Transforming the mind through language study

In his work “The Perception of Reality,” philosopher William James posed a question not of reality itself, but under what circumstances people think things are real. This was a question later taken up by sociologist Erving Goffman in his seminal work “Frame Analysis.” Recently, I found myself fascinated with an article in The New Yorker about the development of a hypothetical language which takes up the issue from a linguistic angle. Does the language we speak actually influence the way we perceive the world?

Talking about the messy, irregular world of human language, the article’s author Jonathan Foer wrote: “No one who set out to design a form of communication would ever end up with anything like English, Mandarin, or any of the more than six thousand languages spoken today.”  However, an amateur linguist from California named John Quijada tried to combat some of those quirks when he designed a hypothetical language he named Ithkuil. His ambitious goal was to develop a language that was extremely precise but also very concise and logically consistent. It was inspired by the notion of developing “one single language that combined the coolest features from all the world’s languages.” It’s a fascinating article that touches on human inventiveness and the ways language helps us constitute our world.

Earlier this month, behavioral economist Keith Chen gave a TED talk on the idea that the language we speak affects not just how we think about the world, but our behavior as well. Chen examined differences in savings behaviors among people whose languages distinguish between past, present, and future (such as English and French) and people whose languages don’t (such as Mandarin). He found strong evidence to support a connection between how we think about the future and how we save for our future. Economic behavior isn’t the only thing that has been studied in this manner: linguistic differences in the concepts of navigation, color, gender attitudes, and blame have all been considered by other scholars. 

These are issues everybody learning a new language eventually confronts — the realization that it’s not enough to memorize grammar and conjugation rules. At a certain point, to learn a language, you need to develop the ability to think in that language. And that realization brings another — that some thoughts are more thinkable in certain languages. So in some ways, learning a language may be about transforming the mind itself.

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3 thoughts on “Transforming the mind through language study

  1. Mind shaping indeed! I was most compelled by the example that Foer highlighted in the piece about Quijada’s linguistic mastery, using Ithkuil:

    “Quijada opened his presentation the next morning by showing an image of Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2,” a seminal work of Cubist painting, which captures a figure in motion with abstract lines and planes. It’s not an easy work to describe in any language, but Quijada wanted to demonstrate how one would attempt the task in Ithkuil.

    He began with several of the language’s root words: -QV- for person, -GV- for clothing, -TN- for an implement that counters gravity, and -GW- for ambulation, and showed how to transform those roots through each of the language’s twenty-two grammatical categories to arrive at the six-word sentence ‘Aukkras êqutta ogvëuļa tnou’elkwa pal-lši augwaikštülnàmbu,’ which translates roughly to ‘An imaginary representation of a nude woman in the midst of descending a staircase in a step-by-step series of tightly integrated ambulatory bodily movements which combine into a three-dimensional wake behind her, forming a timeless, emergent whole to be considered intellectually, emotionally, and aesthetically.’”

    Assuming we’ve reshaped the mind, how now would one pronounce that sentence?!

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