Sunday, November 22, 2009

Language as a window

The "go héasca" thing got me thinking, the confusion - and a word that seems to mean fast and slow at the same time, isn't all that surprising after all. Go héasca can mean easy and slow, but when you think about it, the easy way to do something can also be the short way and therefore the faster way.
Language and words are used and taken for granted as representing the real world, but they are not actually the real world themselves. They are just symbols invented, refined, over the years, tools of description. But it does make me wonder how much we take them for granted, and allow them to shape the way we think. Lately I have occasionally found myself "thinking in Irish" - which suggests that language does have a huge role in our thinking. The way we phrase things, seems to come naturally, but it's handed down and evolves from generation to generation, like a cultural DNA.
In his latest book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell relates how a Korean airline switched to training its staff in English, which it found had the effect of making staff more assertive, and more likely to persist when warning their bosses of safety issues; ie in Korean they might have said
"Boss, I think we're nearly out of fuel, we should land somewhere soon" and the boss would say
"No we'll be grand" and they'd say
"Ok then" - because of the huge respect for seniors inherent in the language they didn't challenge decisions, and lots of people died. Whereas in English they were more likely to say
"Eh, no I really think we need to land, have a look at the fuel tank dial there."
I suppose the point is that we need to be aware of the effect of our language on us, the restraints and freedoms of what it allows us to express, the things it allows us to see, and the things it might be hiding from us - things we mightn't be able to put into words but things we should still know.

9 comments:

Bernard O'Leary said...

If you pick up the new Douglas Coupland book (Generation A), there's a brilliant short story called "Bartholemew Is Right There at the Dawn of Language" on this topic. It's got cavemen and the Rapture in it!

Totalfeckineejit said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Totalfeckineejit said...

I suppose any language is going to be an approximation of what we actually want to say, no matter how articulate we are (also the less articulate we are the more we go unheard)And even when we do express ourselves as best we can it is still open to various interpretations by the listener/s.Telepathy is the way ahead.
I am thinking of a word right now, let's see if anyone get's it right.I will think of it on the hour every hour and report back with it anon.

Niamh B said...

Thanks Bernard, I'll have to check that out.
TFE - is the word - "Chicken"?

It's true - but it strikes me too that thinking with words is slow and cumbersome, so most of the time we are thinking with words plus other stuff, images, feelings etc. As a project I might try and go a whole day without thinking any words at all. Not today though.

Titus said...

Ah, this is topic that exercises me much, from the other end of time - how did the first humans think if they had no language?
I'll be back.

Totalfeckineejit said...

There's a thought, Titus.
And incredibly ,yes, Mrs Niamh, it was 'chicken' this is amazing.

Totalfeckineejit said...

Did I say chicken? No, sorry Niamh, it was iceberg. I'm always, always getting those two confused.Apologos.

Niamh B said...

Yes Titus, but I guess they did have words too - in the form of grunts, maybe they thought in grunts and noises (like the noise poets?!)
It can be easy enough to communicate without words, as words are only supposed to be 10% of communication - but what % exactly of our thoughts takes the form of words, and if we lived with less words, ie if we consciously tried to use them less and less; would they take up less space in our heads, would we think in a quieter way? My head hurts.
TFE - won't be coming to yours for a Sunday Roast then.

the watercats said...

the philosophy of language never fails to amaze me. It's a never ending circle that can be seen to link up everything of a culture; it's tenacity, it's humour, it's religious devotion, it's artistic nature, it's economic inclination.. everything! Your example of the fellas with the plane are a perfect example.
As for Titus' suggestion. I think thoughts are processed in pictures and images and feelings, thoughts are entirely different things to the form of speech or explanation. Body language, as with animals, would have been our primary method of interaction, when we was monkees.. (I reckon)..
if we didn't have words, maybe we'd have more instinct?