Saturday, May 10, 2008

My love affair with linguistics

Lately I've found I get a lot of blank stares when I tell people that I'm teaching myself linguistics. It seems that the field still has this image of being some painfully obscure intellectual exercise with no real practical use, together with the likes of philosophy, sociology and that special subject of assholes too clever for their own clogs, social epistemology.

Looking back, I find it a bit odd, too. I graduated a physicist, worked in corporate finance, now here I am, trying to swallow whole Zoltan Kovecses' (I love this guy's name!) Language, Mind and Culture. So I figured I might as well explain how I came to develop this fascination for language.

For a start, I myself am not actually multilingual. In fact, if you were to count only the languages I can read, write and speak fluently, I'm pretty much monolingual. I do have tiny smatterings of Malay, Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Portuguese, French, German, Spanish and, bugger knows why, the first verses of the Soviet National Anthem and Katyusha. Apart from that, tres, muito, tottemo, sangat, very monolingual.

But that isn't the point of my studying linguistics. A lot of people are under the impression that studying linguistics is about consuming lotsa languages. Nononono, it isn't. At least not the linguistics I'm into. My interest is the relationship between the mind and language, or cognitive linguistics, and it was sparked by readings into Zen.

Zen is really, really weird in that the harder you try to describe it in words, the further off you'll be from it. So I won't try very hard. Basically, it came down to the recurrence of a certain theme in Zen, which I found embodied very well in a phrase by the 6th Patriarch of Zen in China, Huineng. Those of you familiar with the Jap species of Zen will know him as Eno. The phrase is this:

"When I point at the moon, do you look at my finger or do you look at the moon?"

Short, snappy and laden with meaning. In these words are encompassed the hearts of the fields of semiotics and linguistics. But how? How is it that our minds make the connection, from these words, to visualizing the finger and the moon in our heads, to understanding them to be a metaphor for language and signs?

Language is not just a tool to communicate. We grow up with it. Our minds form strong links between words and concepts. We all start out with more or less the same brain, but over time, our minds will settle into the shapes that make us uniquely us. As humans, we live by the meme and are dependent on memes for our survival. Through language (itself a meme) we transmit our memes, both to our offspring and to those around us. Every facet of our lives is determined by our interactions with those around us, and we do that primarily through language.

So it strikes me as strange that we should take language for granted. We are so quick to latch onto the words of people with power and influence without closely analysing what is it they're really saying. "Indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians" becomes "collateral damage". "People who may threaten our hegemony" become "terrorists". "People who disagree with me" are "evil". More experienced hands in playing the games of power are very adept at this kind of insidious word game. Where I come from, politicians are terribly ham-fisted, and it shows.

Words and repetition have an awful power to them over the unwary. With carefully chosen words, one group of people can make demons and animals out of another, and it won't be long after that before man can commit great inhumanity on man simply because one views the other as "less than human".

200 thousand in Darfur since 2004, ~1 million in Rwanda in 1994, >100 thousand in West Papua since 1963, 1.7 million in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, one third of the population of Equatorial Guinea from 1968 to 1979, 1 to 3 million in Bangladesh in 1971... just to name a few, all way past WWII, mind you. Unarmed men, women and children, each one a life just like you and me. Why? Because the hand holding the machete, the finger on the trigger, the man giving the orders was convinced they were "less than human".

All because so very, very few people can see past the words and into the minds that produced the words.

And that's why I'm studying linguistics.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

Thank you for wanting to see the truth beyond the words. I just hope others can see pass the deceptions before the rest of the Papuan and other peoples are eliminated.