AW Amazon Affiliate Store

confused by self-publishing? Find your way to self-publishing success in just 5 easy steps with this free how-to guide!

Editing for authors: because every writer needs a good editor.

If this site is helpful to you,
Please consider a voluntary subscription to defray ongoing expenses.


 

Welcome to the AbsoluteWrite Water Cooler! Please read The Newbie Guide To Absolute Write

Results 1 to 10 of 10

Thread: What is language's relationship to reality?

  1. #1
    Friendly Neighborhood Mustelidae The Otter's Avatar
    Join Date
    Mar 2007
    Location
    In the room next to the noisy ice machine, for all eternity.
    Posts
    1,219

    What is language's relationship to reality?

    I had the thought the other day that language, in a way, is similar to money.

    On one level, it's an incredibly powerful force that has shaped civilization as we know it, enables complex cooperation between individuals and groups, and is so much a part of our society that it's hard to even imagine life without it.

    On another level, it's an illusion that only means something because everyone has collectively decided to agree that it means something. A word or a unit of currency only has meaning within the context of the society or culture that created it. And the meaning is always changing.

    Language is probably a lot more primal and more woven into our day to day experience of life, but it still very much operates within the context of society and that society's norms.

    Given that, is it even possible to have language that objectively reflects reality? Or will it always in some way be a reflection of the particular time, place and culture it comes from?
    Last edited by The Otter; 12-21-2017 at 01:08 AM.
    Available in February 2018 from HarperCollins, my YA novel: WHEN MY HEART JOINS THE THOUSAND

  2. #2
    I've seen worse. SuperModerator ColoradoGuy's Avatar
    Join Date
    Oct 2005
    Location
    The City Different
    Posts
    6,616
    Language is quite constrained by culture, I think. There is of course the age-old debate about if the human brain has an intrinsic language (grammar) generator that is independent of culture or anything else. I believe Chomsky was the main champion of that. I'm not sure where that stands right now as a theory. Medievalist knows a lot about this topic and could help enlighten us.

    Meanwhile I think you might find Steven Pinker's most recent book interesting: The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature.
    "Think this through with me, let me know your mind.
    . . . what I want to know is, are you kind?"

    My books, website, and blog

  3. #3
    practical experience, FTW MaeZe's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jun 2016
    Location
    Ralph's side of the island.
    Posts
    4,280
    Much as I love Chomsky's work, he's been proven wrong about other animals not having the ability for syntax. Non-human primates taught a version of human language from birth can indeed pick up syntax. It's only logical that language didn't appear out of the blue with humans, it evolved.

    But our vocal cords and brain changes did make human use of language take a huge leap forward.

    I can only contribute a bit to this thread, I am fascinated by one aspect of language, that is how language frames our thoughts. George Lakoff's work on framing is a good place to start. Another is Frank Luntz's, Words That Work.

    In my case this first came to my attention back in the 70s in nursing school. Until we verbalized what nurses did, our profession was invisible. Nurses help doctors was about all anyone outside of the nursing profession knew about us. If you want to be recognized and properly compensated for your work, you have to describe what you do.

    NANDA (North American Nursing Diagnosis Association) Defining the Knowledge of Nursing.

    Early history:
    1973
    •Kristine Gebbie and Mary Ann Lavin call the First Task Force to Name and Classify Nursing Diagnoses. Members plan to meet biannually in St. Louis, MO. ...

    •Clearinghouse for Nursing Diagnoses established at St. Louis University. Served as a depository for nursing diagnosis materials and National Conference Group on the classification of Nursing Diagnoses. The clearinghouse published a newsletter, maintained a speakers bureau, coordinated plans for national conferences and distributed bibliographies on each diagnostic category developed.

    1974
    First Conference Proceedings edited by Gebbie and Lavin were published. ...

    1977
    Work of nurse theorist group began... In 1982, Sr. Callista Roy and other prominent theorists ... presented an organizing framework for nursing diagnoses called Patterns of Unitary Man (Humans), to NANDA and the Taxonomy Committee.
    Next came changing the image of nursing starting with the media (still a work in progress) but that's getting beyond language.


    The point is, verbalization is integral in how we conceptualize the world.
    Last edited by MaeZe; 12-21-2017 at 10:46 PM.

  4. #4
    practical experience, FTW cornflake's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jul 2012
    Posts
    13,939
    I have other thoughts, but for the moment, verbalization does not define and is not a requirement of language or of conceptualizing the world, for humans or other species.


  5. #5
    Cultured vulture Albedo's Avatar
    Join Date
    Dec 2007
    Location
    This place is not a place of honor.
    Posts
    5,491
    What is thought's relation to reality? What about what we see and feel? Our senses are subjective, and our interpretation of those is even more so, so I don't know how we could expect another abstraction on top of that to ever be objective.
    Alex

  6. #6
    practical experience, FTW Max Vaehling's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jan 2011
    Location
    Bremen, Germany
    Posts
    1,088
    There have been recent (?) studies showing how deep the connection between language and cognition goes. I'm thinking of one in particular that showed that people from countries whose grammar had a future tense were more likely to prepare for the future, i. e. get insurance. (It has been relayed in podcasts like Stuff to Blow your Mind a lot this year, but I can't pinpoint it right now.)

    Social Constructionism and Framing Theory state that how we perceive the world is informed by how we're prepared to interpret it, and language is a big part of that because to interpret, we need to be able to describe and define. And we can only do that with the languages we have. This doesn't mean we can't be objective, but it means we can only be objective within a certain framework and with limited scope. Or at least that it's really difficult to look beyond that and if we can, to share such views with others who can literally only take our word for it.

  7. #7
    The new me oneblindmouse's Avatar
    Join Date
    Nov 2007
    Location
    St Albans, UK
    Posts
    4,106
    Quote Originally Posted by Max Vaehling View Post
    ......... Social Constructionism and Framing Theory state that how we perceive the world is informed by how we're prepared to interpret it, and language is a big part of that because to interpret, we need to be able to describe and define. And we can only do that with the languages we have. This doesn't mean we can't be objective, but it means we can only be objective within a certain framework and with limited scope. Or at least that it's really difficult to look beyond that and if we can, to share such views with others who can literally only take our word for it.
    When we describe or pin things down (emotions, thoughts, perceptions), we are limited to the words at our disposal in the language we are using. Languages vary enormously. I'm a translator, and I constantly come up against not only subtle differences in meaning or usage, but also words for which there is no word in the other language. If certain concepts do not have a word in a particular language, they do not exist, as such, for the speaker. This conditions the way we express ourselves.

    I remember once interpreting (into Spanish) for a Tibetan talking English. He was describing incidents in the past, but because (I'm told) there are no past or future tenses in Tibetan, even though he had a fairly good grasp of English, he used the present continuous in English. So when questioned about the past, he replied: 'In 1965 my mother is doing this.... She is doing that.....' even though she'd been dead for years. It required a lot of explanation. When referring to the future he said, "Tomorrow I am doing.....". Always in the present continuous.

    "Strange Destinies" by Guillermo Rubio Arias-Paz, translated from the Spanish and out now on Amazon and the Endless Bookcase.

    Goodreads

  8. #8
    Friendly Neighborhood Mustelidae The Otter's Avatar
    Join Date
    Mar 2007
    Location
    In the room next to the noisy ice machine, for all eternity.
    Posts
    1,219
    Quote Originally Posted by oneblindmouse View Post
    When we describe or pin things down (emotions, thoughts, perceptions), we are limited to the words at our disposal in the language we are using. Languages vary enormously. I'm a translator, and I constantly come up against not only subtle differences in meaning or usage, but also words for which there is no word in the other language. If certain concepts do not have a word in a particular language, they do not exist, as such, for the speaker. This conditions the way we express ourselves.
    It certainly defines and limits how we express ourselves, but what I'm wondering is, does inventing a word for a concept actually create that concept? Or is it more a reflection of an experience that previously existed, but just didn't have a label until that point? My guess is that it's some combination of both, but I'm not sure how much each (creating reality verses reflecting reality) plays into it. How much are we actually inventing our own experiences and reality through which words we use? Or, rather, how much is the language and culture we're born into creating that reality? Does a problem or a benefit only become a problem or benefit once we have the language to define it? Or does the language simply recognize something that was already there, albeit in a more amorphous and difficult-to-define sense?

    Quote Originally Posted by oneblindmouse View Post
    I remember once interpreting (into Spanish) for a Tibetan talking English. He was describing incidents in the past, but because (I'm told) there are no past or future tenses in Tibetan, even though he had a fairly good grasp of English, he used the present continuous in English. So when questioned about the past, he replied: 'In 1965 my mother is doing this.... She is doing that.....' even though she'd been dead for years. It required a lot of explanation. When referring to the future he said, "Tomorrow I am doing.....". Always in the present continuous.
    That's really fascinating. Reminds me of what some physicists say about how the past, present and future are all happening simultaneously.
    Available in February 2018 from HarperCollins, my YA novel: WHEN MY HEART JOINS THE THOUSAND

  9. #9
    punny user title, here
    Join Date
    May 2007
    Location
    Austria
    Posts
    2,730
    Quote Originally Posted by The Otter View Post
    ...but what I'm wondering is, does inventing a word for a concept actually create that concept? Or is it more a reflection of an experience that previously existed, but just didn't have a label until that point? My guess is that it's some combination of both, but I'm not sure how much each (creating reality verses reflecting reality) plays into it.
    I have no clear take on this either, but I do have some preliminary thoughts. Cognition is a single process. Focussing on something is a sort of repition of attention, and that's what gives rise of concepts. So when we "see" something, when we become concsious of something as a unified whole, we're already creating a meaningful unit. Words are objects, in that sense, too. Here we are, with our inscrutible cognition soup, linking memory, thought and words. That sounds awefully complicated, but the key here is that both words and the things that we use words to refer to are objects that present themselves to us.

    Now, a concept is a bundle of cognition. There are words whose meanings we don't know. There are concepts we can't quite pin down with words. It's not a one-to-one relation, because we only have one mind in which all of this is mixed up. Take abstract words, such as "love" or "soul" or "justice". You're very likely to have heard those words before you've ever developed that level of abstraction, so you start speaking with the assumption that these things exist. They're probably word-first concepts: you figure out what people mean when they talk about this, and this is a social process. Other words clearly describe things that you've encountered before: words for your favourite food, for example, make it easier to express what it is that you want, but the desire is pretty familiar, and so is the object of desire. So, for example, you can crave a cookie without knowing how to ask for one, and finally being able to ask for one is a boon. These I call thing-first concepts.

    I find the distinction is especially interesting when it comes to writing fiction. You create words for things that don't exist, which is especially important for SF & F, but it's also sort of relevant for figurative language. There's no thing-correlate for a pun, for example, but it can still have real effects by forging cognitive connections. It's a mess, really.

    But basically, I think it helps to remember that words themselves are both concepts and things, too. So when other people name a concept, and the concept isn't that important to you but the person is, then you mix that in with concepts that are personally meaningful to you. This can lead to intricate conflicts of interest: for example, the availability of some words may block the wide-spread acceptance of others, but the word that wins out may be almost, but not quite there.

    For example, I'm an "atheist", but that term doesn't actually describe what I am - it describes what I am not. However, when I use the word "atheist" to describe what I am not, I use the syntax I would use to describe what I am. This leads to a lot of problems regarding "atheism is just another believe", and I can fall into that trap myself. A similar problem occurs with the distinction between "atheism" and "agnosticism". The assumption that words have objective meanings can cause problems, here, by making it hard to articulate difference, when the language systematically favours one point of view over others.

    I don't think there's such a thing as an innate language faculty, and I think that all meaning is inherently subjective. But I think that subjectivity in itself has traits that you can look at; that is my subjectivity is an object when looked at, and so is yours, and so is everyone else's, and that's why we can communicate in the first place.

    I said I have no clear take on this issue, but the direction I'm thinking in is language as a social arena to negotiate meaning. A thing we share, so we can talk about things we have in common and things we don't. My hunch is that language does shape the way you think, but not in a way that's unique to language. I think it's just a sub-type of "living with others". Shaking hands, crossing streets, buying dinner, talking, going to bed. But I'm not confident about that at all, and I haven't really worked it out to my satisfaction. It's just the direction I'm thinking in.

    (I love this thread, so thanks for making it.)

  10. #10
    I've seen worse. SuperModerator ColoradoGuy's Avatar
    Join Date
    Oct 2005
    Location
    The City Different
    Posts
    6,616
    Quote Originally Posted by Dawnstorm View Post

    I don't think there's such a thing as an innate language faculty, and I think that all meaning is inherently subjective. But I think that subjectivity in itself has traits that you can look at; that is my subjectivity is an object when looked at, and so is yours, and so is everyone else's, and that's why we can communicate in the first place.
    I like this notion.
    "Think this through with me, let me know your mind.
    . . . what I want to know is, are you kind?"

    My books, website, and blog

Bookmarks

Bookmarks

Posting Permissions

  • You may not post new threads
  • You may not post replies
  • You may not post attachments
  • You may not edit your posts
  •  
Custom Search