Post No.: 0472
All words have a semantic meaning (a literal meaning) and a pragmatic meaning (why something was expressed, which will take into account the context it was expressed). Non-word utterances, like grunts, can have pragmatic but not semantic meaning.
Regarding the semantic meanings of words, languages divide the world in different ways, with different categories, but these are frequently arbitrarily derived. For example, not every language has a word for the colour ‘orange’, some have one word to cover certain ranges such as ‘green and blue’, or just have the categories ‘light’, ‘dark’ and ‘red’. This may seem odd from an English viewpoint but we must understand that things like colours (which therefore includes skin colours) don’t have objective boundaries between groups but rather arbitrary ones – because colours fall onto a continuous spectrum. For example, the ‘edge’ between orange and yellow is fuzzy – hence ‘ROYGBIV’ for the colours of the rainbow is in fact incomplete too because there are an infinite number of colours within the visible spectrum. There are even an infinite number of colours between just orange and yellow. Therefore it’d be ethnocentric – in this case with a biased English-speaking perspective – to claim that English is correct and any language that differs is wrong.
It’s also hard to define a colour term. Is ‘dark blue’ a colour? If so, is ‘dark dark blue’? ‘Burgundy’ and ‘maroon’ are used in English yet many English speakers don’t really know precisely what’s the difference – if there is one. This is all partly shaped by biology – most humans across the world have cones in their eyes to see red, green and blue. And partly by culture or by what’s necessary to survive in a particular environment – for instance, the Inuit purportedly have many different words for ‘snow’, for which ‘wetness’ or ‘crumbliness’ also fall onto analogue continuums. But it’s subjective to say that the Inuit have lots of different words to say the same thing that is ‘snow’, when they’d say that they simply have different words for different types of snow – which is similar to giving specific names for the colours found between other colours. This in turn may shape how they and we perceive the world?
However, experimental results are currently ambiguous as to whether having more words for different colours helps one to differentiate between different hues (pure pigments without added tint/brightness/white or shade/darkness/black) because people without a specific word for ‘that part between yellow and green’ can still manage to differentiate between objects that have that colour from objects that are ‘yellow’ or ‘green’; although it might take them longer to do so.
All this applies to other things too. Continuums exist in more areas than we think (e.g. when does a ‘book’ become a ‘booklet’, ‘magazine’ or ‘manual’? And what about ‘electronic books’?) Some languages like Dutch have a word to mean something inbetween ‘on’ and ‘in’, such as for things that are hooked onto/into something else. It’s therefore difficult to decide for any word what it exactly refers to. All things that don’t have an agreed specific technical definition, such as the length of a metre or mass of a kilogram, will have this ambiguity and ability to shift meaning.
Yet we’re (most of the time) able to appropriately recognise and communicate with others exactly what we mean because of the context that something was said, and this involves the pragmatic meanings of words. Now this meaning doesn’t just come from our words but from our actions, such as our body language, vocal tone, groans or shrieks, where we point to, who we asked/said something to, and even through what we don’t say. Every sentence we express has a pragmatic meaning, but since these are contextual and ambiguous, explicit or implicit, they can be disputed or misunderstood. Emojis can help clarify our feelings when writing/typing, as proxies for our facial expressions or body language, but these can sometimes still be ambiguous or misconstrued.
A culture can shape the words we have, and these words can reinforce that culture. The Danes (and Norwegians) have a word ‘hygge’, which doesn’t have a simple English translation, but it helps explain Danish culture’s more content and convivial social and relatively socialist attitudes. Culture shapes language, and language shapes culture.
This doesn’t mean that people with other languages cannot ever understand concepts that don’t have a simple one-or-two-word translation into their own language – our own specific mother tongue can influence our minds but not because it restricts what we’re able to think about but rather because of what it habitually gets or obliges us to think about.
For example, in languages where inanimate objects are grammatically gendered (feminine or masculine), we’re forced to think of and associate them in that way. Or if directions are given according to the reference frame of oneself (e.g. left or right) rather than via the cardinal bearings of the entire Earth (e.g. north or south) then it might shape a more or less egocentric view of the world respectively. In Finland, accidents are typically reported in the news as ‘a cyclist left themselves under a car’ rather than ‘a car driver drove over a cyclist’. A language that has fewer synonyms might make one speak more directly… or to-the-point… or bluntly… than a language that presents so much choice in the way one can say something.
It matters how often these grammatical rules and words are used in one’s everyday experience, but when a language routinely obliges us to specify certain types of information – such as the past, present or future tense of some event, or the gender of everyone we meet rather than just neutrally a ‘co-worker’ or ‘friend’ – then it forces us to pay attention to such details of the experience or world that speakers of other languages may not need to focus on. And since we learn our mother tongues early in life, they’re going to inevitably somewhat shape the habits of our perceptions, associations, categorisations of people and things, memories and possibly worldviews.
This is the weak version of the ‘Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’ of linguistic relativity, where linguistic categories and usage only influence thought and decisions. The strong version of this hypothesis suggests that they determine them.
‘Universal Grammar’ (debatably) competes with this hypothesis – this proposes that there is a common set of principles that govern the structures of all languages, and these structural rules are innate to all humans, are independent of sensory experience and thus have little influence over how people think. There’s therefore currently a debate in the field of linguistics as to what extent language is innate or culturally learnt?
The Spanish writing system is phoneme-based (the way words are written represent the sounds of the words), and the Chinese writing system roughly matches a morpheme (grammatical unit) to each stroke or set of strokes, for instance. But no matter the system, unless brain-damaged, all humans appear to use the exact same parts of the brain for reading or writing any language.
In English, there’s no simple term for ‘one’s father’s elder brother’s wife’ like in Chinese. Yet that person was just communicated in English! Besides, new words are being invented all of the time without (too much) problem if there’s no current word to describe something (e.g. before the Internet, no one knew the word ‘Internet’ or what it meant). There might initially be competing words and these will compete for dominance or acceptance, like all cultural memes do – some words win (e.g. ‘selfie’) and some lose (e.g. ‘phablet’) – but there won’t be a point when we cannot invent a new word for a new thing, and there therefore won’t be a point when we cannot translate something from one language to another, even if we must use more words to do so.
Indeed, whenever we import or loan words from another language for whatever reason then that’s normal in all languages because every language evolved over time through a bit of cultural mixing, and will continue to do so (e.g. ‘koala’, ‘kangaroo’, ‘wallaby’ and ‘wombat’ have Australian Aboriginal origins).
All languages have a limited number of characters of the alphabet, or nearest equivalent, yet can produce a potentially infinite number of different words (like the infinite possibilities for passwords if there’s no limit to the number of characters one can use); and all languages have a limited number of words yet can produce a potentially infinite number of different sentences and therefore concepts. So our mother tongue doesn’t constrain our capacity to reason – it doesn’t prevent us from being able to think certain thoughts or ways of thinking. Yet as before, this doesn’t mean that groups with different languages routinely think and perceive of the world in the same way.
There’s disagreement in the field about whether these differences amount to much in the real world though. An apple may be feminine in French (‘la pomme’) but it doesn’t mean French people literally think of apples as female when they consciously think about it. Probably the safest conclusion at the moment is that all humans should understand their shared humanity because they share common cognitive and social traits for all being human – yet must have respect for each other’s differences because it doesn’t make everyone exactly the same. Everyone is similar yet diverse. Meow.
What’s the difference between slang, colloquialisms and jargon then? Why is the word ‘faeces’ acceptable yet the word ‘****’ not? They have the exact same meaning. Why is jargon like ‘alt-facts’ acceptable for some when they could be more straightforwardly called ‘lies’?
Well it’s often a class or ingroup signalling thing, to exclude those who aren’t part of an ingroup if a word is opaque to others (e.g. the continued use of certain Latin phrases by legal professionals to exclude those who aren’t) and to signal that it is apparently or pretentiously beneath oneself if a word is considered to be spoken only by those from ‘lower classes or places’. (I say **** that!) It’s about spin, to twist and give certain ideas a more positive or negative slant (e.g. in politics or marketing). And it’s about the natural evolution of languages when groups form their own words that other groups aren’t being exposed to (e.g. the lingo used amongst football/soccer fans).
Even though natural languages would benefit from staying fixed (e.g. if the words ‘sick’ or ‘bad’ stayed meaning ‘not good’!) so that everyone would clearly understand each other – languages also convey our social identity, who we are or who we want to be (e.g. by class, age, gender). The same applies with how people dress or their hairstyles, for instance. Languages evolve (which includes going extinct) also because of mixing with other cultures (see Post No.: 0160), or because of new words needing to be invented or appropriated for new objects and ideas. These variations between progressive generations then lead to a language changing over time. Secret languages or ingroup slang are often intentionally invented so that those not in the ingroup won’t understand what’s being said (e.g. the huge variety of names that mean the same illegal drugs), but then these words eventually get absorbed into the mainstream.
If everybody in the world shared one universal language then perhaps it might make everybody feel like they shared a universal identity too, and every culture would start to homogenise, for better and worse.
Anyhow – even though translation technologies are really good now, and there’s so much other stuff in the world to learn about instead of spending time learning how to say the same things only in different languages – when we learn a new language, it’s sometimes said that we also learn to see in a new perspective. But that might not only be because of the new language we pick up – we tend to also open up to a whole new culture, and we expand our perspectives in this way too.