Friday, April 22, 2011

Linguistic Fossils of the Mind's Eye

Illustration in Guy Deutscher's work on the evolution of human language.

In January 2009, snow fell in the United Arab Emirates for only the second time in recorded history. This event was so rare to this region that there was no word in the dialect of local tribes to describe it. The fact there was no word for “snow” would let anyone paying attention know that Being in this part of the world had nothing to do with snow.

Language has fascinated me for many years. I own several books on how language has evolved and how it sometimes paradoxically both reflects and impacts human experience. The grammatical conventions of your spoken native language are so commonly accepted by you and others in your culture that their importance goes unnoticed. But, their importance is greater than almost anything else we express about ourselves.

I get a lot of blank stares when I attempt to explain to friends and acquaintances the critical importance of the grammar of our various languages in understanding humanity. So, let me just be blunt right out of the gate here before I touch upon the rather sophisticated science of all this.

The grammar of a given language provides us with the most direct access into the Being of whatever culture speaks (or spoke) that language. Unlike other revelations like art, music, religion, and technique, the grammar of a language is not subject to individual interpretation. The grammatical rules are a sound reckoning, a conduit running directly into the mind’s eye. In brief, to understand a person or a way of life it is best to understand the way they mundanely speak words.

The grammar of language does not lie. It is a pristine reflection of the attempt by humans to accurately communicate with one another. The fact that language often fails to communicate is not the fault of the grammar of language itself. The intent of language is fundamentally to be understood. It is only later that language is used for treachery and deceit; otherwise, you can’t find anything more honest regarding our humanity than the grammar of a culture’s language and its effect upon and revelation of each individual’s experience of life.

Despite its great diversity, the grammar of language reveals several archetypal areas of human commonality. These include: Human beings are naturally metaphorical and creative. Our minds inherently seek to create order out all things we interpret as experience. Our sense of Being, including such things as directional orientation, awareness of color, and attribution of gender is affected by language and the culture built upon language.

I just finished two interesting books on language as linguistics. I know very little about linguistics outside of studying it a bit out of my interest for Tolkien and Nietzsche (both philologists). Both books were by Guy Deutscher and they were entertainingly written and highly instructive without being overly academic. Otherwise, I would have likely understood little about them.

An example of what I mean by entertaining is this humorous tidbit from one of the books, Through the Language Glass (2010): “The holy Roman Emperor Charles V, king of Spain, archduke of Austria, and a master of several European tongues, professed to speaking ‘Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.’” (page 1)

Deutscher maintains a lightness and sense of humor throughout both books.

The other, The Unfolding of Language (2005), deals with the actual evolution of language. There is a lot of controversy over when “language” as humans uniquely express it, came into existence. Generally, the consensus is that humans acquired rudimentary skills over 1 million years ago. But, complex utterances that Deutscher terms “action words and thing-words” probably only emerged about 100,000 years ago in East Africa as human beings began the first great homo sapien migrations which led to the population of earth.

Deutscher finds “…a few deep-rooted motives that drive all of us (economy, expressiveness, analogy) create powerful forces of change and ensure that sounds, meanings, and even structures are always on the move.” (page 71) These common aspects of human Being drive languages (and life experiences) into a perpetual state of erosion and creative change.

The original East African language is referred to as Proto-Indo-European. An example of how languages of today have changed from the proto-language can be found in such mundane things as noun cases: “The fate of the case-system in the Indo-European languages is a good example. The prehistoric, Proto-Indo-European, had eight distinct cases, but only Sanskrit retained the full system, whereas in all other daughter languages, erosion had started taking its toll even before the earliest records began.” (page 92)

Yet, while erosion occurs there is also a creative force in the human development of language. That creativity is revealed in our unique capacity for metaphor. “…metaphor is the indispensible element in the thought-process of every one of us.” (page 117) “It transpired that metaphor is an essential tool of thought, an indispensible conceptual mechanism which allows us to think of abstract concepts in terms of simpler concrete things. It is, in fact, the only way we have of dealing with abstraction.” (page 142) (Steven Pinker also mentions the importance of the metaphorical aspect of language in The Stuff of Thought (2008). This is the non-controversial, commonly received wisdom of the scientific community.)

So, universally, humans express metaphor to be able to think and grasp emotion (as modern humans versus other primates). Simultaneously, “economy, expressiveness and analogy” actually drive the development of language. “…economy, which causes the erosion in sounds, and expressiveness, which results in the inflationary erosion in meaning and drives the flow of metaphors from concrete to abstract…analogy, or the mind’s craving for order.” (pp. 172-173)

We are inherently metaphorical in part because our ‘minds crave order.’ “If there is any element of invention in language, then this is surely it. But this invention is not the design of one architect, nor does it follow the dictates of any master plan. It is the result of thousands of small-scale spontaneous analogical innovations, introduced by order craving minds across the ages. So while language may never have been invented, it was nonetheless shaped by attempts of generations of speakers to make sense of the mass of details they have to absorb.” (page 208)

The proto-language likely contained just two kinds of words. “In order to have a ‘mental representation’ of who is doing what to whom, a clear distinction is required between objects and actions, and since this mental representation is a part of social intelligence that is well developed in non-human primates (and even other animals), it must have been a fixture in our distant ancestors’ cognition millions of years before language was even dreamt of.” (page 213) “…the distinction in meaning between things and actions goes much deeper than language – it is a fundamental feature of human cognition that precedes language by millions of years.” (page 244)

The use of what can be called ‘nouns’ and not just ‘things’ is a fairly recent occurrence in language, reflecting a shift in human experience. This is a ‘fossil’ of linguistics. “The flow from concrete to abstract has created many words for concepts that are no longer physical objects, but nonetheless behave like thing-words in the sentence. The resulting abstract concepts are no longer thing-words, but they inherit their distribution from the thing-words that gave rise to them. A new category of words has thus emerged…which we can now call ‘noun’.” (page 246)

The way language is used, its accepted uses by people through understood rules of grammar, is the residue of collective human experience. “The grammar of a language thus comes to code most compactly and efficiently those constructions that are used most frequently…grammar codes best what it does most often.” (page 261) This is centrally why I hold the grammar of language to be almost a sacred portal into human experience.

In the 2010 work, Deutscher’s emphasis shifts to why different languages reveal that humans actually experience life differently. We do not all feel and act the same way about the things of life. My opinion is that it is a mistake to believe “humanity” thinks, feels and experiences to a high degree of similarity. The fact is language shows that, as it diversified across the earth, humanity has a multitude of diverse ways of experiencing.

First of all, “…a growing body of reliable scientific research provides solid evidence that our mother tongue can affect how we think and perceive the world.” (page 7)

In this book Deutscher is concerned with “…where culture masquerades as human nature…language is a cultural convention that doesn’t masquerade as anything but a cultural convention.” (page 9) Again, language sees directly into the mind’s eye, which is completely a cultural creation. Each culture (and person) probably reflects basic roots with human nature but persons are not the whole of that nature itself.

Nevertheless, each unique culture is a complete expression of (one aspect of) human nature. “…culture not only controls the labels, but embarks on incessant raids across the border into what ought to be the birthright of nature…cultural conventions do manage to meddle in the internal affairs of many other concepts, in ways that sometimes upset plain common sense.” (page 13)

Deutscher offers scientific evidence where ultimately: “The influence of the mother tongue that has been demonstrated empirically is felt in areas of thought such as memory, perception, and associations or in practical skills such as orientation.” (page 235) How does he reach this point?

I am glossing over the rather deep science contained in both books but this one example will serve as the type of evidence we are dealing with. It seems incontrovertible evidence to me. I will condense Deutscher’s entertaining but scientific prose.

Two centuries ago William Ewart Gladstone made a study of the use of color in Homer’s two classics The Iliad and The Odyssey. He discovered that the word “black” occurred 170 times throughout the works. “White” – 100. “Red” – 13. “Yellow” – 10. “Violet” – 6. “Green” is mentioned once or twice while “Orange” and “Pink” not at all.

There was another color missing too. Blue. Not only is blue not mentioned anywhere by Homer but Lazarus Geiger discovered that “Blue” is not mentioned in the ancient Indian Vedic poems and “…like Homeric Greek, biblical Hebrew does not have word for ‘blue.’ Other color descriptions in the Old Testament also show deficiencies remarkably similar to Homeric poems.” (page 43) Now think about the snow in the Arab Emirates mentioned above. See? It reveals a life experience of persons.

Ancient Hebrew had no word for blue. Nor did the Sanskrit of the Vedic texts, nor did many other languages. This is another linguistic fossil. There are various reasons for this. Very few vegetables grown for food are blue. Blue is an extremely difficult dye to produce. But, the bottom line is that, despite the sky and the oceans, “Blue” was not an important distinction in the lives of these particular people. Were they color blind? No. The experience of blue was simply not an important distinction to them. Their world experience was different from ours.

That difference was culturally developed. “The ancients could see colors just as well as we do, and the differences in color vocabulary reflect purely cultural developments, not biological ones.” (page 76) Culture is a powerful force but it does not exceed that of human nature itself. “In light of all the evidence, it seems to me that the balance of power between culture and nature can be characterized most aptly by a simple maxim: culture enjoys freedom within constraints. Culture has a considerable degree of freedom in dissecting the spectrum, but still within loose constraints laid down by nature.” (pp. 90-91)

Another important linguistic fossil is the number of words within a language. “There is one area of language whose complexity is generally acknowledged to depend on culture – this is the size of the vocabulary.” (page 110) Pre-literate societies usually have about 3,000 to 5,000 words while literate ones range from 50,000 to 300,000 words. This is not just a reflection of an expanded rationality. The difference reveals either a simpler or a more complex experience of life.

Deutscher offers an intimate perspective on the actual difference in the experience of the present moment that is the foundation of why language is so important. It involves how certain languages make use of gender. “When I speak English, I may say about a bed that ‘it’ is too soft, but I actually feel ‘she’ is too soft.” (page 209) “…my world has so much to it that you entirely miss out on, because the landscape of my language is so much more fertile that your arid desert of ‘it’s.’” (page 215)

Deutscher’s native tongue is Hebrew, which extends not only the idea but also the experience of things as “he” or “she”. It is difficult for me to describe how monumentally important this seemingly trivial distinction is. Clusters of such triviality create two different realities in two different human bodies.

The author does not go as far as me, nor is he as blunt; I am interjecting much of my personal beliefs in here. Still, “…fundamental aspects of our thought are influenced by cultural conventions of our society, to a much greater extent than is fashionable to admit today….what we find ‘natural’ depends largely on the conventions we have been brought up on.” (page 233) There are clear echoes of Nietzsche in here.

The conclusion is that “habits of speech can create habits of mind.” So, language affects culture fundamentally. But, this is a reciprocal arrangement. Language changes due to cultural experience yet cultural experience is affected by language. There is no issue regarding which emerged first here. Both evolved equally out of proto-language tendencies toward action and thingness that lie at the heart of human nature.

To wrap up a lengthy post, human Being is naturally metaphorical. The grammar of language directly reveals life experience. Languages change due to the creative expression of metaphor and its interaction with the mind’s craving for order. Such change ultimately reflects alterations in life experience. These, I believe, are fundamental human truths.

The expression of language is the revelation of Being. To understand humanity you have no better place to start than how humanity uses words. Therefore, I place understanding the grammar of language above my direct personal experiences in understanding the diverse awareness of humanity as a whole.

1 comment:

benjamindavidsteele said...

"The author does not go as far as me, nor is he as blunt"

I've been reading Deutscher's book. I also would take this topic further than he does. He seems to be overly cautious, as if assuming he'll attract critics. I'd rather he be more bold and not pull his punches.

His cautiousness goes along with some carelessness as well. He doesn't explore things to their furthest extent or consider alternative explanations that might seem obvious to others. His thinking can seem quite mainstream at times. Here is another review that I appreciated:

BTW have you written anything else about this topic?