A language problem?

Posted by on Jan 10, 2008 in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

Delaware_indian_family_from_campani Pic Penn Treaty Museum

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.


  1. zeroinfluencer
    January 10, 2008

    This is a bit confused; processes are Methods that exist within Objects and relationships/connectivity happen through the methods, not the object itself.
    Defining people as objects is of interest though; we conduct ourselves through methods, but essentially this defines the person as a role, and a role is not an object but a state of person.
    Engagement, especially in the New Marketing, is the exposure of Methods not Objects. Functions are more important than applications when developing connectivity.
    It’s the examination of ethics which will control the production of Methods/Activities; it’s something that Data is oblious to.

  2. Mark Earls
    January 11, 2008

    David, thanks for the comment but I’m not sure I’m clever enough to understand it.
    Just for clarity’s sake, let me say this:
    i. the emboldened text is from Peat’s article in NS
    ii. the Peat article was making a point about the limitation of languages to express thoughts alien to the culture in which that language developed
    iii. I’m simply suggesting that the language we are used to deploying to talk about important issues (like human behaviour and how we shape it) has a number of cultural assumptions embeddded in it that are likely to have a similar effect on our ability to communicate successfully with each other.
    iv. I don’t mean this in a mere “Oxford Philosophy Language Problem” way (e.g. we might as well give up): rather, I am suggesting that being open to the other ways of describing the things and the models of the world that underpin them might just provide us with a practical way through.
    Er…is that confused?

  3. Johnnie Moore's Weblog
    January 11, 2008

    Language pitfalls

    Mark Earls writes about the pitfalls of language. In particular, he looks at how European languages emphasise objects doing things to other objects. Other languages are much more into processes. I think one manifestation of this is the word “brand”….

  4. Stuart Parkinson
    January 11, 2008

    Nice to meet you today. I had to go on to read this post & the new scientist article immediately. A couple of reasons for this.
    a) I wanted to see how complex the comment you mentioned was, it turned out to be very complex and I’d love some further clarification on what he means. In essence, I have no idea at all and it makes my brain hurt.
    b) When you were telling me about this you made me thing of something I’d been reading about in relation to some of Carl Sagan’s writing and his involvement with the Voyager program – simply out of curiosity’s sake.
    Broadly, that Sumerian (a language from the Sumer circa 4000BC) was included on the Voyager spacecraft golden records as one of the few (50) languages from Earth.
    From my understanding, a large part of what your post says is that ancient languages may be able to explain the deeper elements of physics and the behaviour of the universe better than ours (and that that’s interesting for explaining the deeper things we’re studying/observing). One thing Sagan hinted at (a rather fringe attitude) was that that is because the origins of pre-historic cultures were extra-terrestrial (or at least they had links with them).
    I couldn’t help but try to explain what you (and the new scientist) are talking about…and I don’t think it’s extra terrestrials, it just seems to me that the instinctive and perhaps the less advanced interpretations (by ancient cultures) of what is happening around us that weren’t corrupted or influenced by a tremendous amount of recorded knowledge and that this could mean that they’d be closer to explaining what is really going on.
    Almost the idea that if you don’t know, and you take time look, feel, listen and (not to mention) construct your own language based on this context, you might get it right…by accident. How each individual’s consciousness grows in this day in age is based on a tremendous amount of established facts that we don’t need to listen to or develop new language to describe – perhaps that has a disadvantage.
    Maybe that makes no sense, maybe it’s a cross purposes…but hey. What do you think?

  5. Mark Earls
    January 11, 2008

    Nice one, Stuart.
    Think this is interesting and that there’s a lot in what you say.
    But maybe it’s just that our culture’s assumptions about the world have embedded themselves in the structure of our languages: I’m a big fan of Richard Nisbett’s Geography of thought which details the evidence for the culturally distributed cognitive styles in Confucian Asian and European populations (which are reflected in the language, surely?): relational vs. differential,mostly.
    On the way he describes the cog biases these bring with them: e.g. Asian respondents tend to underestimate their ability to spot causal connections; we tend to overestimate…
    Make sense?

  6. Stuart Parkinson
    January 11, 2008

    ‘culture’s assumptions about the world have embedded themselves in the structure of our languages’
    Yes. This is it exactly. Hence we’re not at the fringe, constantly trying to develop new language to explain the new things that are happening to us. Our language has evolved along with our culture to help us continue along the variable path it came down. But as you say, the effect of this meaning that we -think- differently according variances in language.
    The language we speak serves us very well, the fact that we don’t have to define our language daily lets us be productive (in every way, not just economically) within the -practical- world we live in.
    It is this organically grown utilitarianism within all modern language (and therefore cognitive function), that being on the ‘fringe’ as it were, attempting to explain things out of our pragmatic realm, is extremely difficult for people, even though we’re sharp enough to want to know, to study them – our language (and therefore cognition) perhaps hinders our understanding.
    Perhaps, before man had to deal with the hard task of sustaining 6 billion of himself, he ironically enough had MORE time to spend philosophising the world he lived in. Now, practical necessities involved in sustaining a large human population mean that labour has been divided into the ‘productive’ and those who are able to study and philosophise (scientists, philosophers, artists etc) – the only problem being, that this minority, through a twist of fate, need to use a language made for living to do it with and not necessarily one optimised for ‘thinking’…

  7. zeroinfluencer
    January 13, 2008

    Mark, Stuart. Hello.
    This is all interesting reading.
    Objects, in language (nouns and verbs), are constructs of social behaviours – how we name and describe them in an attempt to identify their characteristics for social referencing.
    Objects, therefore, contain Methods, descriptions for social/network referencing.
    Regardless of the language syntax, communication can been seen to be restricted to languages’ use of objects.
    But it is these methods, although they can fall to the recursively of the object construct (Methods are descriptions made up of other objects and methods), that are the binding between states of existance.
    The big question is, as noted in the opening para, does language depend upon space or time, as with the problem of using the language model to describe Quantum Physics.
    It’s not language that is the fault of being unable to describe, or losing meaning in translation, but the way in which perception works. Perception informs the language construct and perception only enables us to SEE surface. Meaning is a language construct, not a perception construct.
    Insects do not have the same perception plane as humans, on the whole. Even other mammals have their own perception planes – it has to be one of the key reasons for the inability to have cross species conversations, unless you’re Dr. Dolittle.
    So for cultural assumptions being embedded in to language, well yes, culture is a language construct, but perception has far more clout in influencing communication’s rule sets,
    Simply, read any piece of art criticism and see how it fails to get close to what the artist was seeing. Descriptive texts exist within a plane of understanding that ‘overlooks’ perception, because language can neither describe itself nor perception. Art can be devoid of syntax yet still seem to ‘communicate’. It’s that moment and/or space that perception bleeds in language.
    Language only serves us well when we have no reason to see beyond objects; the existence behind objects is a domain that holds great opportunities to escape descriptive meanings and embrace other dimensions that the abstract of communication is itself constructed from. Communication, after all is not just about sender and receiver, it is about the noise that exists between sender and receiver. That noise is the dimension that ‘Quantum Mechanics’ are probing.
    The world works according to how we use perception, not how language’s objects and methods describe it. Perception is a series of translations, just as an emotion is a series of sensations; calculating the value of the transactions will/has lead to a language of approximations. Experiential, as with perception, can be considered, traced and designed to be accountable, but the value will be algorithmic, with plenty of variables.
    Uncannily, I had wrote a post about this (Failure of Space) and was waiting till next week to publish, but here is :-

  8. Roland Harwood
    February 9, 2008

    All very fascinating. I studied physics at university and always found the philosophical implications far more interesting than the physics itself. Not sure what I can add to the debate here but it reminds me that they say that there are only 2 forms of innate genius, namely in maths and music. And in music it is usually prodigies in classical or certainly instrumental music (getting away from those pesky nouns). I’ve always preferred music without lyrics, or if there are voices that they are used more as sonic texture rather than to hammer out a message. Anyway, it all links back to pattern recognition which again is about transcending objects and seeking relationships between them. Not quite sure what the conclusion to all of this is, but it feels somehow linked to the article…i’ll need to ponder further…