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Language, words, and stuff. [Sep. 2nd, 2002|09:40 pm]
Warning: this is made under the influence of not-excessive amounts of alcohol, but I'm not, strictly speaking, sober.

I've been seeing a lot about language recently, and it's had me thinking. I've seen the old suggestion that language limits thought, or influences thought, and I've seen bits and pieces about the values, and dangers, in 'labels'.

One of the things I've thought might be a meaningful insight is that words are often used as limiters. By that, I mean that when you say something (or write something, etc.), it's like you're trying to cut down an entire universe full of information back until you've communicated what you want.

"I'd like another beer" (a statement that's untrue at the moment; I've got quite enough) isn't so much providing information as it is removing information. It's almost like saying "Remove all states you could be imagining about me in which beer would be repulsive."

Talking about an object means "not talking about something that's not the object type we're considering". e.g., talking about a bird means *NOT* talking about a non-bird.

Now, what's so important about that? Well, that touches on labels. If you label something as being X, or X-like, if you are wise, what you're *REALLY* doing is saying that it's not non-X.

You're not saying the map is the territory; you're saying the territory is not unlike the map in all ways.

See, when we think, we're automatically labelling things, in one way or another. If nothing else, we've attached "that thing I'm thinking about" label to that something. And, the most important thing about that might be that we're thinking of something other than "not-what-we're-thinking-about". It might be difficult, or impossible, to put a thought into words. Thoughts might well be analog; words are certainly digital (to some degree). We may never find a perfect matchup between the two, just as a digital recording can never be a perfect reproduction of an analog wave (but it might be so close that no human being is able to tell the difference).

I think that's the purpose of poetry and art... to communicate those things that are beyond mere words.

But anyway... more important than that, I think is the concept of "cutting away" with language... that language is more about "what isn't" than "what is".

I think I'll explore that a bit more when I'm fully sober. Words are slippery enough then, that I don't want to keep juggling them when I'm not at the top of my game.

[User Picture]From: eleccham
2002-09-04 11:43 am (UTC)
Someone - I have no means by which to back-reference right now - did a very interesting study regarding verbs as related to culture. It was an extension of the concept that one's language, in a very real way, shapes one's thought process.

(Caveat emptor: I know little to nothing about the languages discussed here. I am merely restating my memories of the aforementioned study.)

Russians, the studier noted, appear to be obsessed with going places - there are different words for going on foot, going by car, going right now, going later, etc. English (and IIRC other Romance-derived languages) focus a lot on doing things. Japanese has many words regarding form, but per jhitchin, is missing an easy way to say "I can do x".

I have, many times, found English sorely inadequate - there are portions of the territory that are simply unmapped (at least by English - I have only smatterings of anything else). Despite only having taken a few weeks of Japanese, I have on at least one occasion had to stop dead in the middle of a sentence because I discovered that the concept I was attempting to verbalize mapped onto a difficult-to-translate Japanese word.

Yet another argument for teaching languages to young children... flexibility in thought.
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