Are we trapped inside of language?

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by Magical Realist, Mar 23, 2011.

  1. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

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    Wittgenstein once said that "The limits of my language are the limits of my world." So let's think about this: every word we use is defined by another word or set of words. These words in turn are defined by other words, and so on and so forth. How then do we ever get OUTSIDE of language? I guess more generally I'm asking, "How do words refer to things/facts beyond the realm of language if their meanings are entirely contained within language?"
     
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  3. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

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    Their meanings aren't entirely contained within language. If they were, then you could never work out how to communicate with somebody who didn't speak your language.

    If I point to a rock and say "Phoonwaffle", how long do you think it will take you to work out that "Phoonwaffle" is my word for rock? Note that I haven't defined "Phoonwaffle" in terms of any other words.
     
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  5. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

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    But how do I know that by merely pointing you are defining the word "Phoonwaffle"? That rock could be a mere example of any number of sets called "Phoonwaffle"--a mineral, a paper weight, a brown object, a heavy object, a round object, or even just the name of your pet rock.

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    Ostensive definition is after all merely that--a pointing out of examples, but NOT the actual definition of the word itself.
     
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  7. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    James clearly said that you would not figure it out immediately. But after you'd heard the word used in a variety of circumstances you'd figure out that a phoonwaffle is a rock, not a generic word for paperweights nor the given name of his individual low-maintenance housepet.

    People learn language by immersion all the time. In fact, I'll let you in on a linguists' secret: The vast majority of language learning on this planet is not just done by immersion, but it's accomplished by tiny children who don't even realize what they're doing and have no formal training in the discipline. They seem to do just fine with it, don't they?

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    But to return to your original question, yes indeed we are all constrained by the limits of our language. Unless you happen to be a professional sculptor, athlete, photographer, musician, carpenter, etc., most of your thoughts are formed in words. So clearly the language in which you think not only shapes your thoughts but constrains their domain.

    This is why it's so important for people to learn a second language, preferably in childhood when it's so ridiculously easy. The less closely related the two languages are, the better. It gives you two different ways of thinking, so you can reality-test your thoughts in one language against the paradigms of the other.

    For example, Chinese has no gender. Once you've studied Chinese thoroughly enough to have thoughts in Chinese (which can occur long before you're fluent, take my word for it) you start to wonder why you've always unconsciously assumed that all doctors are male and all teachers are female. "Ask your doctor if he will..." "Ask your children's teacher if she has ever..." In Chinese "he" and "she" are one word.
     
  8. wynn ˙ Valued Senior Member

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    Learning another language is still a matter of language as such. I believe the OP is asking in a more general manner, as in "language vs. reality vs. thought".
     
  9. wynn ˙ Valued Senior Member

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    Sure. But how does immersion work, on an epistemological level, for starters?
     
  10. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    You're going to have to ask an epistemologist. That's not one of my areas of interest.
     
  11. wellwisher Banned Banned

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    You don't need language for thought. Think of it this way, how can we invent new words, if words are needed for all thinking? The new word comes from a place where there was no word.

    I good example of thinking without language is trying to get some men to put their feelings into words. The experience of the feelings is there to collect data from, but the words are not. They need to translate this to spoken language, before they can share it.

    Language can be cumbersome; A picture is worth a thousand words, so using visual thinking, for example, can speed thought processing orders of magnitude.

    For example, the baseball player who is a natural hitter visually figures out the cause and effect of various ball movements and his bat swing. This is complex science with minimal room for error. He does not need to label everything with words, to hit a home run. If we add language so he talks the entire thing through, he will strike out unless he can talk 1000 words per minute.

    Language is more about sharing with others. The slower speeds allows more to share. The natural hitter will need to put what he visually and intuitively understands when at bat, into words, so he can share his tricks and tips with others. He will need to use language to create that place in the mind where the other batter, so it can react in a split second to the movement of the breaking ball. The other guy, if he tries to talk it through, will fall shart due to the slow speed of language. He needs to find that place of visual thinking free of words.
     
  12. Me-Ki-Gal Banned Banned

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    I would call your example a spear chucking example from hunter gathering cultures of the past. Now in reality the science of hitting bat with ball has advanced in many ways by language. They even got stats these days .
    We live in the confines of language and most words carry baggage from the past . Typically New " Items and Ideas are derived by usage of older forms of words . Sometimes childish ideas , but older thought nun the less
     
  13. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

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    Regarding that darn rock again..I'm thinking "yeah, after repeated pointings to various rocks I would probably get that "phoonwaffle" MEANS "rock". But note that I already have a linguistically-defined meaning for my word "rock" in my own language. It's an abstract category for me that doesn't really exist in physical reality. And it is only by already understanding this definition that I am able to come up with rough examples in objects around me. So being able to realize that "rock" is what "phoonwaffle" means hasn't really gotten me outside of language has it? IOW, I realize "phoonwaffle" MEANS this other word "rock" which is already pre-defined for me as a generalization of language. But if I had no predefined word "rock" to begin with then no number of examples would suffice in defining it's meaning for me. At best "phoonwaffle" would remain an arbitrary placeholder or name for these rock objects without having any internal meaning itself.


    Interesting point about gender in language. But maybe just being used to a word referring to people of a specific gender is enough to bias us towards thinking it MEANS a person of a specific gender. IOW, culture might be as operative here as pronoun gender is.
     
  14. Dywyddyr Penguinaciously duckalicious. Valued Senior Member

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    Doesn't the same hold true for "rock"?
    Isn't it an "arbitrary placeholder" for the thing itself?
     
  15. wynn ˙ Valued Senior Member

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    There is an episode in Gulliver's Travels where Gulliver comes to a land where people don't communicate using words, but by pointing at actual things - they carry with them huge bags of things.
     
  16. Me-Ki-Gal Banned Banned

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    Oh that is funny !! Baggage of words are definitely easier to haul around
     
  17. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

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    I don't think new words come out of nowhere. From what I've observed they are usually derived from compounds of other words or syllables or acronyms or abbreviations. And THEN even after that it has to acquire it's definition from other words. Look up a new word in a dictionary. There is not just a picture beside it, but there are words and phrases telling us what it means.


    And I disagree that thought occurs without language. Certainly feelings can and often do. But not clear and self-aware thought. Whenever I think I am running in my head concepts and ideas and generalizations and propositions that are totally structured out of language. The very act of identifying something AS "a so and so" presupposes the subject/predicate structure of language and other more general words to categorize that thing under. The very act of description presupposes qualities and adjectives and universals. And then there are analogies and similes and metaphors, all of which only make sense due to the hierarchal structure of language. We are deeply embedded in words even though we never consciously say them to ourselves. Even memories seem to rely on names and words as sort of file labels to access certain images in our brain. Does art occur without language? Maybe, but the interpretation of the art by the artist and his viewers is a gift of language. IMO..we never really understand something till we find the words to describe it with.
     
  18. wellwisher Banned Banned

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    If you get all your ideas from reading then of course language will be needed for your thinking. But if you create new ideas language often comes second to other ways the brain processes data.

    Males are visual animals and females are more verbal. I can see language being the basis for female thinking since their brain works that way. But how do you equate the sound of language with visualization, except as a secondary addendum added to the original primary visual.

    Say you took a sheep dog who is tending to his flock. The language level of a dog is very small; bow wow and rooof. Yet they can organize the dynamic logistics of the herd even in unknown areas. This does not use formal language.
     
  19. Dywyddyr Penguinaciously duckalicious. Valued Senior Member

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    You're not an engineer then?
    When I'm working on a project most of my thinking is visual - and then placed directly onto paper (CAD screen) as a visual image.
    A good engineering drawing requires very little language.
     
  20. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

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    Only if it got it's meaning by being a mere placeholder for examples like various rocks. That I contend it does not. It derives it's meaning from other words and concepts. The fact that I can even say "rock" and understand what it means without it being having to serve as a variable or placeholder in an ostensive act shows that it has in inherent meaning. This I suggest comes from it's usage in language.
     
  21. Me-Ki-Gal Banned Banned

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    That is what separates us from gorillas and that is why we can fly to the moon . Language built upon language and we are all learning from the past efforts of someone else . Those past efforts are put into language and past down the ages until it reaches use . Humans copy humans and language is an extremely powerful tool that makes the modern industrialized world go round . I believe we are embedded in language and it controls our movements in daily life. Just the expectations of the individual makes Me think this and what I mean is the expectations of something from hearing a word . If some guy is cutting open your chest to do surgery on you you expect the guy to be a doctor . You are reassured by him being called a Dr. and expect he has some training in the procedure . Now not doing so and just relying on visual site of a guy with a knife in his hand would be like letting anybody with a nail bag and a hammer build your house
     
  22. Dywyddyr Penguinaciously duckalicious. Valued Senior Member

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    Really?
    Aren't all words simply place holders?

    Which are nothing more than placeholders.

    I dispute this claim to "inherent meaning".
    And suggest that the reason you CAN use the word "rock" is because your (and my) understanding of the word comes
     
  23. wellwisher Banned Banned

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    Good art will induce a reaction within people. This reaction can be anything. The reaction will appear first, and then one may try to put it into words to figure out what they are feeling and why. On the other hand, if you took a course in art and the prof told you the proper way to react to that art, language might be used to organize your reaction.

    The brain has two hemispheres. On side of the brain uses language, while the other side organizes the data in a different way, that is more spatial. Language is more differential and not spatial. In the art example, the spatial side will process the art data first to get the reaction. We might switch to the other side of the brain to differentiate with language.
     

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