language and knowledge

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language and knowledge

Unread postby willow » Mon Dec 05, 2011 6:55 pm

another paper i had to write, have at her if your interested.....

There are several thousand languages in the world today but the vast majority are quickly vanishing as globalization and the need for multinational or multi-ethnic communication increases. As once isolated peoples are drawn into the modern world they adopt modern languages in order to compete and communicate which often when coupled with modernization and the introduction of non traditional lifestyles leads to the death of a cultures native language. This is perhaps evident in the spread of English throughout the world as propagated by the British Empire who instilled its language globally as the language of trade and commerce. With this loss of language often goes a loss of cultural knowledge and philosophies which are not easily transferable to a new linguistic system. This loss of language represents a serious loss to human knowledge as knowledge, philosophy and culture are all encoded into language over the course of its development and use.

Bonvillain and Schwimmer describe language as having 4 characteristics which separate it from other forms of communication used by animals (Bonvillain, Schwimmer, 2006. pg. 56-57). Firstly that language is symbolic, comprised of arbitrary arrangements of sounds which have an agreed symbolic meaning within the language. Terms such as 'face' in English, 'visage in French' or 'kao' in Japanese which all represent the same meaning however use different expressions of sounds to express that meaning. Secondly is the use of displacement, or the ability to speak about events that are not currently happening, or conceptions that exist outside of reality. In other words, the ability to talk about the past and future or concepts rather then just the present and physical. Thirdly is the use of 'duality of patterning' whereby language is comprised of both combinations of sounds according to the linguistic structure of the language as well as the combination of words into sentences again in accordance with the syntax of the language in question. Lastly is what Schwimmer and Bonvillain refer to as 'productivity' whereby words can be combined in an infinite number of ways in order to produce an infinite number of sentences and meanings. For example, the terms I, store, have, gone, the and to are all valid English words which in and of themselves express valid individual concepts but can be arranged in such a fashion as to create a larger meaning, “I have gone to the store” (Bonvillain, Schwimmer, 2006. pg. 56-57).

Cognitive linguist Lera Boroditsky explains in a lecture given to the Long Now Foundation on 'how language shapes thought' that the structure and syntax of linguistics changes depending on the culture in which it exists, for example with her example “Palin read Chomsky's latest book” she explains that in English the tense for the verb is important in defining when the event occurred but that in certain cultures, one does not change the verb to imply tense or change tense to signify past present and future, while in others there are multiple tenses for each verb to define how recently the event occurred, demonstrated by one Papua New Guinea language which contains 5 tenses to mark past events (L. Boroditsky, Fora 2010). Verb use is also different depending on the gender of the speaker in Russian or if one personally viewed the action as in Turkish. Such structural differences have led to some debate about if different language systems create different methods of thought or worldviews as they require different structures for the same conceptions (L. Boroditsky, Fora 2010).

Boroditsky goes on to explain that research done on languages with gendered nouns like French, Russian and German showed that the gendering of words like justice and liberty influenced the expression of those concepts in art and culture. For example, Michelangelo sculpted a series of works representing the various periods of the day, namely, dawn, day, dusk and night. In these sculptures both day and dusk are represented as males, while dawn and night are both represented as women consistent with the genders of those terms in Italian (L. Boroditsky, Fora 2010). This demonstrates that languages which use gendered nouns are affected cognitively by the linguistic structure they use, as the way that they view any object that can be named by a noun, is in a fashion consistent with the gendered terms.

Boroditsky noted several larger differences in thought based in linguistic differences. Time travel was the example that she used as it is an abstract concept that does not have a physical reality in that we cannot hear, touch, taste, smell or otherwise experience time in a sensory fashion like most other aspects of physical reality and time travel remains as yet a physical impossibility. Both Plato and more recently Chomsky have trouble trying to understand how such concepts enter the mind and become words. Plato ascribed it to experience or knowledge recalled from a past life, while Chomsky posited that it was innate inborn knowledge that we solidified with terminology (L. Boroditsky, Fora 2010). Boroditsky notes however that such knowledge would be difficult to accept as being innate. Instead, she tries to explain this process by way of analogy. In this case its the analogy of 'time travel' noting the usage of 'travel', it seems most cultures globally use spatial metaphors for time, most usually as a journey or movement ergo terms like the 'passage of time', 'approaching the deadline' or 'the time has come/arrived'. These spatial considerations of time as a journey allow for the notion of 'travel' and as with most paths on a journey you can go both forwards and back at varying rates. It is from this metaphor that Boroditsky posits notions of 'time-travel' arise. Since such notions have a linguistic influence there should be cultural differences between how different people view time/space issues. The Piraha represent a culture with radically different views of time, possessing no words for tomorrow or yesterday, as they make little distinction between past and present, instead viewing time in a concentric fashion (D. Everett, Fora. 2009).

Boroditsky explains several of these differences in the way space/time is viewed in several ways. The first demonstration of differences in spatial awareness was demonstrated by having a group close their eyes and point to a specified direction. The ability to accurately do so is generally only present in cultures that linguistically express direction as a function of relations to the physical landscape. For example while English speakers say 'turn left at the lights' when giving directions, some cultures like the Australian Kuuk Thaayorre would say 'turn south'. While in English left/right distinctions are relative to the position of reference, cardinal directions are absolutes which do not change, and cultures with this kind of absolute direction make all distinctions of positions in relation to compass directions, for example instead of saying 'I'm right handed' the Kuuk Thaayorre would say they were 'south handed' (L. Boroditsky, Fora 2010). Daniel Everett talks about the Piraha people of the Amazon who use a similar form of what he terms 'absolute direction' whereby their sense of direction is a function of the physical landscap much like the Kuuk Thaayorre. When giving directions the Piraha base all direction according to its relation to the Amazon river, for example the Piraha explain handedness as a function of being upriver, downriver or towards or away from the centre of the jungle (D. Everett, Fora. 2009).

This kind of linguistic system creates a need for the individual to maintain constant awareness of their physical orientation in order to ensure the ability to properly speak their language. Since the compass points do not change but physical orientation does, in the example above about handedness, the correct Kuuk Thaayorre response would differ depending on which direction the individual was speaking (L. Boroditsky, Fora 2010).

Another example Boroditsky uses relates to writing direction and ones sense of time. In a number of languages like Japanese and Hebrew, writing goes from right to left as opposed to English's left to right format. When people in English speaking cultures order events in order of occurrence, they order the events from left to right: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 with the earliest event placed farthest to the left. People with a right to left writing system will do the opposite, listing their results: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Interestingly the Kuuk Taayorre which do not have words for 'left' and 'right' when given this task oriented the tasks from east to west, in accordance with the movement of the sun, which is consistent with their sense of direction being defined by the landscape, time being represented as the passage of the sun across that landscape from east to west (L. Boroditsky, Fora 2010).

Going back to the example about time travel, the direction that time moves is also influenced by language as demonstrated by the difference in the way different cultures organize events temporally in accordance to their writing systems. Another difference noted was in how some languages use vertical metaphors for time while others use horizontal metaphors. This was difference was found between Mandarin and English speakers. English speakers place earlier events in terms of 'before, now and after' or events as “approaching” while Mandarin speakers often use vertical metaphors like the past being down or below while the future is up or above the present (L. Boroditsky, Fora 2010). Interestingly it seems that polyglots can change between these conceptions of space/time dependant on the language in which they are speaking to a larger or lesser degree depending on fluency.

Most modern languages are organic constructs that are continually evolving with the continual addition of new words to the lexicon like iPod and 'double-double', both of which have been added to the Canadian English dictionary in recent years. The process of linguistic evolution requires both borrowing of terms from neighbouring languages and cultures, like sushi and karaoke from Japanese, as well as continuous reinterpretation of existing terms as the accepted meaning for those symbols changes over time. This is illustrated best by slang or colloquial terms such as 'geek' which originated in the 18th century to mean “[O]ne who has sunk to the lowest depths of degradation, in a carnival sideshow, the “wild man,” who kills chickens by biting off their heads' with origins thought to go back to the 16th century term 'geck' meaning fool, while now in its modern form has come to mean something similar to 'nerd' after the 1980's (H. Rawson, 1989. pg. 171).

Each language however contains unique concepts and philosophies which do not translate easily, or in some cases at all, into other languages. Such concepts as zeitgeist or schadenfreude in German provide examples which due to their complex conceptual meaning have been adopted into English as there is no direct English equivalent. The degree to which these ideas and concepts can be misinterpreted through poor translation led some authors such as Vladimir Nabokov to expound at length about the importance of proper translation of literary works into other languages, several of his works being translated from Russian, and French into English. As a polyglot Nabokov was sensitive to the possibility of the meaning he was conveying in his work being changed by the choice of words made by the translator who interpreted the work. Indeed, in his opus 'Ada', Nabokov took the opportunity to lambast poor translations of various works.

Daniel Everett demonstrates one of these complex ideas, taken from the Piraha people of the Amazon. The Piraha concept of 'xibipiio' which he defines as 'experiential liminality – a focus on the boundaries of experience'. The Piraha have strong beliefs about evidence for belief, largely refusing to believe anything they did not see personally or that was told them unless the speaker saw or did it personally. Xibipiio is a concept largely unique to the Piraha and seems to mean, according to Everett, the process of going into and out of the boundaries of experience. That is to say it marks the passing from what can be experienced to what cant, or what can be observed by the individual to what can not and back again (D. Everett, Fora. 2009). Concepts like 'xibipiio' represent one of the foundations of Piraha culture but exists apparently uniquely to the Piraha.

This notion of the liminality of experience is central to Piraha philosophy. As noted above, the Piraha only believe what has been directly seen or what has been seen or done by the speaker, and this belief is reflected in their langauge. The Piraha have 3 verb tenses specifically for identifying the source of the information being transmitted, specifically suffixes meaning 'I heard', 'I saw' and 'I deduced from the surroundings' (D. Everett, Fora. 2009). In many ways this philosophy is perfectly expressed in the concept of 'xibipiio' but is largely absent from most other cultures globally.

Daniel Everett lectures on the importance of maintaining dying languages in an effort to prevent the loss of these kinds of unique knowledge which we encode into language, or perhaps borrowing from Boroditsky, which the language structure we develop encodes into our cognitive processes (D. Everett, Fora. 2009). He explains two means by which language dies, firstly by the population dying off as some 400 Native American tribes have done or secondly by shifts in the dominant language in a region, as cultures for one reason or another adopt a different language system as has happened with many native cultures under pressure during periods of colonization as seen in the large scale shift to the language of the colonial powers made by many Native North and South American societies (D. Everett, Fora. 2009).

While Boroditsky provides evidence from cognitive linguistic research that demonstrates how language affects our way of thought, Everett explains exactly what is at stake in the death of a language system. Quoting Ken Hale, Everett argues that the death of a language is “like droppin a bomb on the Louvre” as it represents a loss of the ways of life, soloutions to problems, classification systems and folk knowledge, myths, folktales, songs, oral histories and literature (D. Everett, Fora. 2009). A more simplistic way of stating this is to say that the death of a language represents the death of that culture. This is especially true given that many of the worlds more then six thousand languages do not have writing systems with which to record this knowledge instead passing it directly through oral, artistic and cultural means such that when the language dies, there is often no trace of it from which to attempt to reconstruct either the language or the beliefs and philosophies of that culture. Imagine the implications for western societies had the Greeks and Romans not recorded their philosophies and histories to be rediscovered centuries later, as though there was no Plato or Cicero. As Everett explains, the loss of indigenous languages represents the loss of the collective knowledge of thousands of naming societies which have mastered their environments, knowledge that can never be restored (D. Everett, Fora. 2009).

The loss of indigenous classification systems represents perhaps one of the largest losses in terms of human knowledge. Many indigenous peoples have unique classification systems for the flora and fauna of the environment in which the live. Often these classification systems are not consistent with western taxonomies, for example the Wayampi of Brazil who possess extensive classification systems for all of the birds in their region, however this classification system is based around behaviours and foodstuffs rather then western conceptions of physical similarity or genetics. The Wayampi classify a form of hawk in the same grouping as toucans, and while this seems odd to westerners who can invariably see that a hawk is not a toucan, the Wayampi know that breed of hawk eats the same foods as the toucans and share several similar behaviours (D. Everett, Fora. 2009). Further more Everett argues, several of these indigenous cultures know considerably more about the behaviours, habits, habitats and nutritional systems of hundreds if not thousands of animals and plants including dozens of species thought by western biologists to be extinct. This information is of vital importance to biologists around the globe (D. Everett, Fora. 2009). For example Everett encountered a species of Amazonian jungle dog, thought to be extinct in the wild for 50 years due to lack of sightings, being kept as pets by the Piraha people in the central Amazon. According to Everett the Piraha know the behaviour, eating habits and habitats of these species (D. Everett, Fora. 2009).

The reason that such classification systems are important is that they have developed organically within the region in some cases over thousands of years as a people experiment and explore their surroundings. Indeed Everett explains further the usefulness of, and extent to which these classification systems are developed by indigenous cultures by example of the Banawa, with whom he had done some research previously. The population of the Banawa has been reduced to 79 members as of 2005 and is at risk of disappearing. The Banawa have an extensive knowledge of poisons which requires advanced and detailed knowledge of the properties of local plant life and animals. For example the Banawa know of vines in the Amazon which produce strychnine, a powerful neurotoxin with both medicinal and poisonous effects, and harvest such for use in hunting (D. Everett, Fora. 2009).

The loss of language represents a loss of knowledge that is encoded into language by its speakers over the course of its development and growth over the course of centuries. This loss represents a loss to the sum total of human knowledge which will not and can not be regained by other means, as such the loss of languages should be prevented while every effort is made to preserve the knowledge and culture which these languages represent.
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-willow 07/22/09
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Re: language and knowledge

Unread postby UnwantedSunbeam » Fri Dec 09, 2011 10:28 pm

That is an interesting piece Willow. I like the statement on the "no direct english translation" it reminded me of a stumble I saw a while ago ( Words that have no direct translation) and of a colleuge of mine who works from Moscow. He claims that English is very limited in the number of swear words we have. In Russian there are many more variants to exclaim your extreme anoyance, anger or happiness.

In your research for this did you happen upon any valid reasons on why we have so many language variants?

I recall a few years ago, where a paper was produced that clearly demonstrated that newborns cry in a 'mother tongue'. It showed examples of command German, French, English, and US babies all having distinct crying voices. Brief Example
One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree. "Which road do I take?" she asked. "Where do you want to go?" was his response. "I don't know", Alice answered. "Then", said the cat, "It doesn't matter.”
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Re: language and knowledge

Unread postby Azmodan Kijur » Thu Dec 15, 2011 1:36 pm

It is interesting when we encounter words that do not translate into our language (English). The general response has been (as any assimilation language does) is to incorporate that word unmolested into our own vocabulary. English is riddled with words that are not native to it - Mandarin, Japanese, German, French, Spanish. If we don't have it, we take it and use it like our own. The word "Touche" for example - adopted from French because we have no word that clearly expresses what that word is trying to say. We can describe what the word is trying to say - to acknowledge a hit, usually in the verbal or linguistic sense concerning the use these days - but it is easier to say "touche" than "I acknowledge your point". Shorthand for the mind and the wide adoption makes it part of our language now.

There are words that, of course, do not sound correct in our sequence of sounds, but we use them all the same. It does not matter if how I say touche is wrong according to french. My pronunciation in English is fine.

******

For the original OP, the concept is interesting. Most people tend to "think" in their language, a side-effect of the language being (when regarded inside the mind) as a sequence of shorthand symbols that allow thought to be ordered. I don't think that all our thinking is in the words themselves; that is, we don't envision the words to couple the thoughts. Rather, the words are spoken in the mind to ourselves. "If I do this, then this happens." The thoughts will follow the logic of language because it is a brutally efficient way of ordering those thoughts. This can be seen to be a side effect of our need to communicate. We speak to each other to trade thoughts so it is little wonder that we tend to order thoughts into that format, regardless of whether or not we will be trading them.

Of course, that spoken element is not as cohesive as we might think. Because we are chemical machines and we process the results of various chemical and electrical activities in the brain, a thought is usually coupled with an appended mental image. The actual number of words used to describe that thought likely pales before any attempt to describe them in terms of the word content. Let me clarify - the thoughts in the mind are a combo of words, images, smells, and sounds. These intermingle in the brain to give us our rich tapestry of thought. But describe that to someone and the number of words multiplies rapidly to account for us lacking any ability to transmit these other details in any other manner. A dream is a good example. They are chock full of unusual and illogical content and any attempt to describe them pales before what you saw. "The man was wearing a big hand and had ears for eyes and he was trying to say something about the manhole in the road, only it wasn't a road really. It was more a big tongue ..." And so forth. The words do not really do the thoughts justice because it is very difficult to get them to describe exactly what we see. Very interesting phenomena.

******

On a last note, the Russians might have more curse words, but ours are used with a higher amount of nuance. Context and tone determines if "Fuck" is good, bad, dismissive, passive, aggressive, positive, or so forth. They might have more words, but the result is similar. Think of the Inuit with have hundreds of words to describe the snow. We don't have them. But we get the point across via context and connective verbs and adverbs that subdivide "snow" into groups - slushy snow, freezing rain, light powder, and so on.
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Re: language and knowledge

Unread postby willow » Thu Dec 29, 2011 5:17 pm

with reguards to the snow, that ties into my original point in that paper, which was supposed to be about encoding unique forms of cultural knowledge into language.

The inuit have many words for 'snow' but that is because each word represents a different kind of snow and the numerous words they have are descriptive. a word for snow drifts caused by winds blowing west, or east for example. The many words they have for such are a cultural requirement that allows for expert navagation in what is to an outsider a nondescript and unchanging white landscape. To put it simply a traditional inuit hunter would be able to tell you where he was out on the sea ice by the kind of snow, and the direction and depth etc of the snow drifts around him in the absense of other physical markers like mountains or ridges. Its the knowledge implicit in these unique cultural classification systems that does not translate or get recorded when any of the worlds 5-6000 languages dies and represent a permenant net loss to human knowldge that cannot ever be regained as the vast vast majority of said languages are unwritten.

Sunbeam, I was wondering if those babies cried in a mother tongue after a certain age, as its accepted in psychology that babies especially newborns have the ability to create and do create all the sounds required to speak any human language but that the range is rapidly limited as the child is only exposed to a single language.

as for why we have such varients, no reason specifically that I came across, but I think the notion is that since language is an arbitrary set of symbolic metaphores for concepts and ideas as well as physical objects, the words used for any item change over time and given time and isolation will develop into a new language. Kinda like how english has split into dialects, but given time and seperation would become individual languages. This is happening to a limited extent in English as it splits into the "Queens English" Canadian and American English.
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