Monday, April 6, 2009


People are fascinated by language. An enormous amount has been discovered about language in linguistics, in computer science, in psychology, in philosophy. Also it bears on human evolution, on political rhetoric, on the enjoyment of poetry and fiction, on the organization of the brain. Language plays such a role in our lives, even sexuality, as we see in the language of swearing.

Language drives thought in the sense that you acquire a lot of your thoughts from other people through language, but thought is not the same thing as language. Stretches of sound that we call sentences have meanings and those meanings themselves are part of a huge database of our understanding of the world and reality and ourselves. Language is just a tip of the iceberg of what's going on in the mind. With language we can identify two sentences that have the same meaning, we can identify a single sentence that has two meanings; In order for a given sentence to have two meanings there have to be meanings that are separate from the sentences themselves, and we often know that words can be inadequate to the thoughts that we have. We struggle to put our thoughts into words.

Language help us express our intentions with the words we say. probably because language has to do two things at once; it has to transmit content, a promise, a proposition, a command; and at the same time it's got to ratify or change a relationship type because people aren't just modems downloading information into each other's brains. We always have a social relationship with the person we're talking to and the content of our conversation can affect that relationship.

Metaphors are a fundamental part of language, It's hard to find a passage of everyday speech that doesn't contain them. For all of the brilliant abstraction that the human mind is capable of—philosophy and law and science and government and so on—is it all a cooping of mental structures that are concrete and physical; and is metaphor a fundamental mechanism that allows us to apply Stone Age ways of thinking to abstract subject matters?

I often ask myself the question: does language save us from ourselves, in effect, in our instinctual ways? And the more I think about the answer I approach the following solutions: Yes, and not just language but what language reveals. That is, the metaphor that we see in language I think is like analogical thinking that we put into scientific understanding. The combinatorial rules that we see in language are like the combinatorial rules that build up complicated thoughts. So it's not just that we negotiate these new social arrangements and new knowledge via language, which of course we do, but in addition language gives us a hint as to what's going on beneath language, which has to be at least as complicated as language.


Paul said...

Superbly put and I could not disagree. There is real magic in language in that it contains all the things we have learned since we began grunting. Prayers in simple ullulates and so forth. It is in constant evolution too so that writing about it, one can never quite catch up to it. Your blog is one of the most fascinating places on the internet.

Mariana Soffer said...

Exactly!!!! that is one of my main points, it is alive, not static, and people are trying to do static collection of words along with their classification for processing the language, which I think are projects doomed to failure.

Uncle Tree said...

Who is the guy in the picture?
See Dick run. See Jane chase Dick.
Gee, Spot, I see you run away, too.
First grade English, as I remember it. Up till then, it was words from The Bible. Then along came Dr. Seuss.
It's no wonder then, if I ended up screwed, and stuck on the classics.
Has anyone been able to pinpoint exactly where the brain stores those so-called instinks? Maybe,
the very first word was not Dad, after all, nor Mom, but men.

Mariana Soffer said...

My guess is that the instinks are placed in a small safebox, right in the middle of the brain. I belive that several groups of neurons (like the ones in charge of speech) try to open it almost every day, but so far nobody could do it.
The guy is S.P. (some person)

cuti said...

"does language save us from ourselves, in effect, in our instinctual ways?"

why that question in the first place?

Mariana Soffer said...

Sorry for not being clear what i ask is if language saves us from our basic instincts

cuti said...

yes, I understood that. What I don´t understand is why would us have to be saved from our instincts.

Mariana Soffer said...

from the "in-stinks", specially the social ones If you wan't me to I can send you a text that might clarify it more.

Anonymous said...

Does language save us from ourselves, in effect, in our instinctual ways?

Yes, and also language actually creates a self that wouldn't exist otherwise. Saying something can sometimes make it true.

Our posts were a coincidence. :)

Mariana Soffer said...

Txs for your comment. Wierd coincidence. Loved your poem.

Uncle Tree said...

Born to save number one, are we not? We feel as though we have to have something to rise above, as if our tribal ways didn't get us this far for no good reason.

So we invented humility, lest our pride get in the way. Pride, along with all of it's illogical thought processing devices.

We feel proud to be called humble.
Do the math. We can't really win this particular battle, but we can have our words squabble over it.

Mariana Soffer said...

Curiously pride is one of those psychological concepts we discuss on a day-to-day basis but which has been largely neglect by research psychologists.

Intresting that you brought that up.

I love the phrase "We feel proud to be called humbl"


Uncle Tree said...

Going back to what you said above, Mariana, that language is alive and not static, how is it then that a particular language has the ability to disappear from the face of the earth? Does it go one word at a time?

I don't text message, but I wonder if we need to be concerned about the shortened transformation of the English language.

Grammar is a funny sounding word,
and I think it's made out of plastic. Teachers hate that.

Mariana Soffer said...

Yeah, grammar is kind of ugly, but the concept is clear if you do not dig much: It is a model of the language. The worst word of all is semantics, it means so many things, either in linguistics and in computer science, that indeed it means nothing, I think it is a kind of wild card they use when they do not have a proper word.

Messages is nothing listen to what might happen:The future may belong to "Simplified Technical English," an artificial dialect with a "reverse thesaurus" you use to restrict vocabulary and grammatical complexity. It's a descendant of Ogden's "BASIC English," an 800-word subset that can be used to express any English thought. (BASIC, btw, stands for the five empires of Ogden's day -- British, American, Scientific, Industrial, and Commercial!)

Regarding the disappearing of languages I haven't read anything but my hunch is that they disappear gradually (maybe not exactly one world at a time), and they are replaced by the language of the dominating culture (like English). Or they disappear cause the small group of people who used it become extinct.