Thinking about Languages

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten.” – 1984, George Orwell

It is hard to imagine how one can learn without some form of thinking available at one’s disposal. If learning is the gift of life, then some form of thinking must be fundamental to all living beings. Thinking is processing, it will not be too much of exaggeration to suggest that thinking is a form of computation. But given the flexibility of this definition, even a small electrical circuit can be classified as thoughtful. For the purpose of this essay, let just say that all thoughts are computations but not all computations are thoughts.

For animals with linguistic capabilities, I’d suggest that main purpose of language is to compress lot of information. Some essential components of compressed information is retained as meaning which is associated with a symbol. Language can be defined as a collection of sequences formed by these symbols and can be used in two ways:
• Decompress the symbols and extract information for self to understand one’s environment.
• Send the symbols across for others to interpret (communication).

We restrict ourselves with the former because in case of the later, the individual might use language for various other tasks – obscuring the information for the purpose of confusing and tricking others for one’s advantage, not always unknowingly. This would not be an easy situation to analyze. When one is dealing with language to understand one’s own environment, perhaps the task of analysis for a person is much easier.

Much depends on the way society singles out certain activities and assign values to them. Needless to say, thinking associated with activities which are assigned high values by the society are going to be valued highly. Here lies the trap. Any language which provides any advantage for a highly values skill over some other language is going to be valued more. Perhaps it not hard to confuse the suitability of a language for a particular task with ability to think about that particular task.

How to neutralize the social content or value system of observer? Designing an experiment to overcome this seems to be a challenging task. Not merely because the designer of experiment himself has a value system to bias him but also because one can only express the experiment in a language itself. If something can not be overcome, it can be bypassed. To avoid this difficulty, we can definitely compare and contrast a complex and sophisticated language with the most primitive one.

Honeybees do pretty well (even perhaps better in some activities) as far as very basic life related functions are concerned. They can communicate the location of food accurately and reproduction effectively without having to evolve a language as complex as ours. On the other hand, if they were to cheat each other of food and sex, they would need a more complex language which allows more compression of information, ambiguous association of meaning with symbols, in which producing confusion and trickery is easier. Some higher primates have the faculty of building basic block of language – suffixing and prefixing sounds to create compound sound. And they are known to use it for various purposes: to get a head-start in competition as well as for cooperation. Yet they have not constructed a complex language, perhaps they are yet to realize that other do have thoughts and the best way to influence thoughts is to use language. It is hard to see how languages makes us better or worse at thinking as such. And even if they do, it would be nearly impossible to quantify such difference.

On the other hand, the idea that languages influence the way we think may be right if only we are willing to set the context. We need to ask us what kind of activity it impinges upon. Does Sankrit allows one to think in more modular way – composition of bigger sentences from smaller sentences is easier? Or German allows us to think more structurally? Music is also a form of language. We can compare Indian classical music with Western classical music. The former is hardly ever written down, instructions are transmitted orally from teacher to pupil. The Western music is almost always written therefore also extremely structured. In Western classical music, it is extremely easy to put a band of musician together and play a piece of music as complex as opera. With Indian classical music, one can hardly imagine putting up a something as complex as opera. There is simply no way to synchronize artists. Having nice structure allows one to create, play and disseminate music easily. On the flip side, you will never hear an entirely different version of Mozart as often as you might hear a raga sung differently. One can enumerate advantages and disadvantages of both musical systems. But it does not address the question if Indian or Western musical languages have certain advantages when it comes to create music as such. If a society put a high premium on team work then Western musical language is the winner, if a society value individual virtuosity more, then the advantage lies with Indian classical tradition.

In nutshell, language is a social category, it is not a neurological category. It might some some neuronal basis which we are yet to discover. It influences and get influenced by culture and traditions. And plays an important role in its own social context. It probably also modifies neuronal pathways, as any repeated activity would do. Some languages are perhaps better suited for expressing and accomplishing some tasks while others are good at others. To say more than that, one would need much more precise definitions of both thought and language.

To end, a good analogy would be of computer languages. Most of them are known to be Turing complete i.e. any program written in one can be written in any other. Using any of them does not limit our capabilities of programming as such. Yet there are problems which are are easy to program in one language are hard in other. Hardware are easy to control in imperative languages, while modularity is easy to achieve in functional framework. And choice depends on what you value more rather than the power they posses.

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Author: Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.

2 thoughts on “Thinking about Languages”

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