Conceptualization as a Byproduct of Language?

This article from a couple of years ago (which I have only just discovered) paints a delightfully fascinating picture of the connection between language and conceptions of reality. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the language a person has affects how they perceive, remember, and respond to the world. It is not terribly controversial to suggest that the entire process of reasoning is potentially influenced by a person’s language ability, but this article casts some light on the kinds of effects this can have. Since this blog is written in English, that is perhaps the most relevant language to the majority of my readers. One observation was that, since English is a particularly agent-focused language, English speakers more easily remember details about agents—that is, the person who performs an action. Some other observations:

About a third of the world’s languages (spoken in all kinds of physical environments) rely on absolute directions for space. As a result of this constant linguistic training, speakers of such languages are remarkably good at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes.

We tested each person in two separate sittings, each time facing in a different cardinal direction. When asked to do this, English speakers arrange time from left to right. Hebrew speakers do it from right to left (because Hebrew is written from right to left). Pormpuraawans, we found, arranged time from east to west.

English speakers tend to say things like “John broke the vase” even for accidents. Speakers of Spanish or Japanese would be more likely to say “the vase broke itself.”

There’s also a bit in there that suggests that English speakers are far more likely to blame someone for an accident if they read about it in the active voice instead of the passive, which has implications for all manner of legal (or pseudo-legal) proceedings as well as the entire field of journalism.

One disappointingly absent consideration was that of multilingual speakers. How exactly does the ability to speak more than a single language affect a person’s conceptions of reality? To what degree does second language proficiency factor in? How about age—is a person who develops a high level of second language proficiency as a child linguistically influenced to the same degree as another person whose proficiency is developed as an adult? These would be, I suspect, deeply captivating questions to study. In any case, they are questions for another study, not in any way shortcomings of this article.

Do give the article a read if you have even a passing interest in language. (And why wouldn’t you?)

(Disclaimer: This should not be taken as “proof” of any particular interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, especially not the one depicted in Nineteen Eighty-Four as Newspeak. As you should be able to infer from this article, that notion is rather more complicated than Mr. Orwell might lead you to believe. The book is, after all, a work of fiction.)

Spirituality and the Politics of Language

In today’s language lesson, we’ll be looking at words—specifically the meaning of words. When most people want to find out what a word means, they turn to the dictionary. This is an excellent resource, and it should go without saying that you should turn to it any time you find a word you’re not familiar with, but the definitions you find in the dictionary don’t tell the full story. There is meaning to words beyond these entries.

There are two kinds of meanings to words: denotation and connotation. I suspect more people will have experienced the latter word far more frequently than the former, which is kind of ironic because they will have spent far more time thinking about the former than the latter. Dictionaries are lists of words with their denotational meanings. (See, they both start with d, so you can use that to help you remember the difference if necessary.) Connotation refers to the emotional impact of a word, and even when two people share a mutual denotational definition of a word (as is common when both of them own dictionaries), they may not share the same connotation. Here’s an example:

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A Statement on Affirming a Negative

There has been plenty of pushback recently against the existence of the word atheist. Many argue that the term is nonsensical because it is unnatural to identify oneself as not-something. It is said that because atheism is a rejection of other claims, by using a word to describe this position, we invite misunderstanding, so we shouldn’t (need to?) describe people as atheists. Indeed, there are nonbelievers who reject the label for just this reason.

Sam Harris makes an analogy in suggesting that we do not have a term for a non-golfer*. Why the disparity? Because the majority of people practice some form of theism, it is relevant to identify non-theists as members of the minority group in much the same way as we have a word to describe fish that don’t rely on gills for respiration. The majority of people do not identify as golfers, but if 90% of the population regularly played golf, and people who didn’t play golf were treated differently from golfers, we would surely have a term for non-golfers.

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