Method of human communication

Language is defined by the Oxford dictionary as "the method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way", if we look at this definition we observe that it treats language as a mere container where we fill in ideas using words in a certain way so as to make it understandable to other people speaking the same language. During our lectures of Media, Culture and Mind we have discovered many more facets and hues of language and this definition seems to be a fallacy now, however in early days when the interplay between language and its speaker wasn't at all clear many interesting theories were floated around which treated it in much the same way as we see in this inanimate kind of definition. Over the years many linguists have tried to capture the essence of language in a strict definition, the theories put forward have been varied thus providing contrasting opinions. The motivation for this task emanates form the fact this would help make us understand different cultures around the world in a better way and hence facilitate for a peaceful coexistence.

One such attempt to describe language was made by Ferdinand de Saussure at the beginning of the twentieth century, he said that language is a system of signs that express ideas, it is a social product, the social side of speech being beyond the control of the speaker, he believed that language is not a function of the speaker, but is passively assimilated. This theory is able to explain many aspects but it projects language as a lifeless object which just exists so as to carry out a function, it is shown to be something which is totally separated from its speaker and thus not having a profound effect on its users. This also doesn't consider how different cultures having their own language influence their life or change their perception.

Other such theory which made an attempt to reveal the relation between humans and the language they speak was by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf called The Linguistic relativity Principle also known as Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. In this theory it was proposed that language not only influences the way we think but also colors our perception of the world around us that is to say speakers of different languages live in different worlds, as language plays a dominant role in helping a person perceive the world around him. This theory is subject to interpretation and can be looked at in two different ways, this has given birth to two different schools of thought, there is the so called stronger version of the theory which says language entirely determines thought and on the contrary there is this weaker version which suggests that language does not determine thought but could facilitate of inhibit it.

When we started discussing this theory in our group we were split into two ideologies while Dwianto and I believed that the weaker version made more sense and was closer to the reality, Rumana thought that stronger version had more weight. My beliefs were rooted in the fact that if language could totally influence the way we thought then it would be hard to explain how people coming from same culture and speaking the same tongue could be so different in opinions and their outlook. Language entirely governing thought would be seriously detrimental for the diversity of a culture and it is a well known fact that without diversity a culture disintegrates. I can readily relate to these facts coming from a diverse culture like India, where even though we have at least twenty prominently spoken languages we still are essentially a unified nation which would have been unnatural and thus non existent had the languages totally made people think in a certain way, then people would taken there separate paths and our country as it exists today would never have been possible. As discussed in many lectures I think that although languages predisposes us to make certain choice it does not make those decisions for us. It we recall the example for Eskimos who have eight different words to describe snow, this is important for them as snow has a huge role to play in their lives and each word captures a different meaning, quite understandably people living in warm regions don't have many words to express the state of snow as they don't have the need for it. However, if such a person were to go to live with the Eskimos he could definitely learn the expression and thus be able to perceive differences which earlier did not matter to him. It can be argued that language acts a tool in certain cases to carry out a task but we could easily switch the tools and choose a more fitting one for the task at hand. Dwianto also thought that weaker version is the way to go, he believed that language is a imprint of the culture where it flourishes and thus acts as a medium to unify people but at the same time it allows them enough freedom to be different in there own ways. We both had the opinion that language constructs reality and predisposes our interpretation but it does not limit our thinking and perception, its like a platform which gives us a start but then we are free to make educated and thoughtful choices. Rumana however stuck to her stance on this theory and supported the stronger version, according to her since language is like a pair of glasses through which we see the world hence the choice of glasses can make all the difference, she explained her stance by saying that a person who is not aware of a certain phenomena expressed only in a certain language cant experience the phenomena at all. This to some extent is true and can be seen in the following extract from Chapter IX of the book Language - An Introduction to the Study of Speech by Edward Sapir "The simplest kind of influence that one language may exert on another is the "borrowing" of words. When there is cultural borrowing there is always the likelihood that the associated words may be borrowed too. When the early Germanic peoples of northern Europe first learned of wine-culture and of paved streets from their commercial or warlike contact with the Romans, it was only natural that they should adopt the Latin words for the strange beverage (vinum, English wine, German Wein) and the unfamiliar type of road (strata [via], English street, German Strasse). Later, when Christianity was introduced into England, a number of associated words, such as bishop and angel, found their way into English." this shows how over the centuries languages have borrowed words from each other to explain things which were tedious in a certain language and this is essentially what Rumana wanted to say. But if we look a bit closer we would find that even if we are unable to express certain feelings it doesn't mean that we don't have them at all, like the famous English poet William Cowper said "Absence of proof is not proof of absence." we can still understand things which our language is incapable of expressing.

If we look at experiments and factual evidence to form an educated opinion there is enough proof that suggests weaker version of Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis to be the more accurate one. There have been studies to find whether humans live in the object world alone and these have indicated that language plays a central and predominant part in shaping the world around us. In her paper on Linguistic Relativity, Lera Boroditsky mentions experiments carried on speakers of different language do show that they are more inclined to make certain choices than others because of the way they describe things. These tests showed that the way in which we represent a thought can be significantly altered by the choice of language and different language can fill in details which were insignificant for others. One such test was done involving English and Korean speakers, English doesn't distinguish between the spatial relation between the objects as Korean does and the tests reasserted these facts thus proving that choice made by an individual depends upon the spatial distinction made by the language. Similar results were also confirmed when Dutch and Tzeltal speakers were tested for spatial arrangement of objects, the choices made by Dutch speakers who use a relative coordinate system to identify placement of objects were quite contrasting to the choices made by Tzeltal speakers who use an absolute system in choices where such distinctions mattered. Such results have also been observed when Chinese and English speakers talk about time, the Chinese people have an vertical view of time compared to the horizontal view which English speakers have, in certain tasks related to explore these differences the Chinese performed better while in other ones English speakers did better, but at the same time it was also noted that if vertical view of time was taught to English speakers there performance showed a marked improvement thus indicating a strong chance of validity of the weaker version of Linguistic Relativity hypothesis - languages influences thought but does not determine it.

To further explore this area if were to assume that humans live in the object world alone and the language plays hardly any role in our thinking then we would find contrasting evidence which totally refutes our assumption, this would fail to explain how mutes who can not speak have thoughts similar to what others have even though they cant use the language to express themselves, this could not have been possible had they did not use the language at all for there cognition. Language in-fact has been described like a virus by Terrence Deacon, according to him it is like a cultural phenomenon which has evolved neither inside or outside the brain but at the very interface where culturally evolved processes have had an effect on biologically evolved ones. If language has no interplay with our thoughts then there would have not been cases of people who suffer from brain damage and are unable to speak while there are others who can speak but cant think and hence don't make sense while speaking.

All these facts indicate towards the fact that indeed language and thought are related and it shapes our reality but how exactly does this work is a point of much debate and research. This is clearly captured in an extract from the article by Lera Boroditsky "results show that linguistic processes are pervasive in most fundamental domains of thought, unconsciously shaping us from the nuts and bolts of cognition and perception to our loftiest abstract notions and major life decisions. Language is central to our experience of being human, and the languages we speak profoundly shape the way we think, the way we see the world, the way we live our lives.". Its hard to pinpoint how much say does a language has on a person's thought process as our though patters are influenced by many varied factors but it would be safe to assert that a distinct relation exists. If we were to live in the object world alone then this would have made the existence of fiction redundant, we see the world through our thoughts and hence fiction is very important part of us being human it not only gives us hope, courage and inspiration is lets us experience a varied spectrum of feelings without them actually taking place. Had our existence only been in the object world we would have never needed such emotional avenues to express ourselves, its the capability of humans to experience more than one emotion at a time that separates us from other species if we were to only perceive the objects which are in front of us then this would have made us like robots and inanimate beings who cant think beyond there surroundings, the concept of vision and foresight emanates from the fact that we can see what is not there and its the language that equips us with the means to accomplish such feats, we don't necessarily need an impulse to think, thoughts can flow on there own this separates us from machines. Humans as a species have been able evolve, grow and flourish because of our imagination and this is what is expressed in our society as fiction. Emotionally being hollow leads to our decline and extinguishes our soul.

Concluding this interesting discussion I would like to add that although we cant express what is it like to have an emotion we can certainly convey our feelings using language, this understating of each other makes us human and brings us closer. The absence of a medium of communication or compromising the efficiency of communication can well be imagined by picturing ourselves in a country whose language we don't at all speak or trying to communicate with an animal, in both situations although we understand each other to a certain extent and are able to comfort each other, still it leaves us emotionally wanting and frustrated to be not able to reach out to someone because of absence of a communication medium. Hence humans don't live in object world alone but are very much a part of an imaginative world constructed and colored in their minds by the use of a concept which we call Language.

References

  • Boroditsky, L. (n.d.). Edge: HOW DOES OUR LANGUAGE SHAPE THE WAY WE THINK? By Lera Boroditsky. EDGE. Retrieved December 24, 2009, from http://edge.org/3rd_culture/boroditsky09/boroditsky09_index.html
  • Boroditsky, L. (n.d.). Linguistic Relativity. ECS, 0657, 1-6.
  • Faccone, C., Kearns, R., Kopp, A., & Watson, E. (n.d.). The Effects of Thought on Language. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Retrieved December 24, 2009, from http://www.unc.edu/~jdumas/projects/languagethought.htm
  • Sapir, E. (1921). Language, an introduction to the study of speech 1921 Edition. New York: Harcourt.
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