Does the world look different in other languages? Are there words that cannot be translated? Is it OK to say disinterested when you mean uninterested? Lane Greene, who writes the Economist's "Johnson" column on language, dispels some of the popular but misguided ideas many of us have about language.
You’ve chosen books on ‘language and the mind.’ What do you mean by that?
One of the most interesting things about language is the prejudices and ideas people have about it. A lot of those misconceptions have to do with language and cognition, i.e. language and the brain. For example, a lot of people believe that the language that you speak alters your thought in really profound and deep ways. It’s one of the most common themes of the 20th century, and it came from a couple of linguists working early in the century. Since then you have people who will come up and tell you, with a totally straight face: ‘These people have no word for x so they can’t think about it.’ This really informed George Orwell in 1984: in the Newspeak language, if you got rid of words like ‘freedom’, those words would become, as Orwell put it, literally unthinkable.
So this subject really engages people, but there’s a lot of misunderstanding. These big psychological claims – for example that if you speak language x, you’ll have vastly different thoughts or thought processes than if you speak language y – turned out not to be true. For the last half century, from Noam Chomsky onwards, linguistics has really pushed back hard against these claims. But now some pretty clever researchers are finding out ways where different languages really do influence how we think. The effects are a lot more subtle. They’re very interesting, but they’re not as dramatic or as romantic as the early versions.
So do these books you’ve chosen go into these misconceptions? It’s also a big part of your own books, You Are What You Speak, and Talk on the Wild Side: The Untameable Nature of Language, this idea that people have all these notions about language that are complete nonsense.
I try to say that nicely. People love the topic, and they’re fascinated by it. Smart people in particular. Smart, well-intentioned, progressive-type people often take language very seriously. But they still eat up a lot notions that really need to be pushed back on.
OK, so the Deutscher book, Through the Language Glass, Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages. Does the world look different in other languages?
Yes – ish. Deustcher does a great job of first taking on those old notions. He goes back to the romantic 20th century ideas, in particular to a writer called Benjamin Lee Whorf. Whorf was an amateur linguist, he was largely self-taught but spent a lot of time doing research on this topic. Whorf famously claimed that the Hopi Indians of the American Southwest did not have a concept of time like westerners, because their language lacked those words. It turns out that he was wrong on both counts. His claims were based on interviews with one Hopi Indian in New York. Whorf was just off base and later researchers showed that.
But the horse was out of the barn. This notion that people think profoundly differently according to their language went racing around the world. Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said: ‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.’
Deutscher cleverly and really comprehensively describes the takedown of Whorfianism that happened with Chomsky, and the generation of linguists that Chomsky built around him/that followed him. Chomsky argued that all languages are fundamentally similar. He calls their underlying structure the ‘universal grammar’; and has set out trying to find all of those things that bind the world’s languages together since then.
But now, the pendulum is swinging back the other way. Some brave people have defied Chomsky, which is very difficult, because he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. They’ve pushed back on him and argue that different languages sometimes do have different views of the world.
Give me an example.
One is the gendered noun. If you study most European languages, you learn, for example, that the French table is feminine, it’s la table, not le table. And it turns out that people have different attitudes towards even totally inanimate nouns, depending on their gender. A table isn’t inherently feminine, but it’s feminine in French, so French people will be more likely, if asked to describe a table, to use feminine-like adjectives. Or a key. Germans describe a key as rigid and hard and strong. That’s because it’s masculine in German. Spaniards will describe a key as feminine, as gold and tiny and beautiful, because it’s feminine in Spanish.
These findings are fairly small-scale. They’re interesting and they make for good cocktail party conversation, but you wouldn’t argue: ‘Oh my God, this leads to a completely different cognition on the part of German versus Spanish speakers!’ After all, key doesn’t have any inherent sex, so if you ask people to pre-associate words with it, they’re going to grab whatever they’ve got – and it’s probably not surprising they grab for the grammatical gender in their language.
But one really striking example is to do with the Kuuk Thaayorre who live in northern Australia. It’s a tribe that does not have words for relative directions. They don’t say ‘left’ or ‘right’ or ‘up’ or ‘down’ or ‘back’. They use only the cardinal directions i.e. north, south, east and west. So instead of saying: ‘Hand me that cup of water by your left hand,’ they’ll say: ‘Hand me that cup of water by your southwest hand.’ Or: ‘You have an ant on your northeast leg.’ So how are they able to do this? The answer is that they have to remain constantly orientated. And it turns out that if you spin them around, put them in a cave, or try all sorts of things to discombobulate them, they can still unfailingly point in the right direction. So here is one example where you really do see that the fact their language has this property requires their cognition to build around that in a different way. And a group that lives right next door to them, in the same environment, does not have that ability to orientate themselves.
On to Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct, How the Mind Creates Language, which is incredibly famous. Is the virtue of this book that linguistics is an incredibly complicated subject and Pinker is somehow able to make its findings accessible to the lay reader?
There are two achievements in this book. One is to smuggle in Linguistics 101 into a popular book, which is just fantastic. It’s a fun read, he’s a really engaging writer. If you finish this book, you’ll never see language in the same way again. I felt that way when I picked it up about ten years ago – it set me on the path that led me to write my own book. At the same time, he also smuggles in his own argument about the nature of language, and the title says it all. He’s one of the camp that thinks there is this thing called ‘the language instinct’ that is hard-wired into the brain. Languages are fundamentally similar around the world, they show too many characteristics in common. There are too many logical ways to design a language that you could use, but no human natural language does. So his conclusion is that we have, through evolution, developed a language instinct. That is not something every linguist believes by any means. There’s a big disagreement over it.
But then Pinker also gives you all this fantastic stuff about how language really works in the first place. Anybody who is really curmudgeonly, who says: ‘Uggh. Language. Everybody I know speaks and writes like an idiot around me!’ He really turns that on its head and shows what a miracle the human language really is.
Does he, like you do in your book, go after the sticklers and grammar grouches, people like Lynn Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, and others who bemoan the decline of language?
This book came out in 1994 so he’s taking aim at a different generation of sticklers, but yes, he also shows they don’t know what they’re talking about. Most grammar grouches have a fairly authoritarian approach to language. They have this idea that somewhere, somehow, there is somebody making rules, or that there are just hard and fast rules that have to be enforced, and people humiliated out of violating them.
Is language not about rules, then?
Pinker would argue that language is absolutely about rules. He wrote another book called Words and Rules which is all about how the brain processes language. It turns out that you know all these rules but you don’t even know that you know them. They are your internal language processing device. And to study that is much more fascinating than whether or not you should begin a sentence with ‘however’, which some people think you shouldn’t be able to do.
For example, Pinker shows that if you put the word ‘fuckin’ in the middle of a word – for instance, if you want to say: ‘That’s fan-fuckin’-tastic!’ You have to put the word fuckin’ in a certain place in the word. It goes before a certain stressed syllable. You can’t say: ‘That’s fantast-fuckin-ic!’ – and no English speaker would ever say that. Everybody knows it. They have this rule in their brain, but nobody knows they have it. Teasing out that kind of thing is fascinating and so much more interesting than: ‘Oh my God! That person used ‘whom’ wrong…’
We also have to accept that language changes over time, don’t we? When I was at school, it was drummed into me that ‘disinterested’ meant ‘unbiased’. But whenever I hear somebody say disinterested around me now, they mean ‘uninterested’. Wouldn’t Pinker argue that instead of correcting people, I should accept that disinterested now means uninterested?
I wouldn’t say that. The argument of descriptive linguists is often a bit caricatured by opponents, who say: ‘Oh, you’re saying there are no rules at all, you can just say whatever you like.’ It’s not really true. I’m sure Pinker uses ‘disinterested’ like you do. In traditional standard English usage, it means impartial and it has that role. There haven’t been enough people who have changed the meaning of the word, that it definitely now means only ‘bored’ or ‘not interested’. The majority of English usage still favours disinterested in the traditional sense, even though a lot of people make that mistake. It takes a big majority of the community of speakers over time to get the whole meaning of a word to change so that you can finally really say: ‘OK, this word has changed in meaning.’ I wouldn’t say we’ve reached that in the specific case of disinterested.
But we have with ‘silly’. What did ‘silly’ mean in the past?
It used to mean innocent. Words used to mean completely different things, almost their opposite, if you look back in their history.
Let’s go on to The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language
This is a book about words and language and evolution. Christine Kenneally, the author, starts off by describing how, surprisingly enough, this subject was completely ignored by linguistics for a really long time. One of the big official international linguistic bodies in the late 19th century banned all study of the topic, saying that it was unknowable. Even when most intellectuals accepted evolution was a fact, they figured it was too hard to figure out whether language itself had evolved. Then she tells the 20th century story of how Noam Chomsky basically sighed and shrugged his shoulders and said: ‘Not interesting, can’t know it,’ and didn’t want to get into it for a very long time. Stephen Jay Gould, an evolutionary biologist, came to see it as a ‘spandrel’ of some other structural change, basically a by-product of evolution – something that was adapted for another purpose, but repurposed for language.
So it’s only been in the last 20 years or so – and Pinker is part of that story – that people have really tried to start figuring out how language might have evolved. It was so long ago that we don’t have obvious answers – there aren’t things like bat wings or human arms that you can look at next to one another and go: ‘OK, this bone is different from that bone in that way.’ But there are a lot of fascinating animal studies. For example, we can see to what extent human language resembles predator calls of vervet monkeys telling whether an eagle is coming or a leopard is coming, i.e. whether they need to look up or down. In some ways they are similar, and in some ways they are obviously very different. To what extent were the bonobos and the chimpanzees that researchers worked with using words? To what extent are they using structure? What did we share with a common ancestor? We do see that there are basic elements of human language in other species.
Does she reach a clear conclusion? Or is she just presenting all the research so far?
Like the other authors she is popularising a body of research and she does a very good job bringing together all of the people who worked on this.
It’s bringing together most of these theories and concluding that there probably is something there. In other words, in contrast to what Chomsky used to think, it’s not just a hopeless question that can’t be answered or shouldn’t be answered.
Let’s talk about In the Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent.
I love this book. People have been inventing languages for hundreds of years. Think of Esperanto, or even the Na’vi language in Avatar. People have been doing this for a really long time and the underlying story – which is a funny, sweet, and sad one – is that many people have felt that existing languages were bad for one reason or another. They fall into two camps. Some people feel their natural language is ambiguous, illogical and messy, so have invented languages because they want to order the world, and force people’s thoughts into order. It draws on that thinking that we talked about earlier: people think that if the language is disordered it leads to disordered thinking. And it’s true that language is disordered and ambiguous, and vague. Any human language is that way sometimes. But these people who have tried to create perfect logical languages have failed to get anyone to learn them. They’re almost unlearnable, or extremely difficult.
She also looks at the Esperanto folks, who weren’t trying to create the perfect language, but simply an auxiliary that’s no one’s first language, so that when any two people speak it, they’re speaking a neutral language. Esperanto draws on a host of European languages, so it has kind of a neutral feel to it.
There’s also a third group, I guess, which is people who have done it just for fun. The Klingon enthusiasts, for example. They have conventions, there’s official tests. You can get your first level certificate in Klingon, your second level certificate etc. The author actually went and got her first level certificate in Klingon.
Artificial language as a subject has traditionally been dismissed by researchers. Arika Okrent is a proper PhD linguist and this is a great journalistic book about the real people who have done things. It’s a fantastic read and you learn a great deal – but you don’t feel like you’re learning while you’re reading it.
My grandfather, like you, was a great linguist – he spoke about a dozen languages. He thought that Esperanto was the future.
Hope springs eternal for Esperanto people! There are a few native speakers. The author interviews one of them. It’s a couple, one parent is Polish, the other Belgian, and they raised their child in Esperanto. This guy is a first language speaker in Esperanto. She says you can really tell the difference. Everyone else speaks it well, but he speaks it so fluently and so quickly, like a real person speaks their first language.
Presumably he doesn’t have anyone to speak to though?
It’s a big community. They claim about two million people speak it. They’re certainly a big and active organisation, so it’s not impossible to find other folks. They’re very active on the Internet.
Your last book is The Genius of Language.
This is a series of essays by writers, mostly novelists. It’s about the way they approach different languages. All the authors are non-English native speakers who have come to write in English and now predominantly write only in English. It’s different writers telling stories of the interface between the two languages in their own minds, and in their own cultures. So in each case there is a cultural story too, and then you hear about the qualities of the language. For example, you have Amy Tan, who wrote The Joy Luck Club, writing about Chinese and English. She grew up with both in the home. She will sceptically knock down a lot of the claims that people make about Chinese: how Chinese people must think differently because the Chinese language has this or that property. But then another writer, Bharati Mukherjee, takes the approach that her language, Bengali, is completely different from English and forces the mind to think in different ways about very basic concepts, like love and fear. So you get different people’s attitudes about this in their own mind. They are obviously good wordsmiths themselves, who think a lot about language. In a way, these attitudes are what the other four books I described are about. These are not PhDs who sat down and did research on the subject, but real language people who write about it from an emotional, impressionistic point of view.
So did you find yourself disagreeing with some of them?
Yes, I’m definitely more from the Steven Pinker school of thought. Bharati Mukherjee claims that some of these Bengali words have a resonance that is impossible to carry over into English. But that’s not really true. She’s a good writer in English so she should know that you can do the job with slightly different tools in any language. All languages are fundamentally vastly expressive, that’s one of the tenets every linguist believes. No linguist believes that this language is superior and expressive, or this one is clear, and that one is muddy, this one is logical, that one is emotional etc. That’s the kind of thing that the lay person believes, but most linguists do not and I tend to disagree with that view as well.
In Dutch, which I spoke when I was little, we have the word gezellig. That’s very hard to translate into English.
Is it like the Danish hygge? A warm feeling of companionship?
Yes, that’s right. Let’s gezellig go and have a cup of coffee, or isn’t it gezellig being here all together.
Yes, it sounds exactly like what the word hygge in Danish, which is totally translatable. When people say x can’t be translated, what they usually mean is that you need a couple of words instead of one word. That can be interesting, but it doesn’t quite mean that the word can’t be translated.
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