Sunday, April 20, 2008

Sapir-Whorf... (from Friendster, 2 Oct 07)

... has nothing to do with Klingons.

This weekend I came across a most interesting quirk of linguistics - the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The long story short of it is that it puts forward the idea that language shapes our thoughts, i.e. that our thought patterns are shoehorned into the shape that fits best with the language we are most comfortable with.

This is a matter of some interest to me. I've often been told that I'm fairly quick to pick up languages and can mimic foreign phrases and mannerisms with some accuracy. I've always put this down to the fact that I don't just view a language as a language (that is, saying the same thing using a different set of words) but as an attitude, for lack of a better word.

The more I think about it, the more this intrigues me. One of the more interesting ideas I came across in past readings is that language is a prerequisite of sentient thought. Is it really? Beginning with the basics, when one percieves the world through the senses, the purpose that language serves that first comes to mind would be that of communication. i.e. I see a tree. I don't need to know that it's *called* a tree to know that it's a tree.

Interlude: There's a Zwinky ad at the side of my screen that's showing some girl with constantly changing hair, clothes and skin colour that's driving me nuts... Argh.

Anyway, the only reason I'd need to know that a tree is called a tree is to convey to someone else that I had in fact seen a tree. If, hypothetically, I could speak from mind-to-mind, I would not need the word for tree but simply transmit the concept straight into the mind of whosoever I wish. Hence, sans language, I have communicated!

But then again, the example is far too simple. What of mathematics? Since the beginning of human history, the advancement of mathematics has been a cornerstone of our understanding of the universe. Through simple symbols, we express the laws that define our reality. Is it possible here, as above, to cut out the middle man, and simply *know* the details of Schrodinger's Equation without even having any way of expressing it externally? First instinct tells me no. But then again, in saying that, am I the victim of a lifetime of expressing my world in language such that I cannot concieve of such a thing as mathematics beyond language? Is there really, as Zen monks would have you believe, a perfect purity of thought beyond words?

Something tells me that a healthy dose of Chomsky will shed some light on this...

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