2011-04-28

Language, and our perception of things.

I was just kind of mulling over something I had read from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, talking about how we tend to feel a fondness for the past, because the language that we use was created to describe what was, not what is (because how can you ever describe what is, when it's changing instantaneously and constantly becoming what was) or what will be (since that's all just speculation).

This got me thinking a lot about language and our perception of things, and how they influence each other. It's a little bit difficult to think about expounding on this, as I have a feeling it gets way into our subconscious, but here are some thoughts.

I think that language plays a huge role in how we perceive the world around us. Our language reflects not only the physical objects and environment of the past (even if it's just some moments past), but also reflects feelings, thoughts, and cultural values that were shared by the people who have come before us, sometimes hundreds and hundreds of years before we were born. Not only the words that are available to use, but the grammatical structure, the usage of words and the sounds that make up a language reflect the people who have used the language. For instance, common modern English makes heavy use of the subjunctive mood in order to soften a sentence and make it feel more "polite". The Lithuanian language also has the subjunctive mood, but it is used much less commonly, and people are more apt to just state plainly what they do or don't want, what they are doing, what they want to see happen. The English sentence "If you could stop here, that would be great" would likely appear in common use in Lithuania as "Sustokite čia," or "stop here". This is just a product of their culture, and is not considered blunt or rude there, it is just how most people use language. You can see however, how these two different paradigms of usage reflect somewhat different views of how people ought to relate to each other, and certainly growing up with one paradigm will shape how you do, in fact, relate to other people.

Our minds think concrete thoughts by way of language. This is why so much effort was put into controlling and shaping language, for instance, by Soviet Russia, to name one instance. The idea is that, if you can control the language which a person has at their disposal, you can change what they are able to concretely think, what ideas they are able to express, and in turn, how they view the world.

There is a bit of a chicken/egg issue here though. Language is clearly not a static thing. Though in some languages, modern people can still read texts from half a century ago, language is always changing, and especially now with cultures interacting like they never have before, you see Japanese for instance, which has previously been a very homogenous language and culture, starting to feature Japanese-ized versions of English words. English is now a mixture of German, French, Spanish, Dutch and who knows what else. The physical world changes, and so our language must change to describe new things, new inventions, new discoveries.

Another issue at play here is that not all of our awareness of ourselves is contained within the words we know. Clearly we feel and are aware of things we cannot express in words, but we feel compelled to, and in some cases, this results in new language, people who are creative with expression in the form of words, who change what is possible with the language they know, or invent new language to fill in what their existing language lacked. I'm not sure if this kind of thing often changes language as a whole, I suppose it depends on the circumstance. Shakespeare, for instance, I'm sure changed the course of the English language, even if slightly.

Anyway, I could probably write hundreds of pages on this if I were to look at all the social and cultural influences, globalization, mass media, the internet... which I'm not going to do on my blog (or probably elsewhere, in reality). But I find it really fascinating to think about language and the roll it plays in our lives - I think many of us take language, and the usage of language, for granted, but I do really believe that our language effects us more than we realize.