Attempting to control thought via language

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2005/11/06 11:50 -08:00, original URI:

One of my earliest direct exposures to (for lack of a better term) cool linguistic stuff was when I read 1984. I was fascinated (and horrified!) by the notion of a government attempting to curtail unorthodox thought by removing the expressiveness of language.

I remember an assignment to write a report on whether or not I thought it was possible. In addition to the text in 1984 and its extensive discussion about the purpose of the language 'updates' in the text and the appendix, I ended up drawing on a bit of Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land:

   "Not at all." Mahmoud spoke briefly in Martian to Mike. Mike answered him, smiled sunnily; his expression became blank again and he applied himself to food, quite content to be allowed to eat in silence. "I told him what I was trying to do and he told me that I would speak rightly; this was not his opinion but a simple statement of fact, a necessity. I hope that if I fail to, he will notice and tell me. But I doubt if he will. You see, Mike thinks in Martian – and this gives him an entirely different 'map' of the universe from that which you and I use. You follow me?"

   "I grok it," agreed Jubal. "Language itself shapes a man's basic ideas."

   "Yes, but – Doctor, you speak Arabic, do you not?"

   "Eh? I used to, badly, many years ago," admitted Jubal. "Put in a while as a surgeon with the American Field Service, in Palestine. But I don't now. I still read it a little… because I prefer to read the words of the Prophet in the original."

   "Proper. Since the Koran cannot be translated – the 'map' changes on translation no matter how carefully one tries. You will understand, then, how difficult I found English. It was not alone that my native language has much simpler inflections and more limited tenses; the whole 'map' changed. English is the largest of the human tongues, with several times the vocabulary of the second largest language – this alone made it inevitable that English would eventually become, as it did, the lingua franca of this planet, for it is thereby the richest and the most flexible – despite its barbaric accretions… or, I should say, because of its barbaric accretions. English swallows up anything that comes its way, makes English out of it. Nobody tried to stop this process, the way some languages are policed and have official limits… probably because there never has been, truly, such a thing as 'the King's English' – for 'the King's English' was French. English was in truth a bastard tongue and nobody cared how it grew… and it did! – enormously. Until no one could hope to be an educated man unless he did his best to embrace this monster.

   "Its very variety, subtlety, and utterly irrational, idiomatic complexity makes it possible to say things in English which simply cannot be said in any other language. It almost drove me crazy… until I learned to think in it – and that put a new 'map' of the world on top of the one I grew up with. A better one, in many ways – certainly a more detailed one.

   "But nevertheless there are things which can be said in the simple Arabic tongue that cannot be said in English."

   Jubal nodded agreement. "Quite true. That's why I've kept up my reading of it, a little."

   "Yes. But the Martian language is so much more complex than is English – and so wildly different in the fashion in which it abstracts its picture of the universe – that English and Arabic might as well be considered one and the same language, by comparison. An Englishman and an Arab can learn to think each other's thoughts, in the other's language. But I'm not certain that it will ever be possible for us to think in Martian (other than by the unique fashion Mike learned it) – oh, we can learn a sort of a 'pidgin' Martian, yes – that is what I speak.

But I decided in the end it was not possible to control thought in this way.

Now controlling language can make the expression of ideas a bit more difficult this is due to the inability to communicate the ideas as effectively. This is in a way the point both books were making, that understanding can definitely be impacted by such a thing. This is just as true as when two people do not speak the same language with compareable fluency.

But it is not the same as controlling thought.

There are things that I believe all people can have knowledge of, but which they cannot express in words.

Many people try to distinguish what they think from what they feel by considering the former to be what can be expressed in words and the latter what cannot. And I guess there may be some basis for that, although there are many times that I think things and believe I am thinking them even when I cannot yet express them. So I think that it is not thought that requires language, though obviously coherent thought that can be expressed to others does require it.

Perhaps that is all these people are trying to control. As was pointed out to Winston Smith in the Ministry of Truth -- there will always be a Goldstein, and an underground. There will always be an enemy. The fact that it will be harder for the conspirators to communicate does not make the conspiracy go away. Any more than the systemic anomaly in The Matrix was able to be fixed, despite the most assiduous efforts of the Architect.

The situation becomes more odd when it returns to a 1984-esque attempt to control language usage like the one Bill Power pointed out the other day in Better Not Use Q and W. This is obviously not an attempt to control all communication as an attempt to (as Bill pointed out) stop Kurdish language influence on the Turkish language. In this case perhaps the not-so-subtle attempt is the same, to stop language from expanding along with the culture (or perhaps to try to step the culture from expanding with the language control being just a part of that). It must be pretty hard to enforce such laws given all of the non-Kurdish words that use these letters, such as company names.

Even ignoring that, it is hard to discern The Letters in a Language, even in the best of circumstances. Perhaps these people would be less likely to be considered by others turkeys if they stopped trying?


This post brought to you by "Q" and "X" (U+0051 and U+0058, a.k.a. LATIN CAPITAL LETTER Q and LATIN CAPITAL LETTER X)

# Marvin on Sunday, November 06, 2005 3:05 PM:

You might want to read more about contemporary linguistics. "The Language Instinct" by Steven Pinker is a good place to start. The so-called Worfian theory you mention have long been discredited.

# Michael S. Kaplan on Sunday, November 06, 2005 3:31 PM:

Hi Marvin -- I have indeed read that book, and several others by Pinker. As I pointed out, I myself disagreed with the idea that language controls ideas (versus the other way around) in junior high school!

I was trying separate here what one could annunciate from what one could not (although in practice new ideas cause the language to grow, no matter what people try to do to control it)...

# Wim Hollebrandse on Sunday, November 06, 2005 4:01 PM:

As I'm bi-lingual, (Dutch and English) I often get asked the question in what language I think.

I have thought about this very carefully and I always say that people don't think in a language, merely in images and associations; some people do not seem to understand the answer ("But you must think in a language...")

The point is that language is not a pre-requisite for thought. I also point out a hypothetical scenario that if a baby grew up and it never heard any language, yet, you'd feed her give her love etc...she can grow up, become a todler and adult and think things like "Oh, what a lovely day." or "I don't like the look of that person." without knowing any language.

Of course there are some real-life scenarios whereby you literally think/prepare about what you should say.

# Michael S. Kaplan on Sunday, November 06, 2005 4:49 PM:

Hello Wim --

(I only published the second comment you posted since they looked the same)

You have indeed hit on the thing I was trying to describe that I have trouble convincing people of -- that my thoughts are more than I can actually express in any language I know. And you managed to come up with a cooler example than I did, too!

# Marvin on Sunday, November 06, 2005 7:07 PM:

Wim: This is not an imaginary experiment. Occasionally such people are found (either victims of abuse or bad luck or both). They certainly can think but they know no language.

Michael: Sorry. You didn't mention any of the usual buzzwords so I assumed ignorance.

# Mihai on Monday, November 07, 2005 1:06 AM:

I think there are levels and levels.
For basic things, feelings, there is no need of language. For more advanced thoughts, I think it is.

Similar, for a house or a small program you don't need plans. For a sky scraper or an operating system you do.

You don't need language for "what a lovely day" but you do for "I hope the weather this Chistmas will be as lovely as when I was a kid."

I can tell you there are a big collections of words entering the ex-comunist countries. Marketing, bonds, shares?
What is the meaning of "elections" in a country ruled by a dictator for 30 years?

# AndrewSeven on Monday, November 07, 2005 9:11 AM:

People who speak more than one language tend to consider thought to be language independent moreso than monolingual people.

Because language is the method of expression, things which we cannot express in our languages (structured expression) are difficult to remember and classify.

English is my first language and I see important subtle details between "please" and "thank you" even if I can't clearly describe them.
You mentioned a Hebrew word that is used for both; even though they convey a similar sentiment, it can't have exactly the same meaning as each of the two English words.

These subtle differences are not very significant except in that our ability to express ourselves and interact using language has a profound affect on how we think.

An English speaker may find the two words too exacting while the Hebrew speaker would like a slightly more precise word.

This is a trivial difference, but we can and do modify our thoughts so that they are easier to express in the language we use most.

p.s. What about Neuro Linguistic Programming and "positive thinking"

# Alex on Monday, November 07, 2005 9:19 AM:

Control is one thing, but I'm personally still inclined to think that languages defining your conceptual thinking.

There was a recent new article last year about a tribe in the Amazon and their processing of numerics (the best link I could find:

# Michael S. Kaplan on Monday, November 07, 2005 10:13 AM:

Hi Alex -- You really should check out The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker. He manages to show how most of these types of theories are either untrue or are not proving what people think they are....

# Carlos on Monday, November 07, 2005 11:28 AM:

The other thing to disagree with in Heinlein's text is that English is the most complex or expressive language. There are many examples where other languages are much more specific than English and allow speakers to make much finer distinctions. One example that comes readily to mind is that in Portuguese, there are two forms of the verb "to be". One form, "ser", means "to be" as a durable state of being, as in "I am an American." "Estar" is for more transitory states of being, as in "I am hungry". English collapses these two ideas into one word and therefore creates ambiguity, but also denies the speaker the expressive power of applying one form where the other is expected to make a point. There are many other examples as well.

Anyway, I know that that isn't your point at all in this article, Michael, but that's always been a pet peeve of mine. Thanks for another great post.

# Mihai on Monday, November 07, 2005 2:01 PM:

Now I realize that most people here (and me in my first comment) concentrate on the ability to think without a language.
But then I realized than control means also that you cannot teach others what you have discovered.
We build on top of what we learn. And if we do not have the vocabulary to express it, we have no way to share with others our thoughts.
As a result, some ideas cannot spread. This is also control.

# Ben Bryant on Monday, November 07, 2005 3:44 PM:

Marvin starts off by misspelling "Worfian". I too found the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis fascinating in high school. It is not a matter of discounting it, it is a matter of delving into the relationship between language and thought that really sparks the most amazing discussions and contemplations I have ever had. If you try to be brief on this subject you end up in the semantics: what is thought (fear, hunger?)? what is language (does a gesture count)? This is a really great post Michael. And I think Mihai says it best with "levels and levels."

# Ben Bryant on Monday, November 07, 2005 3:56 PM:

Carlos, the richness or size of a language can't be measured or compared. But if you were going to try you might start with the volume of literature and the number of people literate in the language, rather than examples of a nuance in one language versus an extra word in the other. Certainly Portuguese and English both were accelerated by their colonial history. But the utter hugeness of English is probably hard to approach right now as it encompasses expression from Africa to New Zealand (just going for the A to Z affect there) and world-wide media dominance. The languages of colonized and isolated countries on the other hand have suffered in this regard, their richness sapped.

# Brian on Monday, November 07, 2005 5:04 PM:

I have not read Pinker yet (though "The Blank Slate" and "The Language Instinct" sit patiently on my "to read" shelf at home), but I still have a comment: Language isn't a prerequisite for thought, but it is a tool in our mental toolbox. Take mathematics for example: because I know about integrals and variables and addition, etc., my ability to think FARTHER along a train of thought is enhanced. The language aids me in my thoughts and allows me to progress further than if I didn't have such a language.

In this way, language doesn't shape what we can think, but does allow us to get to (and beyond) the areas it supports much easier than to the areas it omits.

# Jonathan on Tuesday, November 08, 2005 7:10 AM:

Much of the confusion in the public speak about open-source software was caused by the 2 meanings of "free". Some even try to hack around this by forming 2 expression - free-as-in-beer, free-as-in-speak. None of this would've happened in Hebrew, where we have חופשי and חינם.

Another anecdote: The confusion between decimal KB (1000 bytes) and binary KB (1024 bytes) would never have happened if computers were developed in east-Asia - there, the basic unit of 10-power is 10000, not 1000.

# Carlos on Tuesday, November 08, 2005 1:12 PM:

Ben, I was critizing Heinlein's suggestion that one could things in English that could not be expressed in any other language and that English is the most expressive language. I don't see any way to define 'richness' in a language other than expressive power and if you're talking about expressive power, then you're necessarily talking about nuance. Furthermore, if you're talking about nuance, then the number of speakers or amount of content isn't really relevant. Nuance and expressive power comes from the actual syntax and vocabulary of the language itself.

This isn't just theoretical either, this has legal ramifications. One of the more unfortuate quotes in history is "That depends on what the meaning of 'is' is". Well, as slippery as that was, it's true that there are at least two meanings for the word 'is' and the answer to a question could change depending on which one you use. As another poster pointed out, this applies as well to the "free-as-in-beer" and "free-as-in-speech" problem in open source. You could add a trillion English speakers to the language and this ambiguity wouldn't go away.

Finally, I don't mean to imply that English is somehow less expressive overall. My point was that every language makes its own unique distinctions which defines its own unique scope of expression. In some areas, distinctions are finer; in others, less so.

# Michael S. Kaplan on Tuesday, November 08, 2005 3:39 PM:

Hi Carlos,

I think Heinlein was trying for a slightly different point -- as a 'bastard' language that picked up from so many other languages, it was in a good position to be considered more expressive due to all of the contributions. I am not sure if I completely buy the argument, but it is not as easy to disprove....

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