The following are questions related to my recent Funzing talk on language:

  • How do people like the Hopi whose language does not have words for left and right keep track of the cardinal directions?
  • The Hopi have a less egocentric idea of the locations of things. Does that correlate with a less egocentric kind of worldview or ethics?
  • Since language has a biological basis, doesn’t that mean that linguistic relativity is a myth?
  • What’s the difference between studying a language and using it?
  • How does using sign language differ from using a spoken language?
  • How do memes (macro images), smileys (aka emoticons or emojis), text-speak and other digital innovations relate to more traditional forms of communication?
  • Why might reading something in two different languages produce two different impressions?
  • Do there exist languages (like a fictitious Star Trek alien one) that are extremely difficult or impossible to translate because they rely noticeably more on metaphors and allusions?
  • What are some other properties of language that might make one language appear strange compared to another?

Does your language control you? Answers to lingering questions.

How do people like the Hopi whose language does not have words for left and right keep track of the cardinal directions?

Speakers of such languages would traditionally have engaged in constant practice from a young age until keeping track of their orientation was automatic. Familiar landmarks are helpful, but proprioception (one’s sense of one’s own body) also seemingly plays a major role. More examples and explanation in this New York Times article: “Does Your Language Shape How You Think”.

According to Ethnologue, there are only a few dozen monolingual speakers of Hopi remaining in the US; others are monolingual or bilingual English speakers. Speakers who do not learn Hopi or learn only Hopi as children would not necessarily develop the ability to keep track of the cardinal directions.

The Hopi have a less egocentric idea of the locations of things. Does that correlate with a less egocentric kind of worldview or ethics?

Those of us who tend to speak of the locations of objects relative to themselves (“turn left at the stoplight”) use what is called an “egocentric” geographic system. Those who speak of the locations of objects relative to the cardinal directions (“the book is on the northwest corner of the table”) use what is called an “allocentric” geographic system.

Allocentric languages include some Native North American and Australian Aboriginal languages. The people who speak them are not necessarily very isolated from other cultures now, but when they were, one could imagine that they valued the community over the individual, that they were altruistic, or at least reciprocally altruistic: I will feed you when your crop (or hunt) fails because I expect that in return you will feed me when my crop (or hunt) fails. However, hard-nosed trading and warfare might also suffice to ensure survival in those circumstances.

A cursory web search has not led me to any research about whether or not people who use an allocentric system are more likely to be altruistic while people who use an egocentric system are more likely to be egoistic. It may be tempting for modern, urban people who speak egocentric languages to draw such a connection, but spatial terms may or may not have any correlation with the ethics of the person who uses them. A devil’s advocate could even imagine that the correlation runs the other way: since knowing cardinal directions relies on proprioception (one’s internal physical sense of self), maybe allocentric language speakers are more preoccupied with their own well-being.

Since language has a biological basis, doesn’t that mean that linguistic relativity is a myth?

One audience member brought up the book Genome by Matt Ridley. This fascinating book briefly mentions the idea of language as an instinct common to all humans, and notes that children implicitly learn the sentence patterns used by the adults around them (Noam Chomsky’s idea of generative grammar). Thus language is something that is shared and yet also something that can differ in its particulars. (Since words are tools of cognition, and we use words differently, to some extent we also think differently. That’s linguistic relativity, the subject of my Funzing talk.)

The idea of language as biologically human is explored further in Stephen Pinker’s excellent book The Language Instinct. Pinker, a psycho-linguist formerly at MIT and now at Harvard, has many more interesting things to say in How the Mind Works. I don’t know whether I agree with everything he says, but I want to read everything he has written—I can’t say the same for Chomsky.

Other interesting books on biology, thought, and language include:

  • Do Animals Think? by Clive D. L. Wynne, which explores the notion of animal communication
  • From Hand to Mouth by Michael C. Corballis, which explores the theory that human spoken languages evolved from communication by gestures
  • Reading in the Brain by Stanislas Dehaene, which explains the mental process that allows us to transform little ink marks into ideas by looking at them, which seems like a more and more miraculous feat the more you think about it

What’s the difference between studying a language and using it?

I am monolingual. I have studied seven foreign languages (Spanish, French, Italian, Japanese, Latin, German, and Mandarin Chinese). Language learning has always been easy and fun for me. I used to be pretty good at spoken and written Spanish in academic contexts, and after I spent three months in Italy in 2002 I was pretty good at Italian. Residues of these languages—their grammatical properties and a huge cache of miscellaneous words—remain in my mind, but none of them serves any practical purpose in my daily life. I am rather informally and intermittently trying to improve my written and spoken Mandarin, and I hear and understand snatches of it here in Singapore, where I sometimes listen to Chinese radio and watch Chinese movies, but unless I come to actually need Mandarin, I suspect my skill won’t improve very quickly or very much.

How does using sign language differ from using a spoken language?

There is no universal sign language. Sign languages evolved in geographically separated communities the same way spoken languages did. In the US, deaf communities tend to use American Sign Language. For English speakers, there is an alternative: Signed English. What’s the difference?

Signed English is a word-for-word transliteration of English words and sentences. It uses the same word order, articles, verb tenses, and so on, transmitted in the same chronological order as English. That’s not how translation from language to language usually works. Even languages that are quite similar cannot be translated back and forth word for word. If they could, they’d be effectively the same language. Signed English is thus, as the name suggests, a way of expressing English, not a language of its own.

American Sign Language, meanwhile, is a language in its own right. Because it transmits ideas using a different medium (shape and motion rather than sound), it has its own tools and methods of expression and its own grammatical rules, many of which bear little if any resemblance to those of English.

Signed languages are as expressive and dynamic as other languages within the communities that use them, which is why deaf people may resist integration into speaking communities and the associated appliances to reduce their deafness and exhortations to learn to lip-read and speak with their vocal cords.

There are linguists who study sign language, but I myself am certainly no expert. What I know I learned from Seeing Voices, a fascinating book by the excellent Oliver Sacks. One interesting fact I remember is that if you are in a room full of people who are all using sign language, it is possible (but impolite) to look across the room (say, from a stage) and “listen in” on someone else’s conversation. Anyone’s, in fact. Thus “whispering” is conducted by making one’s hand motions smaller and by turning to block them with one’s body from those who might “overhear”.

How do memes (macro images), smileys (aka emoticons or emojis), text-speak and other digital innovations relate to more traditional forms of communication?

I’m sad about image macro memes ever since I read this Cracked article that calls them “oppressive to thought” and likens them to propaganda, and, for that matter, this Washington Post article that tells of the financial consequences of using someone else’s IP without a paid license.

It’s tempting to be angry/sad about emoticons, too. We used to write letters using, like, paper and ink! And whole words! We took the time to choose our words carefully, and we filled up the whole sheet of paper, because we had to pay money to get our words to the other person through the actual mail. Well, now we pay for SMSes, or at any rate for our data plans, and what do we send? Strings of little bitty pictures and abbreviations in quantities so staggering that the anthropologists of future decades will turn away in despair. Meanwhile, contemporary English teachers are already feeling that despair. Nobody can write properly anymore.

I am sure emoticons are not wholly to blame, if at all, for bad writing—which has always existed and always will, especially if education and communication tools are widely accessible. Actually, I believe emoticons serve a purpose: they add information about tone to a short piece of text.

Direct human communication person to person is rich in context. When you can see someone’s facial expressions and body language, you have a better sense about what they really mean than when you hear them on the phone. On the phone, at least you can kind of hear the other person’s tone of voice. In contrast, when you’re reading a letter or an email or a text, you have to guess someone’s state of mind, and we often guess wrong. We might perceive something as rude when really it was just efficient, or flirty when it was merely factual. Adding some semblance of a facial expression to a message gives the reader a valuable clue. In that sense, if no other, emoticons can be viewed as a good thing.

If emoticons are disproportionately used by women, that’s no surprise to feminists, who see women as having had to shoulder the burden of emotional labor all along.

While I think emoticons are useful (for both male and female writers), I do not think they are sufficient for writing serious literature… though others would disagree. One enterprising soul has coordinated a translation of Moby Dick, in its entirety, into the language of little pictures—a language which, like English, continues to evolve in fits and starts—and bitter fights.

Why might reading something in two different languages produce two different impressions?

It is clear to anyone bilingual, multilingual or with any beyond the most rudimentary experience learning a foreign language that translation is not easy. Words in different languages have different connotations in different languages even when we say they “mean the same thing”. Different languages offer a different range of choices for overlapping ideas. They cover the space of possible concepts in different ways. Thus any work in one language isn’t going to mean exactly the same thing after being rendered into another language, even if the translation is very good.

I tend to think that because English is arguably very large as languages go, we would be better off reading an English translation of Dostoevsky than a French one. More words total means more opportunities to hit the mark, to match the exact connotation of the word in the original language.

Looking beyond vocabulary, there are further levels of complexity. Languages differ in the grammatical aspects that they allow or require to be expressed. In French and Spanish, for example, there are two different pronouns that are used to mean “you”. They signal different social relationships. If a work is written in English, no information attached to the pronoun itself tells a French translator which relationship exists between the characters. The translator must read the work and decide which French pronoun one character would use to address the other character.

Meanwhile, Japanese has over a dozen expressions that can be used to express the meaning of the English pronoun “I”. How should an English-language translation convey such subtlety? In English, we don’t go around calling ourselves “Your humble student” at the beginnings of our sentences, as in “May your humble student be excused to use the toilet?” Undoubtedly there are more natural ways to convey most of the meaning of the sentence, but if the dialog is rendered as “Teacher, may I please go to the restroom?” something important may be lost.

Much can be lost in translation. The sound and feel of the words chosen by the author can be important to a greater or lesser degree, and are critical for the success of poetry. Translating poetry is not much different from writing entirely new poetry, I would think. You start with some theme or idea, and work within the constraints of the chosen form, with the further constraint of trying to mirror or at least shadow the original in some meaningful way. Semantics and esthetics would be even more in tension than is usual for poetry.

Do there exist languages (like a fictitious Star Trek alien one) that are extremely difficult or impossible to translate because they rely noticeably more on metaphors and obscure literary allusions?

The linguistic subdiscipline of pragmatics studies connotation—meaning in context. (Denotation, the literal or surface meaning of words is studied in the subdiscipline of semantics.)

One answer to this question of an untranslatable language that occurs to me is that ANY language that comes from a culture we don’t understand will seem to refer to many shared stories with which we are not familiar. All languages are composed of many layers of increasingly figurative or abstract speech built on top of a layer of concrete speech. I don’t know whether there are patterns or variations in the “depth” of the figurative layers compared to the concrete layer. It’s an interesting question.

Another answer that occurs to me is the language of academics, who stand on the shoulders of giants to pile abstractions on top of abstractions and build airy castles in the clouds, often—if not usually—communicate in ways that baffle the uninitiated. Open up any unfamiliar journal, literary or scientific, and you will be immediately swamped by sentences in your own language that you do not understand because you do not know the stories upon stories the current story rests upon.

Another answer that occurs to me is Chinese. Chinese civilization is old and has long been literate. Texts from centuries and millennia past survive until today in various forms, and echo throughout scholarly and popular culture, and in the language itself. For example, take chengyu. These are four-character phrases that stand for a whole fable. I do not know how many of them are casually used in writing or conversation, and perhaps the common ones are more intuitive to understand even in translation than the less common ones, but that some are widely used and understood I have no doubt.

If we are talking about ancient civilizations, then I would have to say that of course in English we refer to stories and legendary people from ancient Greece in our daily language. If you know what is meant by a “Herculean effort” or an “Achilles’ heel”, you are the heir to myriad enduring bits of Western culture which perhaps you take for granted. Those bits will seem quite opaque to someone who did not grow up learning implicitly or explicitly about the children of Zeus and the fall of Troy. Moreover, what we English speakers don’t owe to the Greeks, we owe to Shakespeare. Try saying anything that he didn’t say first.

Did innovation in English stop with Shakespeare? Nope. Americans have innovated profusely in the domain of sports metaphors for business. Those don’t work well in international contexts, because you have to understand the sport in question, or at least have heard the specific phrase used a lot, to know what it means. Moreover, sports metaphors encourage a kind of zero-sum competitiveness that may not be welcome or healthy. Here are some examples for those who don’t speak American, or for those who do so perhaps without realizing. Here are some more examples, from someone who’s read that eye-opening book by George Lakoff, Metaphors We Live By.

A very strange kind of figurative language indeed is rhyming slang, sometimes called Cockney rhyming slang. If you want an example of someone suggesting a meaning by saying something entirely unrelated, I can’t think of a better one.

Wait, yes I can: Chinese message board puns, many created to avoid state censorship, the most famous of which is probably the grass mud horse. I suppose maybe the grass mud horse and all its cousins could be considered rhyming slang…. The Chinese language sometimes seems to consist entirely of puns; all the words sound similar to many, many other words. This similarity—this semantic overloading of syllables—accounts for many words being thought lucky or unlucky, such as the numbers 8 and 4, which sound like the words for wealth and death, respectively.

What are some other properties of language that might make one language appear strange compared to another?

In my Funzing talk on language, I gave examples related to gender, direction, time and color. A member of the audience pointed out that when comparing languages across the world, the sounds of languages, especially languages with tones and clicks, can make them seem exotic.

Very true. There exists a special set of symbols which maybe you have seen in a dictionary called the International Phonetic Alphabet. This set of symbols can accurately document a wide variety of speech sounds, and yet, the more you use it, the more you realize it is an imperfect tool. Nothing that is not speech can actually capture speech. Worse, no two utterances, even by the same person, are exactly alike.

The final exam in my phonetics class included a strange oral component. We were required to accurately read “words” written using a selection of IPA symbols for more or less exotic sounds. We were also required to listen to spoken “words” consisting of a series of such sounds and then accurately write what we had heard using IPA symbols. I had studied intensively using some sort of clickable online audio chart of the IPA, so I did fine. Thank goodness for the internet.

The IPA is very useful as a pronunciation guide, and studying phonetics and phonology can make you aware that your own language only covers a subset of the possible sounds and sound combinations of human language. Such study sheds light on why some languages are hard to learn, and why people have different accents, and why those accents are hard to overcome.

Studying the sounds of language also raises awareness of the challenge of transforming spoken sounds to printed symbols, a challenge that English, for historical reasons, meets in a spectacularly idiosyncratic way. Our alphabet stinks, and so does the way we use it to represent sounds. That’s a subject for another day.