Thinking of Language


Yesterday, while avoiding the big rig frenzy on the wet highway, I heard a fascinating talk on NPR’s TED Radio Hour, Phuc Tran’s “Does the Subjunctive Have a Dark Side.” The idea of how one’s language, one’s grammar, can shape or affect a culture, has never been made so apparent to me as in this well articulated piece.

31 thoughts on “Thinking of Language

      • Absolutely. If I think of my own “ancestral” heritage-languages, Hebrew has so few words, but, rather than limiting, makes it extremely expressive and beautiful. Yiddish… What can I even say about Yiddish? It has a humor all it’s own; nothing quite like it. And the expressions of Yiddish… some just have no equivalent. Personally, I feel my mindset as a child was mire formulated to think in a Hebraic pattern, even though I don’t speak it. With time, and the awful insistence of English teachers to change my pattern of speech (as in never starting a sentence with a preposition — you’ll notice I’ve taken that rule back), it disappeared. I actually grieve that loss. Some type of ancestral memory within me…

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  1. Robert, I’ll listen to this talk when I get a chance, thanks for sharing. Ever since I became a serious student of French and German 35 years ago, I’ve thought of how the structure of language forms our culture and way of thinking. Or is it the values of the culture that shapes the structure of the language? In English, the verb is right up front; it’s all about the action of doing. This makes me wonder about the assertive, masculine nature of Great Britain and the United States in their imperialism, both in commerce and militarily, throughout the world. In French the sound of the language can affect the spelling of the words and how they fit together. The placement of adjectives is important and can have different meanings depending on whether they are placed before or after the noun they describe. Has this attention to the aesthetics of the language fostered a love of the arts and the delicacy of diplomacy? And in German sentences are often the length of a paragraph and include multiple clauses of thought and condition with the verb, the action, as the very last word. Did this structure inspire the mind to philosophy and engineering, disciplines in which the idea is king? Or was it the other way around…

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      • Agreed. Ive also found myself very thoughtful.
        Beyond linguistics, the glimpse into cultural differences and diversity is fascinating (beautiful really!) Imagine how much we could learn and how much richer our lives could be (are) when we approach other cultures with curiosity and openness to learn – rather than fear, suspicion or judgement. Timely.

        I also listened to the one on “texting”. I suppose my statement above goes beyond our approach to different cultures and reaches into generational views and biases as well. The world just gets bigger and bigger when we open our minds.

        Lots to ponder and appreciate. Thanks again for the share Robert.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Language is the basis of civilization, it is the link that keeps human connected and it is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.
    All languages are great but few countries that has colonized others has imposed their own languages on their subjects and claim that their language is superior.
    This must be a great talk and I must listen to it.
    Thanks for sharing Robert.

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  3. This is curiously well-timed since I just saw “Arrival” and have had the Sapir Whorf hypothesis on the brain for days. It’s not enjoying a lot of favor these days (I expect that movie has revived a lot of arguments) but Tran’s indicative/subjunctive spin on it seems very fresh to me, and inspiring. There is just no end to the fascination of language.

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  4. I just realized that my very first blog post opens on this topic, in reference to the meanings we ascribe to the conquests of warfare, and how, by changing the wording, we change the outcome of its meaning. The ancient Egyptians were very adept in this PsyOps tactic, inscribing their steles and columns with their alleged victories over their enemies, the extent to which many of the outcomes were actually falsified accounts. The study of the knowledge of war tactics (and such PsyOps) is acknowledged in many historical texts, such as: Hebrew Old Testament (we won’t study war anymore); Sun Tzu’s The Art of War; of the characteristics ascribed to the panthon of deities in Indian lore and Greek mythology; and through the tacticians of war, themselves: Genghis Khan, Alexander “the Great” (see?); Suleiman (“the Magnificent”); more.

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  5. Sociological Anthropology has now, unfortunately, become an active shaper of conflict terminology, assigning outcome with words even prior to actual realization of ends. Public Relations firms also engage in spinning catastrophe into positivity or creating good brand/people impressions.

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