Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

Nearly two months ago, I wrote a long post about Phonetics and how I got into Linguistics. Well, tonight I’d like to post a followup, because I’ve just realized that my past description wasn’t entirely accurate.

There, I describe my introduction to Linguistics as largely a question of fate and terrible Russian textbooks. That is all true, but only tonight have I realized and acknowledged the secondary (and at the same time, primary) reason why I am where I am: I thought the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was true, and wanted to use it to improve life. Let me explain.

Applied Linguistic Relativity and you

I’ve discussed this idea (also referred to as ‘Linguistic Relativity’) elsewhere on this site before (view them all here), and in the interest of time (and friendliness to people who’ve not read the past posts), I’m just going to quote my past explanation posted here. I encourage you to read that full post to get a better idea of the controversy and guesswork involved in any exploration of Linguistic relativity, but for a quick summary, I’ve quoted the most explanatory parts:

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is a blanket term for the idea that the grammar and lexicon of a person’s language subtly affects their thoughts and perspectives on the world. It’s a very hotly contested issue in modern Linguistics, and although the most extreme variations (the idea that language determines your thought) have been disproved through some pretty ingenious color studies, the more subtle varieties are still supported in some senses.

If the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is true, a speaker of the Hopi language (which has a very different system of tenses than English) will perceive time in a fundamentally different way than an English speaker. Similarly, a Spanish speaker will have a slightly different view of the world than an English speaker, simply due to the underlying differences between the two languages. If this is, in fact, the case, then there are huge ramifications in Linguistics, Cognitive Science, and the world in general.

Basically, I believed that one’s language can limit one’s thought. If you don’t have a word, you don’t have a concept, and your brain is bound. I believed that language was the fundamental chain that bound us all, so insidiously that we don’t even know it.

So, if language is the fundamental chain that binds our cognition, then what can we do to escape? Well, we have two options.

One would be to raise our children without language. This would certainly remove the binds of language, but cause them to be incapable of most of human interaction. Without language of some sort, there likely wouldn’t be civilization, society, or even basic human cooperation. This would clearly be, as the American idiom goes, throwing the baby out with the bathwater (getting rid of the good parts of something simply because there’s a small imperfection).

The second option, simply put, is to change language as we know it. This was my plan.

Not ambitious at all, why?

My plan was simple: If a person’s language puts limits on their cognition, then really, all you need to do is change the language in such a way that those limits are removed. If language is a dam on the vast cognitive river, then to get more flow, you make a less restrictive dam. Thus, my love of language creation was born.

My hope was to create a language through which anything was expressible. I still have between 30 and 50 pages of hastily scribbled blueprints for my language (‘evlit’ was the working title), ranging from the philosophical needs to the grammatical needs. That little strip of light that shows up on the wall because of the slight imperfection of the fitting of the metal pieces of the fluorescent fixture in my Russian classroom my Freshman year would be just as easy and quick to describe as, say, a gray cat. Regularity would abound, simplicity would be a constant, and ease of learning would be maximized. Ideas from computer science, philosophy, and more all bounced around in my head in an effort to come up with a language that would not just function, but would set our minds free.

Perhaps this all sounds strange to you all, and I’ll admit, it was strange. However, I’d like you to imagine for a second that language was really the invisible chain that binds us all. Imagine being able to do something that not only freed a single person from bondage, not only a single community or even state, but the entire human race. I felt that if I could actually create a language which was truly “better”, more versatile, and allowed true cognitive freedom, I could truly help the entire human race.

The Russian department pushed me away, sure. Languages intrigued me, no doubt. However, that’s not really why I’m here today. When I signed up for my Intro to Linguistics class, I wanted to learn the nature of the chains, so I could cast them off, then help other people do the same.

Realization

I still vividly remember one day, around three years ago, walking back towards the department with my Intro to Linguistics professor and talking to him about language creation. I explained my ideas for creating a new, improved language, as he listened quietly. We arrived back in his office, he sat down behind his desk, and he shared an insight that has affected me to this day. He turned to me and said: “Well, all you’re going to be doing is re-encoding how things work in your mind as an English speaker, just using different sounds and grammar”.

Pop. There went my plan. One offhand comment showed me the folly of my idea. I tried to fight the realization in my own mind for a few weeks, but really, it died right there. If language does fundamentally bind my thought, how the heck could I escape it long enough to loosen the chains. If I’m bound, I won’t be able to free myself, because I literally cannot exist outside of this bondage. By the time we’re old enough to understand and use language, then we’re old enough that we’re trapped. Soon after that, I realized that really, whether or not language affects our thought is irrelevant.

As the Buddhist monk Shantideva once wrote, “If there is a problem and you are able to do something about it, why despair? And if there is a problem and you are not able to do anything about it, why despair?”. If language does, in fact, change how we think, well, we’re already bound and we can’t really escape, so there’s nothing we can do. If language doesn’t change how we think, then there’s no problem at all. Nobody’s bound, and there’s nothing we need to do. Either we’re bound, or we’re not, and we’ll never be able to tell the difference.

Even I were somehow able to create a truly better language, and even if it helped people, it would also likely result in a great linguistic genocide. Many of the remaining languages on Earth would gradually be abandoned in favor of a more useful and more powerful language, and the blood of all those grammars would be on my hands. So, I’ve realized that my goal, my dream, of changing and “improving” language to help the world is not only impossible, but probably not even a good idea. Yet, I’m still a linguist.

Now what?

Language is truly incredible. Next time you see a conversation taking place, sit back and watch. Patterns of air pressure, body language, and facial expressions are being used to express the millions of thoughts flying around inside our heads, and even more amazing, those things can be interpreted and understood by other people. The fact that we have a means of communication at all, let alone one so full of nuance and beauty, is simply miraculous.

I might have come to Linguistics because I wanted to improve language, and because I thought I could use it to help the world. The reason I’m still here is because I’ve realized that human language is not only sufficient for what we need, it’s truly miraculous. This may sound corny, but I am captivated by the complexity, the grace, and the sheer pragmatic beauty of grammar, sound, and the cognition required to get it there.

Nobody knows exactly where language came from, or when it developed. Heck, nobody knows exactly how language works in our minds, how we learn it, and how we understand it. We have described elements of it, have made lots of theories, and we’ve even made some progress on understanding how we go about making language. However, there are still many mysteries out there.

I might not set the world free with a single word, but language is a fundamental aspect of our everyday lives, if not the fundamental aspect. By studying language and the mysteries involved, I’m studying not only grammar, sound, or cognition, but human life itself.

If that’s not important, what is?


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