Language is a conventional code of symbols that allows a sender to formulate a message that can be understood by a receiver.
Symbol – a sign that stands for smth. else, like the national flag or the blindfolded lady with the sword and scales.
Natural signs: clouds that will cause the rain.
Artificial (social) signs: red traffic light: stop.
Language – convention: communication is only possible because symbols and the way they are put together have a shared meaning.
Human use of symbolism enables us separate the representation (word picture) from the reality it represents or refers to and to move from the specific and concrete to the general (“dog” refers to a category, not just Shurik) and the abstract (information, honour, process) – and therefore to communicate about things far away in time or space, to think and communicate abstractly, to generalize, classify, define objects and idea, to give and receive thoughts, to build up knowledge.
The meaning of the word also might depend on its function.
The functions of the language
Representative – to describe the world by asserting that such and such is the case. For ex., the referee bit the player.
Expressive – to express feelings or to evoke them.
Directive – to cause or prevent a particular action. “It’s a bit noisy here” is a polite form of “Shut up”.
Ceremonial – biding people. “How do you do”, “It was a lovely party”. (“Dos and taboos around the world”).
Performative – words transform reality by the very fact of their utterance. “I declare you man and wife”.
It is worth noting, that only in the case of representative function, truth or falsity can be attributed to the statements. Most of the time we use language to perform more than one function and the task of the hearer is to decide which one is intended or predominant.
Meaning exercise (“Lessons from around the world”)
How we see things is strongly influenced by our language and our seeing also makes influence on our thinking. Therefore, our thinking can not be separated from our language and even we could say that our language limits our thinking.
Language as reflecting thought
If we study language closely, we can learn a lot about what individuals think, how they see things, what values they hold, even what kind of people they are.
By reflecting what we value and how we perceive life, our words act as reinforces of those values. And if we get into the habit of using words with powerfully negative, disparaging associations, we reveal certain attitudes. Words like Niger, gay, etc. are not value-neutral.
Miss or Mrs.: language simply reflected the long held belief that a woman’s marital status was one of the most important things about her; whereas a man’s marital status was irrelevant.
Just as language can give us insight into individuals, so it can reveal information about groups. Has it ever occurred to you, for example, that we have only one word for snow and for camel? If you were an Eskimo or an Arab you would need a lot of words for them. In fact, Eskimos have a separate word for each kind of snow: soft snow, hard-packed snow, etc. And Arabic has over five thousand different names for camel, names that point up most minute differences of age, sex, and bodily structure.
The pozint is simple: the language of a people reflects how they see and think about things. It reveals their assumptions, biases and interests; it discloses what’s important and what’s trivial in their lives.
So, developing sensitivity to language and its usage can help foster valuable insights into others and us.
Language as influencing experience
Sometimes what purports to be strictly information carries with it an interpretation of the facts reported. If we are not careful, we can accept interpretation along with information. For ex., suppose a journalist wished to report the presence of 50.000 illegal aliens living in Los Angeles. The journalist might write “fifty thousands illegal emigrants are living in deserted buildings in Los Angeles”, or the journalist might write, “Fifty thousand illegal aliens are living are holed up in the warrens along the back alleys of lower Los Angeles”. Although both statements report essentially the same fact, the second gives you a different impression from the first.
Exercise of creating a story:
I) A guy, fallen in love;
2 days left;
half of the material learned.
IV) starving family;
The implications of language’s impact on thought and subsequent experience are far reaching. For ex., once-polite words such as Negro and coloured have rapidly vanished from contemporary American language usage. With these words have disappeared their mental associations of separatism and inferiority. Replacing Negro and coloured is black, a descriptive term as neutral as white or red.
The same example is related with already mentioned distinction of Miss and Mrs. To those born into a society that uses exclusively Ms. To denote any female, such notions as the following might come more easily than if that society were using Mrs. or Miss:
1) that marriage does not mean the sacrifice of the woman’s personality on the altar of male egotism;
2) that the husband –wife relationship is not one of employer-employee;
3) that the unmarried woman is not by definition a failure.
Naturally, language alone will not bring about these new attitudes, but it can help create a soil in which such attitudes grow.
Lesson 8: Nothingness
Can other forms of expression convey our experience, our feelings, our beliefs, and our knowledge better than language? – art, music, body language: what it can say, what its limitations may be?
“Language and symbolism” (“Lessons from around the world”)
Language is not only a means of communication, it is also a barrier. If two people both speak the same language they can communicate with each other and exchange ideas. If they speak different languages and do not have a language in common, communication is difficult.
According to an ancient story in the book of Genesis, in the Bible, all the people on earth originally spoke a single language. Because they were able to communicate with each other, they were able to co-operate in great projects. One of these, a plan to build a tower so tall that it stretched to heaven, so threatened God’s feelings of security and supremacy that he came down and “confounded men’s tongues” so that they could never longer understand each other. After that the building project fell through because men split up in various groups, each going their own separate ways, more inclined to conflict than to co-operation. The point of the story is that language differences allow misunderstandings and prejudices to develop. The ancient Greeks mocked all non-Greek speakers as “barbarians”.
Languages differ not merely in their vocabularies but also in the way they are constructed. Since all the languages most westerners are likely to know are similar in structure, we tend to assume greater similarities among all languages than is the case.
Many languages “divide up” the world in ways different from owns.
English speaking countries have only one word “uncle”, covering both a father’s brother and a mother’s brother. In many other languages there are different words for these relations, and it would be necessary to know which one was referred to before choosing which word to use for a person we call an uncle.
Many languages fail to distinguish between certain colours, which are distinguished in English. Many West African languages fail to distinguish blue and green, and the East African language, Kiswahili, does not distinguish between red and brown.
Many languages have grammatical features, which are surprisingly different from those of the languages which most of us know.
Hebrew has no verb tenses to show past, present and future action. Only ongoing and completed actions are differentiated.
In Japanese adjectives have tenses which are shown by changes of the word endings, just like verbs: distinguishing e.g. “is red” from “was red”.
In Nootka, spoken by a tribe of Indians of Indians on Vancouver Island, Canada, there are special grammatical features for talking to different classes of people. If the person being spoken to is unusually big or fat the speaker adds aq- to the verb stem before any other suffixes. There are other affixes for addressing those who are lame, children, unusually short adults, those with eye defects, left-handed persons, circumcised males, etc.
Because of these differences it may be difficult, or even impossible, to translate some sentences from one language to another.
Firstly, there may be no simple word or set of words in the one language, which would reproduce the exact sense of the original. There is no expression in English corresponding to the Danish expression “Tak for mad”, which is used exclusively by guests after a meal, for conveying thanks to their hostess.
There is sometimes more than word in one language for a single word in another, so that a distinction made in one language is difficult to render in another.
The French greetings “Ca va?” and “Hallo” may both be translated by the English “Hello”. But the first French greeting is made face to face, while the second is used when answering by phone.
Ideological differences may also create problems for translators. “Democratic” is understood in liberal western democracies as meaning that a people choose their government in multi-party elections. In communist states the same term was understood to mean rule by working class, the dictatorship of the proletariat, through the vanguard of the working class movement, the Communist party. This was held not to be compatible with multi-party democracy.
Sometimes, in order to translate a sentence from one language into another we need more information than is provided in the original sentence. As the Tasmanian aborigines had various words for various types of tree, but no word for a tree as such, it would be impossible accurately to translate the simple sentence “He sat under a tree” into their language. We would first need to make a decision as to what sort of tree was referred to, and we might have no information on which to base a decision.
Pepsi Comes Alive – Pepsi brings your ancestors back from grave (Chinese)
The lift is being fixed for the next day. During that time we regret that you will be unbearable. (In a Bucharest Hotel lobby).
You are welcome to visit the cemetery where famous Russian and Soviet composers, artists and writers are buried daily except Thursday. (In the lobby of a Moscow Hotel across from a Russian Orthodox Monastery).
Drop your trousers here for the best results. (In a Bangkok dry cleaner’s).
Ladies, leave your clothes here and spend the afternoon having a good time. (In a Rome laundry).
Would you like to ride on your own ass? (Advertisement for donkey rides in Thailand).
We take your bags and send them in all directions. (In a Copenhagen airline ticket office).
Is a Universal Language possible?
Although there has never been a truly universal language, there have been some periods when a single cultural area did share a common language: Greek in the eastern parts of the Roman Empire and in the Byzantine world, Latin in the Western Roman Empire and in medieval Western Europe, and Arabic in most of the Islamic world.
In Western Europe the universality of Latin broke down with the development of writing in the modern forms of language – French, Catalan, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, etc. The division of the Catholic Church and Reformation hastened its demise. Even so, there was still a clear need for universal language, and the prestige of France during the 18th century secured for the French language the status of being the recognised language of diplomacy. As such it came to be used.
Several attempts have been made to create a universal language artificially. The most famous of them – Esperanto, invented by Dr. L.L. Zamenhof, a Russian – Polish Jew, and published in 1887 under the pseudonym “Dr. Esperanto”, meaning “one who hopes”. Esperanto has a consistent and logical grammar, said to consist of only 16 rules. There is a direct correspondence between written and spoken language. It is said to have about two million speakers today, but there seems little chance that most people will ever learn it, it has only added to the Babel of languages it was intended to replace.
The other candidate supposed to be a universal language – is English. Despite all shortcomings (spelling is notoriously difficult, some expressions are idiomatic, etc.) it does have many advantages. The second most frequently spoken language in the world (after Mandarin Chinese – 885 mln., and English – 322, Spanish – 266, Bengali – 189, Hindustani – 182, Portuguese – 170, Russian – 170, Japanese – 125, German – 98, Wu Chinese – 77), in every continent there is at least one country where English is already an official language. It is the language of the world’s dominant superpower, the USA. It uses the Latin alphabet, which it shares with other major world languages, e.g. Spanish, Portuguese, French and German. It is the science of language and technology; it is already the international language of aviation. It is becoming the language of global communication in finance, tourism and the Internet.
Non – verbal language
In interpreting the significance of what is said to us we take account not merely of what is said, but also of the way in which it is said: volume, intonation, stress, accent and speed, any supporting gestures, and the demeanour of the speaker.
Our speech is also often associated with supporting gestures. This is especially true in Mediterranean countries. In addition, the way we stand and hold ourselves may convey hesitancy, hostility, servility, good will, and so on. We call these forms of non-verbal communication body language.
Language and the limits of thought
Despite the importance of signs and gestures, most of our knowledge comes to us encoded in verbal language. This language may to some extent determine the nature and limits of our knowledge. The 19th century diplomat and politologist W. von Humboldt said: “Man lives with the world about him, principally, indeed exclusively, as language presents it”.
It is argued that our experiences do not come to us independently of language. The Austrian philosopher L. Wittgenstein argued that a great many of our experiences would actually be impossible without language. For ex., La Rochefoucauld maintained that very few people would fall in love if they never read about it. It is claimed that we could not “fall in love” without a concept of falling in love, for which we need language. The category actually influences our experience, and therefore actually helps to create the sort of experiences we have and can have.
The structure and vocabulary of the language determines what can and cannot be said, and therefore thought, by its speakers. Language thus becomes something like a system of railway tracks along which, and only along which, our thoughts must run. As the philosopher L.Wittgenstein put it: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world”.
This view is called linguistic relativism.
From this it would follow that if something could not be said in a particular language, then it could not be thought in that language either. According to Hans Reichenbach: “If you can’t say it, you don’t know it.” Because a Tasmanian aborigine had no word for tree, he would not only able to say in his language “he sat under the tree”; he would not even be able to think of it.
George Orwell feared that totalitarian governments would fashion this power to influence language in their own interests as a tool of their despotism. He envisioned a new language, called “Newspeak”, deliberately created out of English in order to control the minds of the population.
There is certainly evidence that language influences attitudes. When interviews were given to bilingual Japanese women who had gone to live in San Francisco after marrying US servicemen, each woman was interviewed twice, once in Japanese and once in English. It does seem that the women gave responses which were socially conditioned, conservative and traditional when approached in Japanese, and more independent and liberal when interviewed in English.
However, despite the evidence noted above, the view that thought and language are one is insupportable.
It is possible to show experimentally that those who cannot use language are one is insupportable.
It is possible to show experimentally, that those who cannot use language can nevertheless think.
In “A man without words” Susan Schaller recounts the story of Idelfonso, a 27 year old Mexican illegal immigrant in Los Angeles. He was death and had never been taught any sign language. Schaller taught him, and so was the first person who was able to communicate with him through language. Idelfonso was than able to tell her of his life before he possessed language, and put her in touch with other languageless adults. They showed many signs of complex abstract thought. They handled money, played card games, repaired locks and performed elaborate pantomimed narratives for each other.
If language and thought was the same thing, then it would be difficult to explain the phenomenon ambiguity, where we may mean different things by the same sentence. The fact that the same sentence can mean two different things shows that words and thoughts are different.
Also many skills which we perform automatically, once they have been learned, are very difficult to describe in words, e.g. how to tie knots, how to drive a car. They are usually taught by imitation.
Many successful people have claimed that some of their most creative thinking did not take place-using language at all, but involved visual imagery. A. Einstein is quoted as saying: “these thoughts did not come in any verbal formulation, I rarely think in words at all. A thought comes, and I may try to express it in words afterward.