Last modified: 7:58 AM Saturday, 14 January 2017

“He who should know the history of languages, should know the whole of history.”

Will Durant, The Age of Faith

Non nova sed novae

Not new things, but new ways

This article impresses me as a tremendously important contribution to linguistic theory. In it, Lera Boroditsky sets out to prove what I and many others have long suspected but for which experimental evidence was lacking: Language does not merely reflect our thoughts, but mediates our very perceptions — and sets bounds for them. This has several practical implications.

Lera Boroditsky

Lera Boroditsky offers a new perspective on
comparative linguistics.
[ Image Source ]

To learn a new language — particularly if it differs widely from your native tongue — represents not merely the acquisition of an alternative “code” for familiar ideas and ways of perceiving our environment, but inculcates an entire additional system by which to classify and interpret it. We see this most dramatically in the case of the Kuuk Thaayorre aboriginals of Australia, whose language forces them to remain perpetually oriented in space because directional references are absolute (north/south/east/west) rather than relative (left/right/forward/backward), even when referring, for example, to parts of the speaker’s body.

This, in turn, lends new meaning to the truism, “Travel is broadening.” If Boroditsky is correct, it not only adds to one’s store of knowledge but also contributes (assuming that one learns something of the languages of the places to which one travels) to one’s cognitive range: One is compelled to take note of elements not germane to one’s own language and thereby to understand the world in fundamentally new ways. It is almost comparable to being given mental access to an alien dimensional continuum in which, for example, one can see three dimensions of time and one of space.

However, the power of language has a darker aspect as well.

Within any linguistic system, thought is bounded by the terms that one can use to define it. Thus, a person not lacking, in principle, the intellectual capacity to understand a complex abstract concept may be, in practice, unable to grasp it solely because his vocabulary lacks the words necessary to make sense of it. If, for example, one has no meaningful terms for such principles as freedom or equality, any attempt to think of them will be futile.

This has become a worry thanks to the insidious and often malevolent denaturing of language by advertisers, politicians and public relations specialists, who have become expert at what they call “framing.” This denotes a quasi-behaviorist attempt to condition the public to associate a given word with an essentially unrelated concept, to alter the meaning of words to conform with the thought patterns that they wish to induce, to rule certain words out of acceptable public discourse or — in the case of some of the politically pathocratic — to reduce the public’s working vocabulary to such a point that it will lack the mental tools to perceive its gradual enslavement or to understand the warnings offered by those who do perceive.

Once people have lost the words, the ideas follow. And when people can no longer correctly apprehend the ideas, it is not hard to manipulate them to resent what they cannot understand, and to condemn as elitists the prospective allies who might otherwise work with them to build a healthier and more democratic society. This unsavory technique has been very helpful to pathocratic ruling elites in retaining power with the misguided connivance of those whom they most oppress, and in the U.S. and other nominal democracies actually controlled by oligarchies, it points the way to grim dystopia.

Originally published as a review of an article on comparative linguistics.

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