child, that that child is pregnant, that she is going to have a baby, that Jean is a woman and that the birth is not too far in the future. So, language not only conveys thoughts, it also functions as a prism. It reflects light from many different directions. That only can happen because we have all agreed on the meaning of these arbitrary collections of sounds. A pretty nifty invention if you ask me.

Language is a natural bi-product of what scientists call the 'cognitive niche', which is the ability to ‘anticipate’, so that you can defeat the fixed defenses of other organisms. If we didn’t have language we wouldn’t be able to take advantage of our intelligence and our niche wouldn’t be a niche at all, it would be a snare. Language allows you to transfer information very cheaply: if I teach you how to fish, it doesn’t mean that I give up any of the fish I have caught. I duplicate what I have, the knowledge of fishing, at no cost to me. It helps us survive as a species.

What is interesting is that we have so many languages, like different breeds of dogs, and where a language really thrives is at the point where it meets another language. That’s where mixed breeds get created. If a language is too isolated, either by natural causes or artificially (like the Academie Française is trying to do with French), it atrophies.

English, on the other hand, took from Welsh, Danish and French as well as Latin and Greek and became the super-mutt of languages. No wonder it is the dominant language in the world.

With all the different languages I grew up with: Hungarian, French, Dutch and now English, you now know why my Dutch husband has to put up with my choice of language.  leave comment here

*Here is an example written by Virginia Wolf: ‘She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day. Not that she thought herself clever, or much out of the ordinary. How she had got through life on the few twigs of knowledge Fraulein Daniels gave them she could not think. She knew nothing; no language, no history; she scarcely read a book now, except memoirs in bed; and yet to her it was absolutely absorbing; all this; the cabs passing; and she would not say of Peter, she would not say of herself, I am this, I am that.’