Language and thought


I suppose that any means of communication can be regarded as language. Some forms of language can however convey meaning with greater precision than others. Waving a pint mug in the air probably means that you want a refill.  We can convey our emotions with looks.  It is unlikely, however that such gestures can convey the intricacies of relativity theory.  Words, or symbols, are necessary for anything complicated.

But philosophers have argued that our thinking is constrained by our language.  To a certain extent this is true.  I understand that the Inuit have 30 odd words for snow and its conditions, whereas we only have one.  We cannot easily therefore describe the snow lying on the pavements in the Midlands with great accuracy.  Equally, it seems that the Japanese have more words for shades of blue than Westerners do - and they are better at discriminating between those shades than we are.  Which is cause and which effect is not easy to determine.

However a number of philosophers go further (Wittgenstein et al).  They say that whatever we say is unreliable as our culture produces sub-layers of meaning which seriously constrain the extent to which we can express the truth. Of course there is an obvious counter to this - if what we say is unreliable to such a significant extent, then the proposition that it is unreliable is itself unreliable and so we have a paradox - a sure sign in philosophy that something has gone wrong.

Undoubtedly, however, culture does affect the meaning of words.  Take the word slave'.  To us it carries with it all the feelings we associate with a heinous crime.  To our forebears in the 18th century it was simply good business. Slaves were less than human.

If, however, language determines how we think then the differences which exist between different languages should coincide with different ways of thinking about things.  And so they do, but only to a minor extent in my experience.  These differences derive mainly from the history or culture of the people speaking the language. Phrases in current use may allude to that history or culture to give an extra layer of meaning which a foreigner would perhaps not pick up on.  But I am able to carry on a perfectly lucid conversation with a French person even though I may not be fully aware of the history of France and have only a passing knowledge of the life and times of that French rock icon Johnny Hallyday.  Having listened to French politicians, however, although their language is often more flowery than that of their English brethren, they still say just as little of any substance!

Despite all the language differences, though, scientists of different nationalities manage to work together efficiently and agree on the results of experiments and the reliability of theories.  The differences in the ways we think therefore cannot be all that great.

It should also be noted that although there are differences between us and people speaking foreign languages, it is equally clear that there are differences between the way that one generation of Brits will understand words as compared to another.  I was brought up on a diet of the Home Service and the references and connections I make when I speak are undoubtedly affected by it.  Equally, I am very familiar with the Bible and have seen many of Shakespeare's plays many times over.  Certain phrases which come to mind derive from this background and, for me, carry the additional layer of meaning which their origin gives them. I have never found, however, that this is any significant obstacle to communicating with someone without such a background.

I cannot therefore believe that language creates such an all-pervasive distortion of the truth. It is simply not feasible.  If nothing else, evolutionary pressure would surely by now have altered things for us - if we cannot describe the world around us to others with reasonable accuracy, then we put ourselves at a major evolutionary disadvantage.  We need to communicate what is going on around us, so that those around us can react accordingly and, for example, save themselves from danger.

Words are slippery creatures, however, and lawyers have, for millennia, made a living by creating documents which were as free from ambiguity as possible.  As philosophers we should be no less careful in weighing the meaning of our words and phrases, but we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Paul Buckingham

28 January 2008

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