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Posts Tagged ‘linguistics’

In the Aymara language (a high Andean Indian language) the future and the past are in exactly the opposite positions from where they are to English speakers. You and I say that the future lies before us, and the past somewhere behind us. In Aymara, it’s the exact opposite.

But the Aymara call the future qhipa pacha/timpu, meaning back or behind time, and the past nayra pacha/timpu, meaning front time. And they gesture ahead of them when remembering things past, and backward when talking about the future.

…….the Aymara speakers see the difference between what is known and not known as paramount, and what is known is what you see in front of you, with your own eyes. The past is known, so it lies ahead of you. (Nayra, or “past,” literally means eye and sight, as well as front.) The future is unknown, so it lies behind you, where you can’t see.

(this according to research published in “Cognitive Science”)

Just pause for a moment and wonder what difference that would make to the way you understand life, or, at least, how you understand how to move through the flow of time.

Lera Boroditsky of Stanford University gives us even more food for thought on this subject in an article in the Edge. Look at this example she gives –

Suppose you want to say, “Bush read Chomsky’s latest book.” Let’s focus on just the verb, “read.” To say this sentence in English, we have to mark the verb for tense; in this case, we have to pronounce it like “red” and not like “reed.” In Indonesian you need not (in fact, you can’t) alter the verb to mark tense. In Russian you would have to alter the verb to indicate tense and gender. So if it was Laura Bush who did the reading, you’d use a different form of the verb than if it was George. In Russian you’d also have to include in the verb information about completion. If George read only part of the book, you’d use a different form of the verb than if he’d diligently plowed through the whole thing. In Turkish you’d have to include in the verb how you acquired this information: if you had witnessed this unlikely event with your own two eyes, you’d use one verb form, but if you had simply read or heard about it, or inferred it from something Bush said, you’d use a different verb form.

She asks if this means that the speakers of these different languages end up remembering their experiences differently from each other, and if so, does that mean they actually see and understand the world differently?

How does this relate to the fact that we all live on different planets?

She gives us quite a mind boggling example of how we orientate ourselves physically in the world through our use of language by telling us about an Aboriginal tribe from northern Australia, the Kuuk Thaayorre.

Instead of words like “right,” “left,” “forward,” and “back,” which, as commonly used in English, define space relative to an observer, the Kuuk Thaayorre, like many other Aboriginal groups, use cardinal-direction terms — north, south, east, and west — to define space.1 This is done at all scales, which means you have to say things like “There’s an ant on your southeast leg” or “Move the cup to the north northwest a little bit.” One obvious consequence of speaking such a language is that you have to stay oriented at all times, or else you cannot speak properly. The normal greeting in Kuuk Thaayorre is “Where are you going?” and the answer should be something like ” Southsoutheast, in the middle distance.” If you don’t know which way you’re facing, you can’t even get past “Hello.”

The result is a profound difference in navigational ability and spatial knowledge between speakers of languages that rely primarily on absolute reference frames (like Kuuk Thaayorre) and languages that rely on relative reference frames (like English).2 Simply put, speakers of languages like Kuuk Thaayorre are much better than English speakers at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes or inside unfamiliar buildings. What enables them — in fact, forces them — to do this is their language. Having their attention trained in this way equips them to perform navigational feats once thought beyond human capabilities.

This is not just an amazing skill but it’s a skill English speakers just don’t have. There is a complete synthesis of language and physical orientation that makes a huge practical difference to the skills needed to find their way around. These are fascinating pieces of evidence that supports Lakoff and Johnson’s theories about the basic conceptual metaphors we use being related to how we experience our physical existence. But she goes on to give other examples, such as how Mandarin speakers talk of time vertically where English speakers talk of it horizontally (“Point to a spot which represents tomorrow” leads English speakers to point in front of them, and Mandarin speakers to point vertically upwards)

What does this mean for someone who learns another language? In Lera Boroditsky’s work, she investigated this –

In our lab, we’ve taught English speakers different ways of talking about time. In one such study, English speakers were taught to use size metaphors (as in Greek) to describe duration (e.g., a movie is larger than a sneeze), or vertical metaphors (as in Mandarin) to describe event order. Once the English speakers had learned to talk about time in these new ways, their cognitive performance began to resemble that of Greek or Mandarin speakers. This suggests that patterns in a language can indeed play a causal role in constructing how we think. In practical terms, it means that when you’re learning a new language, you’re not simply learning a new way of talking, you are also inadvertently learning a new way of thinking.

That confirms what you probably suspected already….that learning a new language doesn’t just let you communicate with people who speak that language, but it provokes you to see and understand the world differently.

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“Metaphors we live by” written by Lakoff and Johnson. (ISBN 0-226-46801-1) ……..
I often muse about what makes a human being, human? Or what makes a human being fully human? Consciousness is clearly one of the characteristics. Language is another. And imagination is a third. Perhaps it’s because I’m interested in these phenomena that some time back I bought “Metaphors we live by”. Our ability to handle metaphors and symbols intrigues me, and I wanted to understand better how we use metaphors so the title caught my eye. However, when I flicked through it, it struck me as a bit technical and even dry. I thought it was a book about linguistics, an area of study which does interest me, but one which I find can be difficult to grasp. So I put the book aside in my giant collection of “interesting books to get round to reading one day”. I’m not quite sure I pulled it off the shelf recently. Oh, yes, actually I do remember why, but the explanation is going to have to wait till another post. (cryptic, huh?) I guess that old adage of there being a right time for everything must apply to books, because this time, I started into it and couldn’t stop. I’ve marked it up. I read and re-read chapters. I’ve skipped to the back, delved into the middle, read it from cover to cover. I find it compelling and convincing. And I can’t figure out why I didn’t take to it first time round.
It’s actually an incredibly difficult book to summarise. Usually when I write a review like this I paste in a few passages from the book to illustrate what it’s like. But I’ve collected so many passages I find it hard to pick only a few!
Here’s the gist of their argument. By studying human communication they claim to have discovered that metaphors are not simply a word or language game, but much more fundamentally, they are conceptual. By that they mean we think in metaphors, we understand using metaphors, and, indeed we understand the world and our place in it through metaphors. I didn’t need convinced about that. I already thought that metaphors were the basis of thought. However, they take the whole project to an entirely different level by studying the types of metaphors which are most prevalent in our thinking and communicating. With way too many examples to share here, they illustrate clearly and convincingly that the basic, fundamental metaphors we use haven’t appeared randomly, but are developed out of our interactions with the physical and the cultural worlds in which we exist. In other words, they are develop from our interactions with time and space, and our interactions with other people and creatures. This, I think, is the key. It allows them to develop an argument they call “the experientialist myth”, proposing it as a better way to understand life than the opposing myths of “objectivism” and “subjectivism”. (Time for a quote or two from the book)

The myth of objectivism reflects the human need to understand the external world in order to be able to function successfully in it. The myth of subjectivism is focused on internal aspects of understanding – what the individual finds meaningful and what makes his life worth living. The experientialist myth suggests that these are not opposing concerns.

Within the myth of objectivism, the concern for truth grows out of a concern for successful functioning. Given a view of man as separate from his environment, successful functioning is conceived of as mastery over the environment. Hence the objectivist metaphors KNOWLEDGE IS POWER and SCIENCE PROVIDES CONTROL OVER NATURE.

The principal theme of the myth of subjectivism is the attempt to overcome the alienation that results from viewing man as separate from his environment and from other men. This involves an embracing of the self – of individuality and reliance upon personal feelings, intuition, and values. The Romanticist version involves reveling in the senses and feelings and attempting to gain union with nature through passive appreciation of it.

The old myths share a common perspective: man as separate from his environment.

The experientialist myth takes the perspective of man as part of his environment, not as separate from it. It focuses on constant interaction with the physical environment and with other people. It views this interaction with the environment as involving mutual change. You cannot function within the environment without changing it or being changed by it.

Do you get the idea? It’s a kind of division between the rationalists and the Romantics, with the claim that metaphor builds a bridge between reason and the imagination and gives us a third way. One which neither denies objective reality, not gets lost in subjective relativism. In the process, this “experientialist” way, shows how there are no Absolute truths out there discoverable without an understanding based on cultural systems, but keeps the project of the imagination and feelings grounded in our interactions with the world.

Objectivism takes as its allies scientific truth, rationality, precision, fairness, and impartiality. Subjectivism takes as its allies the emotions, intuitive insight, imagination, humaneness, art, and a “higher” truth.
The proportions of our lives governed by objectivism and subjectivism vary greatly from person to person and culture and culture. Some of us even attempt to live our entire lives totally by one myth of the other.

How do you think it is for you? Are you more drawn to objectivism’s allies, or subjectivism’s?

I find both main strands of their case very convincing. The more you look for it, the more you become aware of the pervasiveness of metaphor, and the more you study it, the clearer it becomes that conceptual metaphors are grounded in our experiences and interactions. Their experientialist myth appeals to me much more than either of the other two older myths. It strikes me as more true. I also think it allows a much more robust defence against scientism than romanticism ever did.

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