Monday, December 13, 2010

Your language shapes your world view

Dec 12, 2010

But that doesn't mean people who speak different languages cannot arrive at the same insights
By Janadas Devan

In two previous articles in this space, I wrote of how language influences perceptions. For example, speakers of languages with grammatical gender, like French, seem to perceive the world differently from speakers of languages with no grammatical gender, like English.

I discussed Guy Deutscher's persuasive argument in Through The Language Glass: Why The World Looks Different In Other Languages, of how our perceptions of the world - including of fundamental aspects of it, like colour - are influenced by our mother tongue.

I will consider today if language has an even deeper impact on our thinking. Do different mother tongues give rise to fundamentally different modes of thought? This is not an easy question to answer and I'm afraid what follows may be rather heavy going.

Consider the notions of substance, universals and essence. Western philosophy since the time of Aristotle about 2,400 years ago wrestled obsessively with them. What is the substance or essence of a thing? Surely something cannot be simultaneously A and not A. So what is A?

'The substance of each thing,' Aristotle wrote, 'is that which is peculiar to it, which does not belong to anything else.' Thus, 'Socrates' or 'Napoleon' would each have a substance unique to himself.

The 'universal', on the other hand, 'is common', since what is called universal 'is such as to belong to more than one thing'. Examples of a universal would include 'man'. Thus Socrates and Napoleon, though each a unique substance, would nevertheless share something in common in that both are examples of 'man'.

And the 'essence' of a thing would refer to 'those of its properties which it cannot change without losing its identity'. In this regard, Aristotle distinguished between the 'essential' and 'accidental' properties of a thing.

For example, Socrates' humanity had to be part of his essence for he would have ceased to be Socrates if he had not been human. But Socrates was also bearded and snub-nosed. These were merely his accidental properties. He could have shaved off his beard and yet remained Socrates.

Most philosophers would accept now that the notions of substance, universals and essence are 'metaphysical mistakes' arising from confusing the world of things with the structure of sentences, as the philosopher Bertrand Russell puts it in his History Of Western Philosophy. They are mistaken ideas arising from equating the structure of language - in particular, Indo-European languages like Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, English and German - with the structure of reality.

Let's take a look at the notion of 'substance' again: 'Napoleon' and 'Socrates' are in fact proper names. Linguistic convention allows us to describe a certain number of things occurring to 'Socrates', or of 'Napoleon' doing this or that.

'This leads us to think of 'Socrates' denoting something that persists through a certain number of years, and as in some way more 'solid' and 'real' than the events that happen to him,' explains Russell. 'If Socrates is ill, we think that Socrates, at other times, is well, and therefore the being of Socrates is independent of his illness.'

But what is Socrates apart from the occurrences in his life, including his illnesses? What is this Napoleon who persists through time as though he were more real than the events in his life? Is there a Napoleon apart from all the things he did?

In reality, we can no more separate Napoleon from his actions than we can a dancer from her dance. We do so nevertheless, because sentences in Indo-European languages consist of subjects (Napoleon, Socrates) and predicates. We assume these subjects have substances peculiar to themselves because we can confer on them the stability of proper names.

Similarly, we assume a thing must have an 'essence', distinguishable from its accidental features, because there are nouns (table, rock), and there are adjectives (big, small; rough, smooth), which merely qualify nouns. And Western philosophers have grappled with questions of identity and being because there is the verb 'to be', which surely must refer to something: Who am I? To be or not to be? I think, therefore I am. Truth is Beauty.

As it so happens, Chinese philosophers didn't - not because they were all logical positivists like Russell from as early as 500BC, but because the Chinese language was structured differently.

To begin with, Chinese is ideographic, not alphabetic. That makes an enormous difference. Consider how differently it treats the concept 'good' compared to English.

In English, we signify the concept phonetically as g-o-o-d. That is different from g-o-o-f or g-o-o-s-e. 'Good' is unique, spelt differently, pronounced differently. Therefore, it must refer to a unique idea. It seems only natural to ask in English: What is the essence of good?

But in Chinese, good is represented by a character combining the sign for 'woman' with the sign for 'child'. Woman + Child = Good. Chinese philosophy, unless influenced by other philosophies, did not ask what is the essence of good, for the simple reason good is represented in Chinese as a relation, not an essence.

This attention to the relations between things is further enhanced by the lack in Chinese of the verb 'to be'. There is, for instance, no 'there is' in Chinese - as in 'there is a man' - only you ren or 'has man', as a Chinese linguist Yuen Ren Chao points out. As a consequence, the 'problem of being' that so bedevilled Western philosophy 'is very difficult to make intelligible' in Chinese.

Similarly, because subject-predicate sentences in Chinese do not take the form of 'actor-action, as in most Indo-European languages, but topic-comment, which includes actor-action as a special case', Chinese philosophers have not wondered about the 'substance' of things or cracked their heads distinguishing the essence of things from their accidental features.

Chinese, in this respect, was more philosophically advanced from the beginning than Aristotle's Greek, as Russell points out. But that does not mean people who do not speak Chinese cannot arrive at the same insights, any more than speakers of ungendered languages cannot tell apart the sexes. After all, Russell - like numerous other Western philosophers who came to the same conclusions as he - spoke no Chinese. The language one speaks does shape one's world view, but it does not do so coercively.

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