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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

TOK: Language, Identity and Community

The following is a post I put together for my Theory of Knowledge class this year:

How important is your language for your sense of identity--your identity as an individual, but also as a member of a nation?  It's common nowadays to associate a nation with a language, even though many nations have more than one national language.  Should a nation be defined by a single language?

Consider what political factors have shaped the language that you speak.  Why do you speak Polish, Flemish, Danish, Czech, German, Russian or English?  Why did you grow up learning your native tongue, and why are you learning new languages today?  Are you learning new languages so that you can join new knowledge communities?  Bigger knowledge communities?  Better knowledge communities?

Communities rely on communication.  Community, communicate:  Both words come from the latin root, communia, meaning a large gathering of people sharing a way of life. Communication is not simply about sharing information.  Some say language is primarily for persuasion:  for getting people to think and act the way you want them to.  We communicate, ultimately, to arrange a shared way of life.  Language helps us work together; it shapes our expectations, allowing us to create very sophisticated maps of ourselves and the world around us.  But it also gives us a shared identity, and keeps foreigners out.  It brings people together, but it also builds walls.  It controls and limits, perhaps as much as it guides and enables.

The people who control language have control over the community.  Who controls the language in your knowledge communities?  (Think of the languages of science, of art, of culture, of politics, of education.)  What gives them that power?

Have you noticed how language can shape your political views?  Have you ever criticized a nation or a political faction for the way they talk?  Are there political conflicts in your home country that involve language?

In America, there are some cities with large Spanish-speaking populations.  Should those cities have Spanish street signs?  Should there be government agents in those cities which are fluent in Spanish?  Or should the residents in those cities have to become fluent in English?  Some Americans say that all Americans should speak English, but this is a controversial topic in America.  Are there similar issues in your home country?

There can be benefits to having a shared language, of course.  One benefit is that language helps us share information, and this is necessary to create a knowledge community.  Do we need a shared language to have shared knowledge, though?

Imagine you and a friend visit a beautiful landscape and watch the sunset together.  You do not speak about it--and maybe you don't even speak the same language.  But you have shared an experience, and that gives you shared knowledge.

Imagine you want to teach a friend how to tie their shoes, but you don't speak the same language.  You can still instruct them with gestures.  You can show them how to do it, and so you can share your knowledge, even without a shared language.

When it comes to more abstract ideas, however, you need a shared language if you want to share knowledge.  The problem is, which language should be shared?

This is a political issue that has an influential history.  Some people believe that their language is just better than all the others.  A couple of centuries ago, people in Germany started to take this idea very seriously.  They believed that their language was pure, original and natural, and that other European languages were corrupt and weak.  The modern German language was still being formed in the 18th century and German nationalism was growing rapidly, with dreams of unification.  As you can imagine, some people felt a very strong connection between the need for a shared language and the swelling tides of nationalism.  People started to believe that the very identity of a nation was reflected in its language.  German intellectuals believed that the power of the German mind and spirit was determined by its language.  This idea became known as linguistic determinism, which says that language determines what you can think.  (These days, experts are more likely to believe in a weaker view, called linguistic relativity, which says that your language only influences what you think.)

The belief in linguistic determinism was very racist.  For example, Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) wrote: "the German speaks a language that has been alive ever since it first issued from the force of nature, whereas the other Teutonic races speak a language which has movement on the surface but which is dead at the root."  In other words, languages like English, French, Dutch, Flemish, and so on--these languages were all inferior to the pure, original German language.

Another German, Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), was one of the first to promote the idea that a nation was defined by its language. He wrote the following lines of poetry in 1772, which are rather offensive to the French (and other non-Germans):

Look at other nationalities.  Do they wander about
So that nowhere in the whole world they are strangers
Except to themselves?
They regard foreign countries with proud disdain.
And you German alone, returning from abroad,
Wouldst greet your mother in French?
O spew it out, before your door
Spew out the ugly slime of the Seine.
Speak German, O You German!
While Herder wrote poetry, Fichte believed that simpler language was necessary to unite the German folk.  The Brothers Grimm agreed.  They believed their beloved book of fairy tales, published in 1812, was authentically German and could unite the nation with a common language and cultural heritage.  Around the same time, Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767 - 1835), a German philosopher, linguist, Minister of Education, diplomat and founder of the University of Berlin, also promoted the idea that a people is defined by their language.  He wrote:
Language is deeply entwined in the intellectual development of humanity itself . . . Language is . . . the external manifestation of the minds of peoples. Their language is their soul, and their soul is their language. . . . The creation of language is an innate necessity of humanity. It is not a mere external vehicle, designed to sustain social intercourse, but an indispensable factor for the development of human intellectual powers . . . .
In other words, language is not just a tool for communication; it is a fundamental property of humanity.  We would not be human--we would not have our advanced intellectual powers at all--if it were not for language.

On the one hand, the belief in linguistic determinism helped develop Germany into a remarkably strong nation which would come to lead the world in the arts and sciences.  However, the same belief fostered racism and helped pave the way to war and genocide in the 20th century.  Ideas like "linguistic purity" and "linguistic determinism" can be dangerous; however, that does not mean they are wrong.  They are powerful ideas and should be treated with caution.

Consider other ways language can alienate or oppress people.  When you learn a new area of knowledge, like a science or art, you learn a new language.  The more advanced the field, the more alien the language.  Expert languages can be alienating and can even be used to oppress people.

Even common language can be used to oppress people.  For example, poor people tend not to finish secondary school or go to university.  Their language skills are often noticeably weak.  They tend to speak in ways which are usually not accepted in professional or formal situations.  This can make it very difficult for them to move up in society and improve their economic situation.

Another interesting case is so-called "Black English," which I encourage you to read about.  Basically, the idea is that many black Americans have not been able to get a proper education because their unique language has not been respected, or even recognized, by schools.  Imagine being a child at a school that did not recognize that your language was significantly different.  You were told that your speech was simply wrong, even though it was how you were raised and how your family talked.  You were basically taught that your community was inferior.  What kind of psychological effects might that have on a child?

Can one language be inferior to another, or are all languages equal?  This is often a political question, as history has shown us.  To avoid war and oppression, should we just say that all languages are equal?  What if some languages really are better than others?  What if we can improve lives and our communities by improving our language?

Well, how do you improve a language?

One belief, which was popular in the early 20th century, was that a perfect language can be created: the language of logic.  It was believed that all the ambiguity and confusion that arises with natural languages could be avoided.  All we needed was a system of logical symbols and we would be set.

Another belief, which actually goes all the way back to Galileo, if not older, is that mathematics is the ultimate language, the only pure language with which we can understand the world.  Many modern physicists agree.  When you try to put physics in common language, you end up with nonsense.  You can only understand the world with mathematics.

On the other hand, there is the point of view of Nobel prize-winning Danish physicist Neils Bohr (1885-1962).  Bohr was one of the pioneers of Quantum Mechanics; yet, he famously said that anybody who claimed to understand it didn't really understand it at all!  One of the key ideas in Quantum Mechanics is complementarity.  Two properties are complementary if they cannot both be known at the same time.  For example, position and velocity are complementary:  The more you know of an electron's position, the less you can know its velocity; the more you know its velocity, the less you can know its position.  Bohr once claimed that for every measurable quantity, there was another which was complementary to it.  He was then asked, "What quantity is complementary to truth?"  He replied, "clarity."  In other words, the more you have truth, the less you have clarity; and the more you have clarity, the less you have truth.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), an Austrian-British philosopher, made a related observation in the middle of the 20th century.  While some philosophers were trying to find perfect clarity through logical analysis, Wittgenstein realized that ordinary language is clear enough.  And when we try to "fix" it with logical analysis, we actually make it worse.  He wrote:
When I say: "My broom is in the corner",—is this really a statement about the broomstick and the brush? Well, it could at any rate be replaced by a statement giving the position of the stick and the position of the brush. And this statement is surely a further analysed form of the first one.—But why do I call it "further analysed"?—Well, if the broom is there, that surely means that the stick and brush must be there, and in a particular relation to one another; and this was as it were hidden in the sense of the first sentence, and is expressed in the analysed sentence. Then does someone who says that the broom is in the corner really mean: the broomstick is there, and so is the brush, and the broomstick is fixed in the brush?—If we were to ask anyone if he meant this he would probably say that he had not thought specially of the broomstick or specially of the brush at all. And that would be the right answer, for he meant to speak neither of the stick nor of the brush in particular. Suppose that, instead of saying "Bring me the broom", you said "Bring me the broomstick and the brush which is fitted on to it."!—Isn't the answer: "Do you want the broom? Why do you put it so oddly?"
What is clear to you might just depend on what you are expecting; it depends on your map.  Would a perfect language give us a perfect map?  What would the perfect language be like?