Through the language glass



  • Cultural differences are reflected in language in profound ways, and a growing body of reliable scientific research provides solid evidence that our mother tongue can affect how we think and how we perceive the world
  • Culture is all human traits that are not the result of instinct
    • Nurture as opposed to nature

Part I

  • Gladstone, 1858, "Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age"
    • Homer and his contemporaries perceived the world in something closer to black and white than to full Technicolor
      • "wine-dark sea"
      • Gladstone arguments
        1. The use of the same work to denote colours which, according to us, are essentially different
        2. THe description of the same object under epithets of colour fundamentally disagreeing one from the other
        3. The slight use of colour, and its absence in certain cases where we might confidently expect it
        4. The vast predominance of the most crude and elemental forms of colour, black and white, over every other
        5. The small size of Homer's colour vocabulary
    • One cardical error
      • presuppositions about the relation between language and perception
  • Geiger, 1867, "On the Colour Sense in primitive times and its Evolution"
    • Perception of colour increased "according to the schema of the colour spectrum"
      • This development seems to have occurred in exactly the same order in different cultures all over the world
        • Red -> Yellow -> Green -> Blue and violet
  • Magnus, 1877, "On the Historical Evolution of the Colour Sense"
    • The perception of the ancients was similar to what moderns eyes can see at twilight
      • The opinion of Magnus's critics: since vision could not have changed, the only explanation must be that the deficiencies in ancient colour descriptions were due to "imperfections" in the languages themselves
  • Rivers, 1900
    • Expedition on Murray Island
      • Descriptions of colours by the local population is generally vague and indefinite
        • The most definite names were for black, white and red
  • Berlin & Kay, 1969, "Basic Color Terms"
    • Two major findings
      1. Colour terms are not so arbitrary
        • Languages acquire the names for colours in a predictable order
      2. Some ways of dividing the spectrum are still far more natural than others
        • Almost confirm Geiger's and Magnus' colour order
          • But they do not provide an actual explanation
    • Claims watered down in the following years
  • Complexity of language
    • A universal constant, reflecting the nature of the human race (as linguists say)
    • or, a variable that reflects the speakers' culture and society?
    • The claim "All languages are equally complex"
      • for example, in "Introduction to language" by Victoria Fromkin and Robert Rodman (1974)
        • "All languages are equally complex"
      • but there is no idea about how to measure the complexity of a language
      • in "A Course in Modern Linguistics" (Charles Hockett, 1958) the author draws a distinction that I think it's interesting if applied to programming languages
        • "[…] since all languages have about equally complex jobs to do, […] what is not done morphologically has to be done syntactically.
      • A lot of complexity (but still, how we measure it? is it possible?) is merely excess baggage that languages accumulate over the centuries
      • It's possible to measure complexity in certain areas, though
        • For example vocabulary
          • First dividing line is between languages of illiterate societies and those with a writter tradition
            • In illiterate societies there is no "passive vocabulary" 1
        • Morphology
          • Revere Perkins' experiment (1992)
            • There is an inverse correlation between the complexity of a society and the complexity of the language it uses
              • Plausible answers go back to one basic factor: the difference between communication among intimates and among strangers.
                • Communicating with intimates about things that are close at hand, you can be more concise (common frame)
                • Pressure for simplification in larger societies
                  • Contact with different languages
                  • Contacts with variations of the same language
                  • Literacy
        • Sound system
          • Direct correlation between the number of speakers and the size of the sound inventory
            • As opposed to word structure, it's not uncommon that a language's sound inventory increases due to contact with other languages
        • Subordination
          • Lack of shared background and knowledge in large societies leads to more occasions where complex information has to be conveyed

Part II

  • Sapir & Whorf
    • the profound differences between languages must be related to profound divergence in mode of thought
    • Sapir branded the principle of "linguistic relativity"
      • the observer's perception of the worls depends not only on his inertial frame of reference but also on his mother tongue
    • Before Sapir & Whorf
      • Humboldt
        • "language is a forming organ of thought"
        • The real differences between languages are not in what a language is able to express but rather in what it encourages and stimulates the speakers its to do (see Boas & Jakobson)
  • Boas & Jakobson
    • Boas, 1938
      • 'grammar performs another function. It determines those aspects of each experience that must be expressed"
    • Jakobson
      • "Languages differ essentially in what they must convey anot in what the may convey"



Also on language and societies, this interview with Alan Kay

Putting a writing system into an oral society doesn’t actually do it, doesn’t change them. It requires something more, because the thing that’s important about writing and how it changes the thinking of the civilization is the literate aspects of it, the structure and the thought, in various ways. Anyway, so this is all stuff that’s water over the dam, but most people don’t understand it. Most people in media don’t understand it.

Date: 2018-08-28 Tue 00:00

Author: Stefano Rodighiero

Created: 2019-12-31 Tue 12:19