Saturday, August 28, 2010

* Does Your Mouth Do Your Thinking?

 Ancient human sacrifice (panel 3) in the Orozco mural at Dartmouth's Baker Library (ignore lights at top of first photo)
A famous French articulatory mold (with companions)

(reply to a friend)

Thanks for sending me this New York Times Magazine (8/28/10)article "Does Your Language Shape How You Think?" , D------ [see excerpts below].

I'm sure it's especially fascinating for you as you raise S-----: They say that having a baby and raising it ( there's that  insidious genderless pronoun !) forces you to re-imagine the world.

I disagree with the "rotating coordinates" postulation. In the exact same hotel situation I always say to myself FIRST, "How fascinating that this room is the mirror opposite of my room". In other words, I rotate it in my mind, BEFORE I relax into using it. And as a former apartment superintendent with 88 identical paired units on opposite sides of single hallway building, I have plenty of experience with this phenomenon.

I would like to know what the Peruvians (who point through themselves as if they were invisible) think about death and immortality or better, about flesh and life.

Recall the Inca human sacrifices at Machu Picchu----depicted in some of that huge mural by Orozco in the Dartmouth reading-room? Maybe an "invisible" body has no reality for them so murder (and cannibalism) have no reality?

MORE fascinating to me (as a former speech major at Ithaca College), and not
mentioned in this article, is how the SHAPING of the words exiting your mouth
( by adjusting your articulatory mold: glottis; epiglottis; roof of mouth; teeth; tongue; LIPS) may shape your attitude toward romance----- and war.

French (and unless you have tried to speak this lanuage you will not know it) FORCES you to shape your mouth like a KISS, over and over and over again. 

German forces you to shape your mouth as a weapon in violent configurations, almost as if it were a grinding, crushing, hacking, packing, slicing machine.

(Compare for example Eine Kleine Nachmusik with Petite Musique de Nuit  or gersundheit with à votre santé .)

What might a lifetime of creating such shapes thousands of times a day do to a human mind?

Have fun re-imagining the world with your beautiful three-year-old D------.

Thanks for the article.



Does Your Language Shape How You Think?

New York Times

Guy Deutscher is an honorary research fellow at the School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures at the University of Manchester. His new book, from which this article is adapted, is “Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages,” to be published this month by Metropolitan Books
Published: August 26, 2010

. . .
While we are trained to ignore directional rotations when we commit information to memory, speakers of geographic languages are trained not to do so. One way of understanding this is to imagine that you are traveling with a speaker of such a language and staying in a large chain-style hotel, with corridor upon corridor of identical-looking doors. Your friend is staying in the room opposite yours, and when you go into his room, you’ll see an exact replica of yours: the same bathroom door on the left, the same mirrored wardrobe on the right, the same main room with the same bed on the left, the same curtains drawn behind it, the same desk next to the wall on the right, the same television set on the left corner of the desk and the same telephone on the right. In short, you have seen the same room twice. But when your friend comes into your room, he will see something quite different from this, because everything is reversed north-side-south. In his room the bed was in the north, while in yours it is in the south; the telephone that in his room was in the west is now in the east, and so on. So while you will see and remember the same room twice, a speaker of a geographic language will see and remember two different rooms . . .

Nor is it easy to speculate about how geographic languages affect areas of experience other than spatial orientation — whether they influence the speaker’s sense of identity, for instance, or bring about a less-egocentric outlook on life. But one piece of evidence is telling: if you saw a Guugu Yimithirr speaker pointing at himself, you would naturally assume he meant to draw attention to himself. In fact, he is pointing at a cardinal direction that happens to be behind his back. While we are always at the center of the world, and it would never occur to us that pointing in the direction of our chest could mean anything other than to draw attention to ourselves, a Guugu Yimithirr speaker points through himself, as if he were thin air and his own existence were irrelevant. . .

As strange as it may sound, our experience of a Chagall painting actually depends to some extent on whether our language has a word for blue. . .

In coming years, researchers may also be able to shed light on the impact of language on more subtle areas of perception. For instance, some languages, like Matses in Peru, oblige their speakers, like the finickiest of lawyers, to specify exactly how they came to know about the facts they are reporting. You cannot simply say, as in English, “An animal passed here.” You have to specify, using a different verbal form, whether this was directly experienced (you saw the animal passing), inferred (you saw footprints), conjectured (animals generally pass there that time of day), hearsay or such. If a statement is reported with the incorrect “evidentiality,” it is considered a lie. So if, for instance, you ask a Matses man how many wives he has, unless he can actually see his wives at that very moment, he would have to answer in the past tense and would say something like “There were two last time I checked.” After all, given that the wives are not present, he cannot be absolutely certain that one of them hasn’t died or run off with another man since he last saw them, even if this was only five minutes ago. So he cannot report it as a certain fact in the present tense. Does the need to think constantly about epistemology in such a careful and sophisticated manner inform the speakers’ outlook on life or their sense of truth and causation? When our experimental tools are less blunt, such questions will be amenable to empirical study. . .

For many years, our mother tongue was claimed to be a “prison house” that constrained our capacity to reason. Once it turned out that there was no evidence for such claims, this was taken as proof that people of all cultures think in fundamentally the same way. But surely it is a mistake to overestimate the importance of abstract reasoning in our lives. After all, how many daily decisions do we make on the basis of deductive logic compared with those guided by gut feeling, intuition, emotions, impulse or practical skills? The habits of mind that our culture has instilled in us from infancy shape our orientation to the world and our emotional responses to the objects we encounter, and their consequences probably go far beyond what has been experimentally demonstrated so far; they may also have a marked impact on our beliefs, values and ideologies. We may not know as yet how to measure these consequences directly or how to assess their contribution to cultural or political misunderstandings. But as a first step toward understanding one another, we can do better than pretending we all think the same.

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