Language, Thought and Ideas


For some reason I woke up this morning thinking about how language makes it difficult to discuss aspects of the world that we do not really understand (re – yesterdays rant about climate…). This brought to mind the work of an American linguist, Benjamin Lee Whorf in the early days of the last century. If I remember this correctly, and right now I am too lazy to check my library or query the web on this topic, he was studying native american languages.

In English we can talk about the past and future with equal certainty. In some of the languages he studied, only the past was certain — the future had linguistic aspects of ‘hope’ and ‘expect’, expressions of uncertainty that can only be inserted in English discourse through circumlocution. This provides, I suspect, the illusion that we have more control or insight into what is going to happen than reality would probably support. We need somehow to differentiate between what has happened, what we expect to happen and what we wish/fear will happen — as we walk further and further out on the projected locii of future events.

Whorfs’ idea was that language is not only the tool of thought but in many ways frames and determines what we can think about. If we have many words discriminating between different types of snow, for example, we may see (and think about) the winter landscape in very different ways than just the four letter word commonly used. (I wonder how many international problems could spring from mismatches between the differing world views and conceptual frameworks of the protagonists?)

Being difficult, one might choose to extend this to encompass degrees of certitude about our knowledge — what we know, what we know we don’t know and what we don’t know that we don’t know. And of course what we know that is in fact wrong… but I digress.

The problem with so many of these debates is the way truth and fiction become tangled up — climate change being one of many. Linguistically we just cannot discriminate between what we know, what we don’t know and our expectations/hopes/fears about how this imperfect set of information will change as we move from now into the future. (This is ignoring those datums that fall into the know but wrong/inconvenient that are either surpressed or featured depending upon which axe we are grinding…).

So I guess as a species we will continue to blunder our way into the future, reaffirming with every day of survival ‘the true miracle is that anything works at all’. I wonder if this will ever change?

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