There’s a great piece in last week’s New Scientist about how the form of (european) language can shackle the thinking you try to express with it. This proved to be a particular problem for physicists working on quantum theory:
European languages…perfectly mirror the classical world of Newtonian physics. When we say “the cat chases the mouse” we are dealing with well-defined objects (nouns), which are connected via verbs. Likewise, classical physics deals with objects that are well located in space and time, which interact via forces and fields. But if the world doesn’t work the way our language does, advances are inevitably hindered.[David] Bohm pointed out that quantum effects are much more process-based, so to describe them accurately requires a process-based language rich in verbs, and in which nouns play only a secondary role. In the last year of his life, Bohm and some like-minded physicists, including myself [David Peat], met a number of native American elders of the Blackfoot, Micmac and Ojibwa tribes – all speakers of the Algonquian family of languages. These languages have a wide variety of verb forms, while they lack the notion of dividing the world into categories of objects, such as “fish”, “trees” or “birds”.
Peat explains the implications of this by considering how we translate a phrase in the Montagnais language, “Hipiskapigoka iagusit”.
So, for example In a 1729 dictionary, this was translated as “the magician/sorceror sings a sick man”. According to Alan Ford, an expert in the Algonquian languages at the University of Montreal, Canada, this deeply distorts the nature of the thinking processes of the Montagnais people, for the translator had tried to transform a verb-based concept into a European language dominated by nouns and object categories. Rather than there being a medicine person who is doing something to a sick patient, there is an activity of singing, a process. In this world view, songs are alive, singing is going on, and within the process is a medicine person and a sick man.
The world view of Algonquian speakers is of flux and change, of objects emerging and folding back into the flux of the world. There is not the same sense of fixed identity – even a person’s name will change during their life. They believe that objects will vanish into this flux unless renewed by periodic rituals or the pipe smoked at sunrise in the sun dance ceremony of the Lakota and Blackfoot.
As I’ve said, Peat’s point is rooted in the difficulties that we all have in expressing ideas which are not natural to the language in which we choose to express them. We miss quite a lot and distort the broader perspective to fit our own…unless we’re very careful.
I think that this might help unlock some of the tricky debates going on in the ‘sphere (and particularly on Twitter) right now (e.g. the about data, ownership and data – JP’s thought about the communality of data will be posted properly soon here, I’m sure and Hugh will turn his retort “I own your data. Oh and by the way I’m also fucking your wife” into one of his more reproduced cartoons, shortly, also!).
But maybe the biggest thing for those of us interested in articulating the New Marketing is the fact that it is ‘relational’ rather than object orientated. How things (and more importantly, people) connect, interact and participate is what matters much more than things or characteristics. And maybe – just maybe – our desire to “communicate” (that is transmit what we have in our heads like an arrow from our heads to the target heads in front of us) is rooted in this language difference.
Maybe we just have to do stuff differently and wait for them to catch up (which is what they’ll do if they see us finding it useful).
Put another way, while we continue to express thoughts about verbs and people in the language of nouns and adjectives, we’re going to struggle a bit.