02-Word Box

The Word Box

Can words delimit and bias our thoughts?  Apparantly so according to one linguist.  This can make it almost impossible to transfer a concept from one person to another in it’s entirety.  The concept is stuffed into the box and the pieces hanging out are cut off.  Thus creativity is stifled again.  Einstein’s conception of the space time continuum could not be expressed in words, so he was reduced to using mathematics.  BTW, there is a school of philosophy which postulates that having a concept for which there are no words, is, in and of itself an indication of insanity.  WOW! And they think I’m crazy.

“The effect is powerful enough, she says, that “the private mental lives of speakers of different languages may differ dramatically,” not only when they are thinking in order to speak, “but in all manner of cognitive tasks,” including basic sensory perception. “Even a small fluke of grammar”—the gender of nouns—”can have an effect on how people think about things in the world,” – Lera Boroditsky

I have a friend, Hugo, hispanic with a limited english vocabulary. He had difficulty with the concept of silly. There is no word for silly in spanish, only stupido (stupid) after considerable time he snapped to the meaning and was delighted with the concept. What he snapped to was a football player running the wrong way with a ball is stupid, a football player in a tu tu running the wrong way is silly. It’s the kind of stupid that makes you smile. The concept spread to his family and friends. Even those who could not speak English were using it. I could hear silly in discussions in Spanish. Weird.

Previously I spent time in Singapore and was struck with the fact of the perceptual difference between the natives and occidentals. When I took my shirts to the cleaners, he asked if I wanted blue dye in them. “most Europeans want blue dye in their shirts” How odd. With only a little checking I found that the “whitening agent” used in detergents is in fact blue dye. You can actually see them, little blue beads among the flakes. To an oriental an occidentals white shirt has a blue tinge. To an occidental white looks “dingy”. Isn’t that peculiar?

In another incident my amah, Ah Soo, called me to the window to see a particularly striking rainbow, “the three colors are quite distinct”. Sorry, I see five. I looked it up and found there are supposed to be seven. Sorry, still only five. I did some asking around. When a rainbow appeared (there’s a lot of rainbows in Singapore, it’s a tropical country) I would ask a nearby person how many colors he saw. A European would say “seven” then “but this ones only got five”. An Chinese would say five, without hesitation and a Malay would say three without hesitation.

Interestingly, the Malay language is primative, having no written language they have no word for book.  So the borrowed the english word as buka, since they can only count to 3 a book is buka, books are buka, buka, and a library is buka, buka, buka.  They can’t conceptualize 4 of anything.  Hence 3 colors in the rainbow.

What’s in a word?

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