I am what I describe myself to be… so what can I be?

03 Feb

I am no linguist and boast little if any background in the field, but I have been reading up on the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, or Linguistic relativity. In a nutshell, this hypothesis claims that language not only limits what people can say, but how they think, what they can mentally process, and all other sorts of goodies that we as the general public assumed was biological in some degree (or just chose to not think of the matter). This is not to say that some cultures are gifted with languages that allow them to lift two hundred pounds of sand, but instead they think of that sand as being north of you instead of next to you, or that the sand is comprised of 8 main cubes instead of simply being made of “many parts”.

This hypothesis, while still under the scrutiny of many researches and linguists, seems to have some sort of merit. A classic and extreme example would be the Pirahã people and their language. They lack the concept of numbers, only knowing “few” and “many”, and have thus so far been unresponsive to attempts to be taught simple arithmetic such as 1+1. They lack the concept of the abstract and linear time as we know it, and have no words for describing anything that is beyond the here and now. This explains why they have no myths nor fables nor imaginative art, and are even unable to remember the names of dead relatives simply because they do not exist anymore. Truly a fascinating example of the strength of language and its confines on our mentalities and culture. This hypothesis of linguistic relativity requires more study of course, but cases like these makes one wonder at what else we could be missing in our cognitive ability, only because we cannot say it.

Even in our individual lives can we see some fragment of truth in this hypothesis. I am blessed to have been born and raised in a bilingual family, and so from the beginning of my cognitive growth I have replaced phrases and words from each language with each other, if only because one just seemed more fitting at the time. There are different words for tastes, moods, colors, and even types of pain, and very often will I find that the people I am speaking to can’t truly comprehend my rough translation of the other word. This has proven to be especially difficult in hospital visits, as there is always a language gap even if we are speaking the same language.

Granted, this is not a mind blowing issue, and not being able to describe in my full capacity just in what way my soup tastes good is not a life threatening or even day-ruining problem. But what if we could get rid of language all together? That we could simply share thoughts? At some point as infants and wordless toddlers we must have some sort of thought process capable of communication, we are simply not indoctrinated into our own cultural linguistic norm yet. What would happen if there were no indoctrination altogether?

A certain brain implanted “Neuralynx system” is in the works at Boston University, with which a person only has to think of a word, and the system will read them and even synthesize the voice. Currently only being created with victims of “locked in syndrome” in mind, the device could have much larger implications. If we are able to digitally transmit speech directly from our brains to computers, what’s to stop us from eventually transmitting thoughts and concepts to each other directly without words? We could share thoughts that have no linguistic boundary, explore abstractions beyond our wildest, word-bound dreams. Will we see color differently? Experience different sensations of taste? Categorize an object by its shape and material and an infinite amount of other generalizations at the same time? Will we even have the same concept of time and space?

Even though this could only even begin to come into play if generations of people were immediately implanted with these systems right after birth, the idea is still a fun one to play with. Our “conversations” and understanding of the world could potentially become so much richer and diversified that our minds could hardly contain the grand scheme of it all.

Or, in my opinion, we would just have really intense awkward silences.

Now try describing this in Swedish


Posted by on February 3, 2011 in Uncategorized


Tags: , , ,

2 responses to “I am what I describe myself to be… so what can I be?

  1. francesu0

    February 3, 2011 at 12:45

    oh ho ho ho ho i totally understand abt the bilingual thing XD hm u know whats funny from watching heroes XD i learned that i never want to have the ability to just hear thoughts because i don’t want to hear some stray thoughts that sometimes ppl don’t even mean it XD if the day comes we can all just communicate through thoughts, it should be more selective XD

    i always wonder how boba communicate with his fellow bunnies besides body language… pheromones?

  2. francesu0

    February 3, 2011 at 12:46

    Boba will be screwed if he has a complicated mind then XD


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