Thursday, February 15, 2007

Bridging the Linguistic Gap

Someone reminded me recently of a theory involving language that I think is, in the final analysis, the linguistic version of asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Basically, as I understand it, the theory says that if I speak language A and I encounter a word from language B (say, "Schadenfreude", for instance) that doesn't have a direct translation in language A, the definition of the word can be explained to me in my language, but still I will never really understand the true meaning of the word. My version of the concept will only be a shadow of the true meaning.

It is claimed, again as I understand it, that this is because being exposed to language A as a child will cause my brain to create a different set of neural connections than if I were exposed to language B, and those structural differences make the gap unbridgable.

To deal with the second claim first, I can't see this being true. I think it puts the cart before the horse, in that, at least at some point as languages A and B, or language in general, first developed, the brain shaped language rather than language shaping the brain. That is to say that language B, or its ancestors, was at some point developed by people whose neural structure wasn't set by growing up with it, because they were inventing it. By the same token, for every word in existence there was a point where someone who didn't grow up with it invented it. Unless we are to assume that no one in the first generation of a language or a word really understood it, then it can't be true that we must be exposed to a language as a child in order to truly understand it.

Secondly, I think this idea overestimates how different from one another people can be on a fundamental level, and thus how different languages created by people can be. Completely unrelated languages have more in common than you might think, because humans think in similar ways because we're all one species. For instance, it is because humans think in similar ways throughout the world that pyramids were built independently by people in Central America and Egypt, and why the myths of various cultures that had no contact with one another deal with the same themes and often have almost exactly the same stories. (For instance, almost every culture in the world has a vampire myth).

Humans come equipped with machinery in the brain for creating and learning language. That's why kids learn language without trying: they're programmed to learn language, or at least human language. The various languages are products of this machinery that is, itself, common to all human societies. While the specifics of the language differ, the programming in the brain that generates the language in the first place is the same. That's why Asian kids born in the US learn English just as well as kids with British ancestry. Kids' brains are able to recognize and pick up human language because they have the same programming and their brains can recognize what follows the basic guidelines of what human language must be from what it isn't. That's how kids know that the sounds their parents make are language to be imitated and learned but the dog's bark is just noise.

As such, language A and language B, both created with the same software according to the same overarching rules, cannot be so alien from each other that I can never understand those unique language B words I spoke of earlier. I have the same software as the person who first thought up the word and as the people who use the word, and that software is capable of bridging that gap.

This is not to say that there is not some truth to the idea that language, along with culture, can influence the ways people think and act. I contend, however, that those differences are much more minor than we think, because we notice differences more than similarities. It's sort of like chimps and humans -- looking at each, we'd guess that our DNA wasn't alike at all, but in fact we share all but 1.6%. I think the difference in how languages affect the development of our brains to be something like that, where there are those 2% surface differences sitting over the 98% that is the same.

And language doesn't come from those more superficial upper layers of our brains and thinking. It comes from somewhere down deeper, where our culture and environment don't have as much effect as they do on easily changed things like, for instance, political leanings. And that's where we understand language, and that's where I grasp the meaning of a unique word from language B whether or not I grew up with language B. Because I grew up with a grasp of human language simply as an inheritance of being human.

I might buy this theory, on the other hand, were we talking about learning a language spoken by another species. For instance, if birds had developed language to the extent humans have, I could buy that I could never truly understand some of the words of the bird language, because they are rooted in and created by programming I don't share, without a common base from which both our languages sprang.

Secondly, (whew!), what the hell does it even mean that I can never "truly" understand a unique word from language B, but only a "shadow" of its true meaning? If both a native German speaker and I point at the same event and say, "Schadenfreude," in what sense is my concept of it different from his? How would you measure that difference? If we compare over time my use of the word against the German speaker's, and discover that my use of the word is consistent with his or hers, which anecdotally, at least, I have reason to believe we could, then how can a linguist possiby distinguish our two concepts of the word? To me, this is sort of a vague hand-waving way of saying, "You think you get it, but you really don't." Uh, okay.

To me, this is a distinction without a difference, which is another way of saying a distinction that is meaningless. Sort of like the distinction between whether God exists or not, since things are exactly the same either way.


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