Saturday, 3 October 2009

Language, Thought and Reality

One of the most revolutionary discoveries/learnings of my life (a couple of years ago) is the fact that (to a certain extent) there is no one single objective reality. Actually, I had never thought about it before: reality is mostly a social construct. And as written by Watzlawick in his book How real is real?: "the most dangerous illusion of all is [thinking] that there is only one reality." In fact, common sense suggests that reality is one and that it is out there, ready to be observed and described using the various tools that we have such as language. But, think about it if you never did it before: "we cannot know, think about or analyse the world without using concepts, language, [categories] and "frames of reference", which come from the social world that we are part of" (Watson, 2006). We know the world through a series of categories that are culturally, socially built and agreed upon. Different cultures, different views. Different people, different mental programmings. Not acknowledging this thing, not being able to recognize that we all have different unconscious assumptions, different mental models of reality is probably one of the most common source of interpersonal and intercultural problems. "Social constructionism cautions us to be ever suspicious of our assumptions about how the world appears to be" (Burr, 1995). Anyway, I don't want to write a dissertation about social constructivism/constructionism here (very interesting school of thought!), I just wanted to introduce the topic of how language contributes in constructing the reality that we see. Different languages (therefore cultures) see reality in different ways. Subtle variations you may say, but interesting ones I would answer!

Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure is one of the founding fathers of structuralism (in linguistic). The idea at the heart of this school of thought is that language determines how our mind is structured. Language and thought are not two separated phenomena; language provides the basis for our thought (Burr, 1995). Linguistic signs, according to Saussure, are composed by two parts: a signifier and a signified. The signifier ('Home', 'Tree', 'Cat', 'Bike', etc...) is the sound that we use to represent a signified (an object, a concept, an idea, etc...). The link between the word and the signified concept is arbitrary, only a convention. The interesting part is anyway the following: Saussure claimed that also the categories (the concepts) that we use are conventional categorizations of how we experience reality. Remember different cultures, different views. The fact that we have divided the world in dogs, pigs, houses, flowers, books, watches, etc... reflects how we see reality. A classic example (I don't know if it is true, but it is anyway useful) is the following: we have only one word to describe snow, whereas the legend wants that eskimos have various words to describe what we call snow depending on various variables. This reflects their relationship with that particular portion of the world and therefore is going to shape how they perceive it.

It is therefore interesting, when learning or approaching a new language or culture (different from ours) to try to grasp these little differences that reveals something about a culture. The other day I read an article listing some of these words. The one I liked the most was the German Shadenfreude which means "the happiness felt at another misfortune". Apparently in English (I would say neither in Italian) there is not a word to describe this concept. Another good one (always from the same article) is the Dutch Gezelling: it can "be described as a cozy, communal feeling, like the warm sensation one has [when] surrounded by good friends at a long meal, with the conversation flowing". Another very nice one I was told about once is the Spanish word Duende. It describes the state of exaltation, of visceral reaction to music. The very emotional state you feel when music (or art in general I think) is flowing through your veins. The concept expressed by the word duende is anyway so complex that books are being written about it!

Some words are probably truly understood in their completeness only by people coming from a certain culture. In fact they're the probably the only ones able to really grasp the whole complexity, the reverberation of meanings that one word is carrying with itself (that's why in Italian we say traduttore traditore). Anyway, this is definitely a nice exercise, a thing worth paying attention when approaching a new culture/language, therefore new people.