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April 01, 2004

If Reality is a Head of Hair, Is Language a Comb?

Dear Friedrich --

The first time I ran across linguistic relativism -- the doctrine that language determines thought -- I reacted with utter disbelief, as I did the first time I ran across philosophers arguing that we don't speak languages, languages speak us. "Ya gotta be kiddin', right?" -- such was my super-sophisticated, instant response.

And yet, and yet ... I'd spent a teenaged year living in France, and it seemed clear to me even then that the French language had something to do with why the French love paradoxes; why they don't understand Anglo-style humor; and why they love logic-pirouettes ("wit"), highly-ornamented music, and haute couture. Language is embedded in, and an important part of, culture. And if culture doesn't dictate what you think and say, well, it certainly has an impact.

I was a young twit who was bad at languages, but even I could tell that my brain operated differently when it was in French mode than it did when in its usual American mode. I was dimly aware that speaking French seemed to lead me into new kinds of conversations; because I was speaking French, I was hearing, thinking and saying different things than I usually did. Or was this happening not because of the language but simply because I was in France?

I'd think about French, English and reality more generally, and I'd go around muttering things like "different combs; same head of hair." After some years, I settled on this way of thinking about language and culture: they don't determine much, but they certainly condition an awful lot. It seemed an accurate, and useful, way of summing up my experience.

So I enjoyed this Philip Ross article for Scientific American about the Berkeley linguistics prof Paul Kay, here. Kay has spent years looking into how various languages attend to matters of color; the larger question he's been probing is, To what extent does language determine thought? I find his answer tres sympat -- as I do the provisional way he tenders it.

Did I ever tell you about the college friend of mine who moved to Italy? She'd always been a charming, gabby woman in a stylized American-girl way. The first time I visited her in Italy, though, I was amazed. Speaking American-English, she was her usual self. But speaking Italian, she was something else entirely. Not only had she picked up Italian quickly and convincingly, she was waving her hands, moving the pitch of her voice up and down the musical staff, and making emotional faces that could be read from miles away ...

When I asked her about the creature she'd become, she responded this way: "In Italy, if you simply say the words, no one pays attention -- no one really hears you. Unless you wave your hands, singsong your voice and make exaggerated facial expressions, you aren't really speaking Italian, at least not as far as the Italians are concerned." The little lesson I took away from this exchange: "language" isn't something you simply speak, and it isn't simply a matter of knowing the grammar and reciting the correct words either. No, instead, it's a complex and ongoing activity you do your best to enter into and take part in. Language isn't just the rulebook; it's the whole damn ballgame.

Suits me for now, anyway. What's your reaction to the people who argue that language determines thought? And what's your reaction to the people who claim that the language they speak has no impact on what they think or what they say?



posted by Michael at April 1, 2004


I think I've worked it out: the reason for your fecundity, Michael, is that you're actually a Michael Blowhard bot. An intern somewhere feeds in terminology like "contempo" and then plugs it into one of a number of pre-set algorithms: this one's one of my favourites, I must say. "When I was growing up, I used to think X. But then all the Smart People told me that Y. But now I realise that really, X after all."

Just for once, I'd love to see a Blowhard post which took the opposite tack. Is there anything at all which the Smart People and Regular Guys disagree on, and where the Smart People are right and the Regular Guys wrong?

Posted by: Felix on April 1, 2004 1:52 AM

Certainly one of the main points of Finnegan's Wake is that a serious immersion in it will change the way you think. Gertrude Stein also jumps to mind. And perhaps most great modern poetry.

I am also wondering about the effect jargon and technical languages. Do professional mathematicians think differently than biologists? Do analytic phllosophers think differently than neo-platonists?

Do bloggers think in epigrams and anecdotes? :)

Posted by: bob mcmanus on April 1, 2004 3:30 AM

Discrete mathematics, eastern meditation and LSD have all caused essentially identical states of mind in myself; perhaps not in intensity or duration, but MOST certainly of kind.

I have also lived with room mates I shard no spoken language with for an extended time, and the quality of communication was of a very different sort, much more harmonious in many ways domestically (weird things like cooking exactly enough food for yourself and your room mate, without thinking about how much to cook, not even knowing when they got off work. All the time. Was very kewl).

Speaking French all the time triggered very different-feeling thoughts than English. My best friend and I in high school spoke nothing but French to each other my senior year. Around Christmas of that school year it became automatic, and we'd both started dreaming in it by them (we were 3rd year HS French students with a very good teacher, too). Reading books like Les Miserables in the original didn't hurt any either I'm sure.

So yeah, it's always me, but what I'm doing (in the sense of thought) is different.

Oh, and since we're chemical beings, banning drugs bans thoughts. Not all desirable states of mind are as easily acheived sans chemical help as others.

And who is the State to tell me what to think?

Posted by: David Mercer on April 1, 2004 4:05 AM

Didn't this language-controls-thought notion originate with Nietzsche? He illustrated some of the metaphysical presuppositions embedded in languages and their grammar. He also speculated that because grammar varies between language groups, that this would cause the philosophy written in those languages to vary likewise.

An interesting speculation, but I very much doubt that the Big N would ever have countenanced such a strong expression as "language controls thought." Actually, his observations themselves would have been impossible if the relationship between language and thought was so determinative.

Of course, being the insanely stylish writer he was, he put the idea out there in a fashion in which other people could (and did) miss his context...obviously, a preference for dramatic language not only led him occasionally astray, but also his readers. Maybe what he was really getting at (perhaps unconsciously) was the idea that 'style controls thought'!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 1, 2004 8:58 AM

Interesting posts and will check out the article. I actually approach this from the perspective of suffering from speech impediments and how my lack of ability to communicate correctly dramatically changed me (especially in comparison to my siblings). From a micro level, because my speech patterns were so different from my peers (since they were still developing language skills at the same time as me but in a different manner), only adults could actually understand what I was saying (i.e., words I’d speak would be inaudible, but with the fuller grasp of language, they could figure out what I was saying).

So, my speech patterns were based a great deal around adults at a very early age, and gradually my thought patterns advanced more quickly (at least in regards to my peers). Being around adults was never a problem for me, but interacting with my own peer group was always tougher and uncomfortable (man I wish I had access to the net when I was a kid). Obviously, this is small mirco example of what is being discussed.

Posted by: Kevin on April 1, 2004 9:00 AM

I took six years of Spanish and one year of German and never really got proficient in either (although I can still read Spanish OK sometimes). So I have no personal experience. But when people say they have different conversations or thoughts in a different language...does anybody have an example? Do you mean, I discussed the beautiful begonias in French and wouldn't have mentioned them in English? I fell in love with someone when speaking French and it wouldn't have occurred to me to like them if we were speaking English?

Posted by: annette on April 1, 2004 9:35 AM

From time to time I read about professors of linguistics bemoaning the fact that many small (in terms of speakers) languages are dying. They often use an enviro-species analogy, perhaps get rally folks to their cause.

To me, it's fine to collect info on a dying language for later study. But the loss? People drop small languages and move to speaking widely-used languages for their own economic benefit. So why shold they be condemned to living in an economic backwater to satisfy some guys at Lousy Ivy Universities?

And the supposed problem of the loss of words expressing unique concepts (12 types of snow, anyone)? English constantly creates and borrows words. Any many/most such "unique" words can be translated into short phrases in English that get the gist of the concept.

But then English, thank heaven, does not have to deal with its own version of the Academie Francaise.

Donald Pittenger

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 1, 2004 10:04 AM


Good to see you're still hanging around the website from time to time. As you no-doubt are aware, there are only three story lines in all of fiction: 'boy-meets-girl', 'the little tailor' (underdog triumphs) and 'the man who learned better.' If you don't like Michael utilizing story line number 3, which of the other two would you prefer?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 1, 2004 10:58 AM

Hi Friedrich -- Just popping in to say hi in the middle of a monthlong traveljag. I won't be around much until May, I'm afraid.

But to answer your question, I'm all in favour of story #3, if it's of the form "When I was growing up, I used to think X. But then all the Smart People told me that Y. And they were right!"

Posted by: Felix on April 1, 2004 11:09 AM

I flunked three semesters of French in high school and two in college. It simply wouldn't penetrate. Then I went to Paris to visit my girlfriend who was junioring at the Sorbonne. I started to pick it up a little, but I never thought, dreamed or imagined in French. I would form a thought in english, translate it, then speak. We hitch hiked to Rome and my experience was as if the entire language entered my brain by the act of crossing the border. Within days I was perfectly at home in Italian and when we left two weeks later I realized I hadn't thought in English for many days. I still couldn't speak French, though.

Posted by: Mike Hill on April 1, 2004 11:32 AM


Good point. One of the reasons J.R.R. Tolkien wrote “Lord of the Rings” and his other works were to create stories for his created languages. He felt that without myths and stories for his languages to exist in there would be no chance at all for them to have any life outside his own study.

In his works he is constantly adding in ancient words such as “ent” and “orc” in order to replace them back into the lexicon; with the advent of the movies and its current popularity, should be interesting to see how long his words will last. I guess if the linguist truly cares about the words and languages of dying tounges, they’ll need to find some relevant uses of it for today.

Posted by: Kevin on April 1, 2004 11:43 AM

"Language" and "Thought" are two words painted on the same smooth rock.

Posted by: Gerard Van der Leun on April 1, 2004 1:17 PM

On the other hand, If Reality is a Head of Hair, and Language a Comb, what are all these white flakes and strange small bugs? And is there a treatment that will get rid of them in one shampoo session? And what about premature a pattern language baldness? Perhaps, since we lead the world in words, the French are so jealous they have to make up for it in intonation and les petite bon mots de chou.

Posted by: Gerard Van der Leun on April 1, 2004 1:21 PM

Felix asks: "Just for once, I'd love to see a Blowhard post which took the opposite tack. Is there anything at all which the Smart People and Regular Guys disagree on, and where the Smart People are right and the Regular Guys wrong?"

To which I would but point him to this recent meditation at EjectEject which has a few cogent things to say about intellectuals vs. the common man.

Posted by: Gerard Van der Leun on April 1, 2004 1:25 PM

"One of the reasons J.R.R. Tolkien wrote “Lord of the Rings” and his other works were to create stories for his created languages."

Tolkien was considerably more serious than this. His Elven languages evolved (there are at least three versions), much as Old English became Middle English, and his point was very much about how language reflected culture, and for instance, how a decay in the language could reflect, or even cause, a decay in culture.

There are several specific scenes in the book where speaking an evil Elvish dialect incites evil in the speaker.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on April 1, 2004 2:23 PM

This is from the above-referenced EjectEject (who has some very funny things to say about highschool debate teams, too, btw):

"We won a lot of debates that way because, contrary to what the self-appointed elite believe – and what they are trying mightily to convince you to believe – the fact remains that the common person both here and abroad is not stupid at all.

This is terrifying to the elites. They see themselves as Baron Frankenstein, and us as the unruly mob armed with pitchforks and torches."

It kinda seems to me that what MBlowhard has learned several times in his life, is that--perhaps due to his Lousy Ivy Education---he thought the ELITES actually knew something important that the rest of us don't, and then realized they don't.

I don't think it's an issue of Smart Guys vs. Common People: I think it's recognizing those two groups are artificial, and overlap.

Posted by: annette on April 1, 2004 2:44 PM

Of course language doesn't control thought. If it did, we'd never be able to come up with new names when we need them. The existence of field-specific jargon precisely shows that when new language is needed, it is invented.

Posted by: Will Duquette on April 1, 2004 2:47 PM

It seems to me that Felix is trying his own semantic manipulation, to which I can only comment that "Smart People" != "smart people". I occasionally question whether the sets even intersect*.

Doug Sundseth

*For the terminally serious, that last was a joke.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on April 1, 2004 4:28 PM

I'd say that not only did I have thought in French I wouldn't have otherwise, but that learning French also caused me to have thoughts in English I wouldn't have otherwise.

All of which really started after I began dreaming in French (which of course caused our French teacher to shed tears of joy).

Posted by: David Mercer on April 1, 2004 5:00 PM

Apparently, I'm in a wrong profession. The only work-related tears I shed (very rearly,what a relief) are of exasperation...

And what of us who stuck in between? More and more often in Russian conversation I use English words (in different situations, mostly when something straight to the point required) and vice-versa, there are so many things that sound much better in Russian. Visitors from overthere think I'm standoffish, but- oh, please believe me! it's unintentional...

Posted by: Tatyana on April 1, 2004 5:40 PM

John Iverson and Aniruddh Patel, at the San Diego Neurosciences Institute are conducting a study wchic looks at whether one's native language influences the perception of non-linguistic sound patterns. Groups of 40 Japanese speakers and 40 English speakers were asked to categorize a series of tones that alternated in duration as either a repeating long-short or short-long rhythmic pattern.

Although they were listening to the exact same tones, the Japanese speakers heard the rhythm as long-short, while the English speakers heard it as short-long (note: the iambic foot).

"the difference between the two groups was dramatic, and we are now investigating the idea tht the rhythmic structure of one's language creates perceptual biases that influence how people hear non-linguistic rhysthms," Patel says.

In a related study, the team showed how the rhythm of a composer's native language is refelcted in the composer's music. It is well known that different languages can have very different rhythmic organizations, differeing for example in the relative durations of vowel and consonant sounds. One measure of this variation shows a clear distinction between british English and standard French. A similar measure was applied to the music of certain British and French composers who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries.

"The rhythmic differences inherent in the two languages were repeated in the instrumental music," Patel says. "This is the first scientific evidence that the language composers speak influences the music they create."

Posted by: tony on April 1, 2004 7:42 PM

I would say that language shapes thought, rather than controls it . . . it's been suggested that one of the reasons few of us have memories before the age of two or so is because we don't have the language to express them in, and therefore they weren't "recorded" in the same way that later memories were/are.

As someone fairly fluent in German, I think that speaking/thinking in a particular language limits or expands various possibilities of expression, and therefore thought.

Posted by: missgrundy on April 1, 2004 8:39 PM

People who know better than I do are invited to correct me here ... But, where poetry's concerned, isn't it true that Asian languages don't do the ba-duh ba-duh thing that Euro languages do. So that, instead of developing forms made up of rhythmic beats (iambic pentameter and the like), Asian poetry became a matter of counting syllables? There's an example of a language's qualities having a direct impact on artistic form. I wonder if that can be extended into content?

I seem to remember the music scholar Robert Greenberg arguing that language influenced the development of opera, in the sense that Italian opera became something very different than German opera -- the Italian language being much more mellifluous, and German being harsher. Hence, Verdi (and the content and stories of Verdi's operas) vs. Wagner (and the content and stories of his operas). I think it's an interesting idea, and he certainly knows much more than I do. But I also see his case as evidence of how hard it is to pry language apart from culture more generally. Does the sound of German and its grammatical structure inevitably lead to endless tales about Wotan? Does the way the Italian language work inevitably lead to tales of jealousy and revenge?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 2, 2004 12:47 AM

Felix -- Sorry my usual narrative disappoints. But did you notice that this posting diverges from the pattern? In this case, I'm saying that the truth (IMHO, of course) seems to be half what the "experts" say (language can be determining) and half what commonsense says (I use language to say what I mean) -- language has an impact, though not a determining one.Anyway, if I had any desire to endorse what Smart Opinion is saying, I wouldn't be a blogger. I'd be peddling my writing to academia or to the glossy magazines, where I could make some money or get tenure.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 2, 2004 12:53 AM

It's why I thought 'Lost in Translation' was more to do with language than with friendship and authentication.

Posted by: steve on April 2, 2004 9:32 AM

> Do you mean, I discussed the beautiful begonias in
> French and wouldn't have mentioned them in English?

Well, one example of this was a friend of mine who is fluent in Japanese and English. His Japanese boss visited his house (in Toronto, Canada) on a social call and was smoking. My friend is highly allergic to smoke.

When asked why he didn't tell his boss (who is perfectly nice) that he was allergic, he replied they had been speaking Japanese, and that given the status difference between the two, there was no way to ask his boss to stop smoking (short of what would have been the English equivalent of "Put out that cigarette out you ignorant lout!").

He elaborated to say that because the interaction was occurring in Japanese, it didn't really occur to him to be unhappy with his boss' smoking, although it took him a day or two to recover. He's pretty certain he'd have said something to his boss if they were speaking in English. For one, he could have made the request politely in English.

Posted by: Tom West on April 3, 2004 7:46 AM

An aside:
In 'The Inscrutable Americans' Anurag Mathur writes any given cultures' tendency to develop synonyms "to distinguish the shadings of any element of which there was an abundance in the environment."
The half a dozen names for snow, for instance, and the way we in India have a huge string of names for specific family relationships.
Through the mouth of one of his characters, Mathur goes on wonder what has "the largest number of synonyms in America," and conludes that it's "Sex, thought Sunil with sudden inspiration. The sex act has more names in America than anything else."

Posted by: Zz on April 3, 2004 8:27 AM

Oh, those "snow names" again.
Apparently (as linguists tell us), it's a myth.

Posted by: Tatyana on April 3, 2004 11:50 AM

i did check that before i posted, and though i have no way to verify my sources, here they are:
p.s., i can vouch for the names we have in India describing family relationships.

Posted by: Zz on April 5, 2004 1:50 AM

Maybe the originators of a language were of a certain mindset and personality that determined how the language developed which reinforced that mindset and then through habit and genetics being passed down through the generations, so reversing the idea that language determines behaviour to the opposite. It would be a circular influence then which would explain why a foreigner becoming fluent in another language would adopt some of the characteristics of the speakers of it.
In music [of which I have no techical expertise] I have sometimes thought of the difference between the German and French style of the music as being a reflection of the languages, the German being very structured and logical, the French more flowing with less obvious adherence to the bar lines.

Posted by: tony on April 5, 2004 8:56 AM

ZZ, I apologize for keeping you waiting - I was trying to get professional reference on the subject of infamous snow words. Here's what professional linguists say (in addition to the specialist article I sited before but apparently it wasn't persuasive enough for you - but you never disputed it)
An excerpt:

...The list of snow-referring roots to stick them on isn't that long: qani- for a snowflake, api- for snow considered as stuff lying on the ground and covering things up, a root meaning "slush", a root meaning "blizzard", a root meaning "drift", and a few others -- very roughly the same number of roots as in English. Nonetheless, the number of distinct words you can derive from them is not 50, or 150, or 1500, or a million, but simply unbounded. Only stamina sets a limit.

That does not mean there are huge numbers of unrelated basic terms for huge numbers of finely differentiated snow types. It means that the notion of fixing a number of snow words, or even a definition of what a word for snow would be, is meaningless for these languages. You could write down not just thousands but millions of words built from roots that refer to snow if you had the time. But they would all be derivatives of a fairly small number of roots. And you could write down just as many derivatives of any other root: fish, or coffee, or excrement...

I hope it cleared the confusion, but of course - read the whole thing.
(Or, and I wouldn't site as scientific sources urban legends and straight dope)

Posted by: Tatyana on April 6, 2004 10:27 AM

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