Sep. 6th, 2010

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I think it’s pretty well established that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is not true—at least not in the strong version that states that thought is formed by language, as immortalised in Orwell’s Nineteen eighty-four, where Oceania’s totalitarian regime attempts to eradicate the very idea of liberty by removing any linguistic means of expressing it.

Modern research shows that this couldn’t possibly work. You don’t think in English, or Newspeak, or any other human language. Rather, you think in what neurolinguist Steven Pinker calls Mentalese—that is, your brain has its own internal representations of concepts, presumably more amenable to storage in neuron connections, axon strength, or however it is that your brain actually does store things.

But this does not mean that there is nothing to it, and the area is still controversial but still actively researched, with some researchers arguing that there do exist real effects and others arguing that there are none. Famous examples include various words for directions: English speakers most comfortably use relative terms like in front of, behind, left, right, and so forth, while there are languages—some South American and Australian ones, I believe—where no such words exist: Instead all directions are expressed as cardinal (“compass”) directions, thus you would not be left of the house, but instead north of the house. And, some research indicates, native speakers of such languages perform better than English-speakers at tasks involving cardinal directions, but worse at tasks where relative arrangement is crucial.

And personally, I know that while there are many things that I don’t remember any context for whatsoever, there are some facts whose source and linguistic context I recall very precisely. For instance, I know that I first learned the verb imagine from The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past for the SNES, where the antagonist, at the final confrontation, declares that I never imagined a boy like you could give me so much trouble. It’s unbelievable that you defeated my alter ego, Agahnim the Dark Wizard, twice! (I admit that, significantly, I did not recall the exact phrasing.)

Different languages express things in very different ways. I could quickly rifle through Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct to find some really interesting examples, but instead I’ll just recommend it to you as a wonderful book on mind and language and go directly to a more pertinent example. I am currently re-reading Simon Singh’s (excellent) The Code Book, which—in discussing the cryptography used during World War II—contains a brief section on the Navajo language. It has some features very alien to speakers of Germanic languages. For instance, nouns are classified by ‘genders’ very unlike, say, the Romance language masculine and feminine nouns, or the Swedish ‘n’ versus ‘t’ genders. Instead, you have families like “long” (things like pencils, arrows, sticks), “bendy” (snakes, ropes), “granular” (sand, salt, sugar), and so on. Conjugation can get pretty complex.

But Navajo is also one of the languages that contain a rule of conjugation that I find extremely interesting: If you make a statement in Navajo, it will be grammatically different depending on whether you describe something you saw for yourself or something you know by hearsay.

I find this very fascinating and also very, well, useful. I wish English had rules like this! In fact, I wish it had at least four: One for things I have experienced myself; one for things I have by hearsay; one for things which I believe because it is my impression that evidence overwhelmingly favours them; and one for things that I do not necessarily believe at all. I’ll think of them as “eyewitness”, “hearsay”, “reliable”, and “unreliable”.

Now, I believe it’s fact that we all tend to suffer from some degree source amnesia. That is, you go through life and absorb all kinds of factual statements (correct or incorrect). At the time when you hear a claim, you will hopefully evaluate its reliability based on its source—peer-reviewed science, expert opinion, intelligent layman, speculative, uninformed. (I roughly ordered them.) However, as time goes by, we have a tendency to remember putative facts but forget their sources. Thus, with time you risk ending up with a less reliable picture of a field of knowledge wherein you imbibed many different putative facts, as you start to forget which facts came from what sources and so which facts are more or less reliable.

And from all that, I can finally ask the question currently on my mind: Given that language may have some effect on one’s thinking, and given that word choice may stick with the memory of a putative fact, would imbibing putative facts in the context of a language wherein the source is grammatically encoded help us to retain the memory, if not of precise source, then at least of a form of ‘credibility rating’?

Sadly, of course, it’s a question I am completely unable to answer. I wonder if any experiments have been run. If not, I wonder if anyone could gather up some Navajo volunteers and find out…


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Petter Häggholm

April 2016

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