On Language

I am currently taking Intensive Arabic 2 from 9:30 to 10:20 Monday through Friday, and Elementary French 1 from 11:30 to 12:20 Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Plus I use English all the time. Is it a surprise that I’ve been thinking about languages lately?

Unfortunately, most of the stuff that’s really interesting right now isn’t very bloggable. It’s just this journey I can feel myself making, where I am absorbing so much information and making so many connections, both on the “how to conjugate the past tense in Arabic” level and on a more meta level that’s about the institution of language itself.

This week has been notable in both areas. On the practical, learning-the-language level, I had my first non-English thought recently! It was a really powerful breakthrough, once I realized what I’d done. My brother was talking about last year, and said, “that was before I had friends.” I thought to myself, “انا عندي اصدقاء، و لكن ما مع اصدقاء” which means “I have friends, but I don’t have friends.” I thought it in Arabic because Arabic has a phrase “endii” for “I have, in general” and a phrase “maa” for “I have, right now, in my presence.” It was actually pretty poor Arabic since one uses “lee” for having abstract ideas like “friends,” but it expressed a thought that I couldn’t have had in English.

Which sort of leads in to the meta language stuff that’s been going on in my head. I can feel my entire brain changing, in the ways it processes information. When I was growing up, a friend of mine liked to expound a theory that the language one speaks controls, in some fundamental way, the ideas one can have; at the time, I didn’t quite buy it, but lately I think there’s a gem of truth. You can’t think something if you don’t have the words to express it. You might feel it, but you can’t express that feeling in a thought unless your language has given you the tools to express that particular thought. Often you can get close, by saying “it’s like such-and-such” and explaining the concept, but your native tongue controls which thoughts come easily and which thoughts you must work at. If you have a commonly-used, concise word for “I have, right here, with me” you’re going to make that specification a lot more often than if you have to use, for example, a six-word phrase.

I’m still thinking about this. I think it’s relevant to a lot of important things– for example, why it’s inaccurate to call historical figures “gay,” even if they had confirmed homosexual desires/ relationships, because the word “gay” involves so many cultural assumptions that just didn’t apply to people who lived before the creation of the word. “Gay” means not only having homosexual desires, but identifying with them as something opposite heterosexual desires, and living a life that does not involve even the expectations of heterosexual relationships. People just didn’t think that way, and they didn’t talk that way, in the days of Alexander the Great. And I think that the talking and the thinking are connected.

Like I said, not totally sure where I’m going with this. A lot of it is so tied to my own, personal language-learning journey that it’s hard to explain to people who aren’t trying to communicate in three languages at once. Sort of ironic, really– learning more languages ought to increase my communication skills. Hopefully that will come later.


2 Responses to On Language

  1. eloriane says:

    Oh man, that Arabic is totally illegible, and as a bonus, WordPress can’t seem to display the words in the right order! It’s confused by the whole right-to-left thing, I guess…

    Oh well. If I have any Arabic-speakers in the audience, please forgive me!

  2. Crowfoot says:

    This is really interesting actually. And I agree – I do think that language shapes how we see the world. It comes from our world view but also shapes that world view. I’ve read of some linguists arguing how language controls/heavily influences how we think. And I’m also kind of drawing a mental blank on how to expound on this further.

    But it does remind me of feminist writings. For so much of our lives certain situations leave us feeling… odd somehow. We can’t quite put our finger on it. But then perhaps we’re using Stumbleupon and come across a feminist blog and read what they say. Suddenly we can see what we were feeling. Suddenly we have words for it. And the reality of patriarchy comes into focus, instead of being this vague unpleasant feeling.

    I think you (and the linguist I mentioned) are talking about something even deeper than that, though? But then, I tend to think of patriarchy as being a deeply fundamental way of looking at the world and interpreting what we see.

    How do we describe what is happening to us without words like “patriarchy” or “pornulated”?

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