Linguistic Relativity and Me

02 June 2013

A very interesting article by Lera Boroditsky on how language shapes the way we think.

The Pormpuraaw people in Australia express spatial relations in terms of east, west, north, south instead of right, left, up, down; They have to stay oriented all time, otherwise they have no way to express themselves. Incidentally they are also great experts at navigating in unknown terrain; simply no match to most of us in this regard.

The quoted article asks if this a property of culture or a trait of the language? I gather from the article that it works both ways, although that the influence is limited;

Here are my personal observations: I am a native speaker of German and my job is that of a computer programmer. I think that the German language trains me at understanding long wound sentences ; and that such a skill is of benefit to my work.

I often have to fix errors and adapt an existing program to changing requirements. This means that I have to read and understand existing programs more often than I have to write new ones. I think that the process of reading a program is similar to the process of parsing a very complicated sentence.

It is sometimes not easy to understand sentences with a complex structure of subordinate phrases. The first task is to listen patiently and to analyze how the sentence unfolds; keep listen patiently until one hears a closing Verb; next task is to work in the reverse direction from the end of the sentence back to the start. Only during this reverse movement one can reconstruct the meaning of what has been said.

Reading programs:

The very first step is to understand the new system in terms of its input and its output; If it communicates with the network then what are the details of the communication protocol that is used? If it is a program that interacts with the users, then what entities are manipulated by the user? A system interacts with its environment in many ways; what are the main, most often used scenaria that characterise the system?

The next step is to understand the big picture: this means the breakup of the system into modules and sub systems; a module contains source text that it intended to implement related functionality within a program. For this stage one needs to apply some knowledge of software engineering and lots of practical experience in the field. During this stage we search for common metaphors and idioms: how is memory managed? How are events logged within the system? How are networking events handled ? What paradigms of multiprocessing/multi-threading are being used?

Once this is understood, search for the main entry point: How does the request, the external stimulus enter the system ? Also a program has to manipulate data: what are the data structures that represent the request within the system ?

Once all this is understood, read the code and mentally work through the sequence of steps that are executed as the request is being processed; All this continues our attempt to understand the main use cases / the main scenaria that need to be understood. While doing so search for additional clues; It sometimes helps to look at both the source code and at the logs that were produced by the system. At this stage we are actually reading the code of functions and objects that make up the program. A function often contains many nested conditional statements (if a then if b then if c else else else). Here we have our complex phrase structure; again we have to wait for the many partial statements, until there is a Verb; the action here most often is a function call that is supposed to implement a different aspect of the system.

Often one has to work backwards: a new detail that is discovered adds clues that clarify the previous layers. It also may happen that one needs to return to a previous stage in this process, new data can often revise prior assumptions.

It is here, I think, that a habit of backtracking, that has been trained by the habit of parsing long wound sentences, is of rather great benefit. (The last sentence is also supposed to be a pun on the whole argument ;-)

On the other hand it is impossible to know if all this was all that important. What was more important: some training in the parsing of long wound sentences or certain other non-functional aspects of my career? I have been working mostly for well established companies, these companies have a priority to maintain existing systems. Programmers who work for start-ups need to write new code more often than me.

More on Long wound sentences

The German Wikipedia entry says that the practice of using a complex word structures has been in lesser use since the 20ieth century; funny that this observation so far did not make it into the English Wikipedia article, it might be that outside observers find it harder to notice such a tendency for simplification.

I can only speculate as to why this habit of expression has been flourishing in the first place.

Maybe the Buerger of the 19th century where eager to ascertain themselves as being better than the aristocracy; They made a point of standing on higher ground than those who held the real political power throughout the 19th century. One of the ways to do so was Education/Bildung . It might be that complex language was a tool in the political struggle of the day. Thomas Mann , the writer of the Bildungsbuerger incidentally made a lot of use of this style. On the other hand this style is much older, some of the most convoluted sentences ever were written in the 18th century by Kant, so go figure.

Does it also show a certain pretentiousness of the speaker? Does it mark the desire of the speaker to stress his personal distinction by making his own knowledge less accessible to others?

Or is this a clever ruse of packaging; is it a trick that forces the listener to invest more into the parsing of a sentence; maybe the plan is to create additional involvement, to trick the listener into investing more effort at understand the message of what has been said?

What is real reason here? I haven’t the foggiest idea.

The choice of style still remains the individual choice of an author, for that matter one can choose to talk in simple ways, or one can talk like the character Owl in Winnie the Pooh.

How much does it all matter?

I can understand that language creates habits of expression; it also forms common idioms that are understood by a wider audience. Works of art are often based on allusions that have to be understood by a wider audience. Probably all public communications is making assumptions as to what can be understood by the intended audience.

But I wonder: does this common system of associations predetermine the thoughts and mental associations of an individual ? Do the conventions of the common language place limits on what can be thought ?

I would argue that besides the public language many individuals are forming their own private language of idioms over the course of their lifetime. A system of mental associations is a language - any system of signs is a language. This private customized language serves us well, is it also sometimes shared among a close circle of associates.

As a student of mathematics I noticed that the material of a course was only understood when I could create at least some basic analogies between mathematical concepts and my realm of experience. Now I think that these analogies together were forming my own private language, this language was extending the limits of thought for me. (Well, I wasn’t a big success as a student mathematics, but still…)

I would argue that the ability to create a private system/language of associations creates a huge degree of freedom for an individual. I think that on an individual level the Saphir Worf conjecture is certainly false.

Also from the quoted article:

How do we know that it is language itself that creates these differences in thought and not some other aspect of their respective cultures? One way to answer this question is to teach people new ways of talking and see if that changes the way they think. In our lab, we've taught English speakers different ways of talking about time. In one such study, English speakers were taught to use size metaphors (as in Greek) to describe duration (e.g., a movie is larger than a sneeze), or vertical metaphors (as in Mandarin) to describe event order. Once the English speakers had learned to talk about time in these new ways, their cognitive performance began to resemble that of Greek or Mandarin speakers. This suggests that patterns in a language can indeed play a causal role in constructing how we think

For the purpose of the test people did adjust their own personal language to the test requirements;

Since of the private nature of the personal language of associations, it is an impossible subject of study. However there are many questions that are impossible to study; a similar such question is ‘to what extend does the placebo effect help on an individual level’. Maybe its also good that this subject cannot be studied. Those who are looking at a person from a position of power will never have this tool of knowledge at their command. The benefit of doubt is a good thing.

The sinister politics of Linguistic relativity

Somehow the concept of Linguistic relativity has had some strong political implications:

Source here

Von Humboldt argued that languages with an inflectional morphological type, such as German, English and the other Indo-European languages were the most perfect languages and that accordingly this explained the dominance of their speakers over the speakers of less perfect languages.

Here it is: all languages are equal, but some languages are more equal than others; and this notion is invented exactly during an age of colonial expansion. Each age gets the thought that it needs.

The notion that thought is shaped by language is also a bit totalitarian, as it does not allow for alternatives. Welcome to the language of totalitarian propaganda; Both the Nazis and Soviet power regarded their respective language of propaganda as a source of power. The Nazi language of propaganda has been analyzed by Victor Klemperer in LTI – Lingua Tertii Imperii: Notizbuch eines Philologen - also see this lexicon of the Nazi propaganda language based on this work. I think that the Soviet language of propaganda has been an inspiration to Orwell’s Newspeak

Heidegger is often quoted in the context of Linguistic Relativity, well the man was a prominent Nazi and might have had some influence on the formation of the Lingua Tertii Imperii .

I would also like quote an interesting opinion by Baldur Bjarnason

Linguistic relativism is the equivalent of staring down the barrel of a gun while ignore the person whose finger is on the trigger. Language, linguistic dominance, are the cannons of cultural warfare. Without a language, a culture is defenseless. The linguistic relativists might be right in all of their observations, but they are simply staring at the bullet and mistaking it for the lock, stock, barrel and sniper all rolled into one convenient lump of lead. Language is wielded, formed—your arms and armour. It kills. Just ask the Welsh, Kenyans, Native Americans or South-American Natives. Linguistic relativism is a nice idea to those who belong to a dominant, still imperialistic culture (and this applies to the English, Japanese, Koreans and Germans, all cultures that are strong and on the offensive in the war of globalisation). But there is nothing relative about a bullet in the head. Or fighting for the survival of your nation and culture. The odds are stacked against us, in your favour.

Therefore beware, beware of the Linguists;

Or rather beware of the philosophers of language that is.