Thoughts on Language, Part 1

Vocabulary + Grammar, Wikipedia

Vocabulary + Grammar, Wikipedia

Language and thought are inextricably liked. This is a fairly obvious thought, perhaps, for it is clear that we think in words. (Some may argue that we can also think in pictures, images, but while images may evoke feelings or create in us conditions where certain thoughts are more likely, the actual thoughts always come in words). What is less obvious is that because all language is finite and, therefore, limited, our language limits our thoughts. Or, to put it more bluntly, in any given language there are thoughts that are unthinkable.

Now it may be argued that this is a temporary, not a fundamental, problem because languages are continually extending themselves, adding new words to contain new ideas, new thoughts. But this assumes that all of the limitations of a given language are in its limited vocabulary. Language is not vocabulary, but rather the union of vocabulary and grammar, and the limits that grammar puts upon thinking are at once both more subtle and more intractable.

The major modern languages have all grown to be robust enough that we are rarely aware of the limitations they impose upon us. Probably the people who notice them most are those who try to translate thoughts from one language to another. In a simplistic view this should merely be a fairly mechanical process of substituting one word for another—an English word that denotes the same thing as a French word, for example. But this ignores two major problems: First, words not only denote, they also connote. That is, in addition to the literal meaning of the word there is also a vast, vague cloud of other meaning and emotional colour that is attached to the words in each language, and these “clouds” may be very different. To consider this, consider the two English words “diaphanous” and “translucent”. Both mean, literally, “allowing light to pass through” (the first from the Greek, the second from the Latin), yet they have different connotations—to say a woman’s clothing is diaphanous is more romantic than to say it is translucent (or worse, transparent).

The second problem is that of grammar. Because of the increasing international conversation, most of the major modern languages share similar grammars, though they may be expressed differently, but this is not always so. For instance, our ability to talk about time—that is tenses—can vary. Again, there is a simplistic view that in English, for example, there are only three tenses: Past, Present, and Future, but this is, after a little reflection, clearly not true. Consider the differences between “I went to the store”, “as I was going to the store”, and “I used to go to the store”. The first describes a single, completed action in the past, the second a past act that was in progress, and the third a series of past acts that is now over. And these by no means complete the list of past tenses (“I had gone…”, “I would/could/should have gone…”, “I had been going…”). Having this array of tenses allows us to say some very nuanced  things, but what if the other language has a different array of tenses? There is, for instance, no English equivalent of the Koinè Greek aorist tense.

These problems are bad enough between robust languages: In translating the New Testament from Koinè Greek to English, for instance, do you try to keep the simplicity and force of the original or do you try to convey the connoted colouring by expanding and explaining? Does either really capture the original thought? But the problems become issues of morality and justice when we consider less robust languages.

Next time I will look into this issue.


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6 Responses to “Thoughts on Language, Part 1”

  1. forrest curo Says:

    If I remember right — thoughts of people who think in words “always come in words.” Thoughts of people who think in pictures typically come in a pictorial form, likewise thoughts of people who tend to think in ‘tactile’ forms. Many people use more than one mode, depending on which subjects they’re working on.

    We need words (usually) to transmit thoughts, regardless of who first conceives them or what sort of process inspires them… which tends to mask such differences. But fairly often, ideas will ‘fly’ in verbal form that wouldn’t have gotten off the ground in the mind of someone accustomed to testing their thoughts in concrete images…

    And a lot depends on metaphors: how much a language depends on metaphor (They all do, for complex abstract thinking) vs having a larger ‘atomic’ vocabulary — & on which metaphors have become so ingrained that they aren’t even recognized as such. ie those “water sheep” that kept creeping into a back-translation from English to Russian back to English in an old Phillip K Dick story.

    The Bible, specifically, is ‘easy’ to translate into many languages because so much of its language is metaphoric. But then, it isn’t so readily understood by speakers of other languages, because they’re accustomed to taking things more literally…

    • thoughtfulspirituality Says:

      You are probably right, there are people who think in non-verbal forms and who even communicate without words: Painters, musicians, sculptors. Such communication, valuable as it is, is still different in that what it communicates is vaguer, more subject to the condition of the “hearer” than communication done in words, I think. Still I will have to re-examine that part of what I wrote.

      The question of metaphor is very germane. It is heavily involved in the “semantic cloud” idea I talked about: That words and ideas come with, often untranslatable, associations. I don’t think the problem is limited to whether the hearer typically uses metaphor, I think it is larger and more universal than that.

      Still, you have done what you usually do and made me work on refining my own ideas, and for that I thank you.

  2. Thoughts on Language, Part 2 « thoughtfulspirituality Says:

    […] Explorations of Christian Spirituality « Thoughts on Language, Part 1 […]

  3. robstroud Says:

    Your discussion of connotations got me thinking about how partisan the American media has gotten during this political season. They pretend to be nonpartisan, but it’s not difficult to recognize their prejudices. Their word choices minimize the failings and maximize the accomplishments of “their” candidate. (The reverse, of course, is true for the competition.) It’s disgusting.

    The richness of language that connotes various shades of meaning, however, is not disgusting. It’s wonderful!

    • thoughtfulspirituality Says:

      Yes, you are right there, Rob. It is interesting to compare the media on the different sides of the Atlantic (I lived on the US side for 30 years). The media here in England is just as biased, but, I think, more open about it, in that the newspapers are pretty much open in their political alignments. In the US, they do seem to pass themselves off as “unbiased”, although, as you say, that is not too hard to see through.

      It is a shame, but inevitable, that such a wonderful thing as a rich language can be used to obfuscate and mislead as well as enrich, but that is the price we have to pay.

  4. Thoughts on Language, Part 3 « thoughtfulspirituality Says:

    […] far I have looked at some ideas about languages (part 1) and how the lack of a sufficiently robust language can be a moral/justice issue (part 2). Now let […]

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