Speaking Difference

After reading George Orwell’s 1984, I often wondered about the power of language to curtail thought. Would it be possible to bracket imagination through a language that did not name certain phenomenon? Or could the experience of snow be more nuanced if there were a million names for the way it fell and formed collections and then melted away? Or are there human experiences that insist on imprinting on a brain regardless of a language that specifies them? In the 29 August 2010 edition of The New York Times Magazine, Guy Deutscher follows the trajectory of this idea, from its introduction in 1940, its quick debunking and recent, subsequent reappraisal in an article titled “You Are What You Speak.”

There is something intuitive about the idea that language, like any lens we use to look at the world, shapes what we see. However, shaping is not the same as constraining, and this is where the original idea went wrong. Championed by Benjamin Lee Whorf, a chemical engineer, he assumed that language, “prevents us from being able to think certain thoughts” (Deutscher 44), in particular those thoughts a language does not name. But it is easy to disprove this, as happens on a regular basis when we learn something new.

However, Whorf’s idea is being partially reconsidered as studies amass that show that “when we learn our mother tongue, we do after all acquire certain habits of thought that shape our experience in significant and often surprising ways…languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey…this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about” (Deutscher 44). Experiments show that gendered languages such as French, Spanish or German impart associations of gender on inanimate objects in the minds of their speakers. Or, consider this example of the different psychological experiences of a speaker of a language that orients space egocentrically (left, right) opposed to a speaker of a geographically oriented language (north, south, east, west):

Imagine that you are…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 a 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 this same room twice, a speaker of geographic language will see and remember two different rooms (Deutscher 47).

Our language does influence our experience of the world. With the textual cinema project, I hypothesize that setting text in motion may be a way to recalculate or redistribute the authority of language. So, how might our corresponding experiences of the world shift? I find this possibility particularly exciting because I believe that one of the things that art does is present us with new ways of thinking about world we live in and possibilities for the future. This points also to the use-value of translation, as when Deutscher points out in his conclusion, “as a first step to understanding one another, we can do better than pretending we all think the same (47).” New ways of seeing and understanding are revealed when we head out into the world an encounter each other.


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