Even If You Only Speak English You Still Know Many Languages

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, December 19, 2018

My obsession with memory is teaching me fascinating lessons. I realized something new today. I was trying to remember what my mental outlook was like in 1959 when I was seven. I barely remember the presidential election of 1960 and seeing Kennedy and Nixon on TV. But I have no memory of ever even noticing President Eisenhower before 1960. And I got to thinking about my essay “Counting the Components of My Consciousness” and realized how important languages are in understanding the world around us.

I see now we know many languages even when we think we only speak one.

In 1959 I had no language for politics, so politics was invisible to me. I didn’t understand words like mayor, governor, president, senator, congressman, etc. I didn’t know about local, state, and federal governments. I didn’t know about the three branches of the federal government. I didn’t know about constitutions or legal systems. The world of politics was invisible to me because I didn’t know the language of politics. At seven, I also didn’t know the language of religion, science, mathematics, or even grocery shopping.

My awareness of politics began on November 22, 1963, when President Kennedy was shot in Dallas. That’s because my family watched the news for several days straight, and that hooked me on watching the nightly news with Walter Cronkite. However, I still didn’t know the language well. In the 9th grade (1965-1966) I took a required civics class that taught me the basics, but I’ve been learning the nuances of the language of politics ever since, and still don’t speak it fluently. It has its own vocabulary and grammar.

This morning I was researching where I went to school in Aiken, South Carolina in 1964. I found a copy of an Aiken newspaper online. I was 12 at the time. All the stories about local politics and businesses were unfamiliar to me. Even the ads were unfamiliar to me. I didn’t shop for groceries or clothes at age 12, so I didn’t have the language to remember that part of Aiken, South Carolina. I realize now I could have read that paper at age 12, but didn’t. I doubt I could have understood most of it. I didn’t have the languages. And that’s why I don’t remember 99.99% of what life was like in Aiken, South Carolina in 1964.

I’ve often returned to the year 1959 over my lifetime. 1959 was an important year in jazz, but I didn’t know that until I began learning the language of jazz. And my ability to speak jazz is at a very rudimentary level. I’m much more conversant in the language of science fiction so I can comprehend 1959 in science fictional terms much more deeply.

This revelation about knowing multiple languages within English is giving me many insights this morning. It explains why so many people refuse to accept that climate change is happening to us right now. They don’t understand the language of science, so it’s invisible to them. This realization also explains our polarized politics. Conservatives only know the language of conservative politics, so they are blind to liberal politics. And liberals are blind to conservative politics because they don’t know that language.

Linda, the other member of my two-person book club, suggested we read a conservative book for our next discussion. We’re both extreme liberals and she thought it might be enlightening if we did. And it is. We picked Conscience of a Conservative by Jeff Flake. I’ve only just begun but immediately realized Flake speaks a different political language than I do. His words have different meanings. His grammar is even different. His language references points to concepts and things in reality that I normally don’t see.

Liberals and conservatives are polarized because they aren’t speaking the same language even though they use the same words. In the essay, I mentioned above, I told about two experiences where I lost my ability to use words, and how reality looked when that happened. Without words, I didn’t know what things were. I could still see and hold them, but I could tell you what they were. Abstract concepts ceased to exist. Language is everything in understanding reality.

In 1959 I didn’t have the languages to understand most of what I saw and experienced. I’ve since learned a lot of new languages and can look back and see so many things that were invisible to me then. I’m obsessed with memory at this stage in my life, and I’m learning how important languages are to memories. I’m losing my memories, words, and languages. I struggle to keep them. One way of doing that is to look back over the years and study the languages that reveal what I saw.

We can’t trust our memories. One way to understand them is to struggle to remember what we saw. But another way is to study what we couldn’t see, and learn the language to reveal it.

I realize now I must study the languages I know more deeply to understand what I see now, and what my memories might have seen in the past. Here are the languages I partial know now but want to study deeper:

  • Science Fiction
  • Literature
  • Science and Nature
  • Politics
  • Ethics and Philosophy
  • Computers and Programming
  • Music
  • Television
  • Movies
  • Myths and Religions



Why The Selfie Is Significant

I was in the middle of my physical therapy exercises this morning when I realized the significance of the selfie.  Most people think the selfie is silly, and so did I, until I realized how important a form of communication they were.  The selfie has reach the stage of pop-culture success that it’s now the subject of parodies.  It’s quite easy to dismiss the selfie as a narcissistic fad, but a flash of insight tells me that the selfie represents a breakthrough in language.

If you typed a text to a friend that said “I am at the beach” it conveys a certain amount of information.  But if you sent them a selfie of yourself with a beach and ocean in the background you’re sending them many magnitudes more information.  That old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words in quite true, and maybe even an understatement.  But the selfie goes beyond beating a few words with massive amounts of data.

pug at beach

Language is a code.  It’s symbolic.  Pictures are also symbolic.  They give the illusion of reality, but they aren’t.  But they are far closer to modeling reality than words.  And the most important aspect of the selfie is modeling the self – the I.  We all struggle throughout life to express ourselves, and we always fail.  We neither know ourselves, nor can we describe ourselves.  A photo does a pretty good stand-in, much better than words, especially if it also expresses action and place. 

If a photo captures an image of our self doing something in the moment it’s very close to expressing where we’re at.  Sure it’s not as deep as Proust, but it’s far better than the words the average person can express.  Not only does a selfie capture us in the moment, it becomes a much better memory than we can store by chemicals etching our neural pathways.

A selfie of yourself at the beach is proof that you were indeed at the beach, now, to your friends, and to yourself, in the future.

And I think the selfie portends more than that.  The history of the human race is really a history of language and information.  We didn’t become the crown of creation until we acquired language, but no matter how significant that accomplishment was, language has huge limitations as a form of communication.  Think of this way.  Let’s say you were at the beach and wanted to tell your grandmother about the experience.  You could send her a text, write a long email, call her on the phone, send her pictures or send her a videos of several events of your time at the beach.  Which mode of communication gives your granny the best sense of your time at the beach?

What smartphones are doing is allowing us to communicate in two new languages – images and videos.

Sadly, I’m not a smartphone person, or a selfie taker.  I live in the old world of words, and I realize I’m being passed by young people who speak in new languages that I have few skills at using.  Of course there are limits to every language.  Selfies show the outside of things, and even if they can infer a lot about our inner states, they can’t compete with words at expressing our thoughts.  I can’t help but wonder for those people who talk in selfies aren’t outer-world oriented.  One criticism I’ve read of the selfie is young people feel if they don’t have a picture of an experience it didn’t happen, that a selfie is a kind of proof they really did do something.

This is really a weird concept to explore.  It suggests that television and movies have influenced our sense of reality, so that if we aren’t in the picture or the video we’re not there.  It suggests our sense of self is shifting from inside our heads to the pages of Facebook, and that’s quite fascinating.

Some people have already begun to think of the selfie as an art form, but I’m thinking the selfie is a kind of language, one that communicates a sense of self, and says a lot about self image.  I don’t like my physical image, so I use an ugly dog as a stand in.  I see myself in words instead.

JWH – 8/17/14

A World Without Fiction

Last night I read the riveting essay, “The Interpreter” by John Colapinto from the new 2008 edition of The Best American Science and Nature Writing.  I highly recommend buying the collection, but the link to the article takes you to the New Yorker where you can read it for free.  This fine essay a about tiny tribe in the Amazon jungle, the Pirahã, who have a language and culture that confounds linguists and missionaries, and some scientists even suggests that their mind and grammar predate the structure of modern language.  This tribe lives so totally in the moment that their language is completely literal, showing no long term memory of the past, where even missionaries can’t use Bible stories on them because fiction is invisible to their minds.

Inspired by Sapir’s cultural approach to language, he hypothesized that the tribe embodies a living-in-the-present ethos so powerful that it has affected every aspect of the people’s lives. Committed to an existence in which only observable experience is real, the Pirahã do not think, or speak, in abstractions—and thus do not use color terms, quantifiers, numbers, or myths. Everett pointed to the word xibipío as a clue to how the Pirahã perceive reality solely according to what exists within the boundaries of their direct experience—which Everett defined as anything that they can see and hear, or that someone living has seen and heard. “When someone walks around a bend in the river, the Pirahã say that the person has not simply gone away but xibipío—‘gone out of experience,’ ” Everett said. “They use the same phrase when a candle flame flickers. The light ‘goes in and out of experience.’ ”

I’ve always been fascinated by thinking about what the world would be like without fiction.  I define fiction as anything make believe that occupies our times, such as novels, television shows, movies, plays, comic books, poems, songs, idle fantasies, and so on.  I have a life-long addiction to fiction, and I’ve often wondered what my life would be like without fiction.  And for the purpose of writing here, I’m going to imagine what our world would be like without fiction.  As I was reading “The Interpreter” last night I realized, the story of this tribe illustrated what a world without fiction would be like.

I can’t begin to understand or explain all the linguistic theory in this essay, but from what I can tell, most people on Earth use a language that reflects a universal grammar, and they can use and understand abstraction, including stories.  This tribe does not.  The Pirahã children will make models of airplanes that have landed, but when the plane goes away they quit playing with the models.  The essay profiles Daniel L. Everett who has lived with the tribe off and on for years.  Everett is very careful to point out that these people are not dumb or show any signs of mental retardation.  They are very skilled hunters and gathers, they just don’t “get” make believe.

Everett started out as a missionary, but…

“After twenty years of living like a Pirahã, I’d had it with roughing it,” he said. He threw himself into missionary work, translating the Book of Luke into Pirahã and reading it to tribe members. His zeal soon dissipated, however. Convinced that the Pirahã assigned no spiritual meaning to the Bible, Everett finally admitted that he did not, either. He declared himself an atheist, and spent his time tending house and studying linguistics.

Had living with the tribe converted him to their state of consciousness?  Does this tribe represent humans at a state of development before being able to comprehend religion?  And is religion related to fiction somehow?  He showed some of his jungle friends the new remake of King Kong,

If Fitch’s experiments were inconclusive on the subject of whether Chomsky’s universal grammar applied to the Pirahã, Jackson’s movie left no question about the universality of Hollywood film grammar. As Kong battled raptors and Watts dodged giant insects, the Pirahã offered a running commentary, which Everett translated: “Now he’s going to fall!” “He’s tired!” “She’s running!” “Look. A centipede!” Nor were the Pirahã in any doubt about what was being communicated in the long, lingering looks that passed between gorilla and girl. “She is his spouse,” one Pirahã said. Yet in their reaction to the movie Everett also saw proof of his theory about the tribe. “They’re not generalizing about the character of giant apes,” he pointed out. “They’re reacting to the immediate action on the screen with direct assertions about what they see.”

I’ve often wondered if I went cold turkey on fiction, how my mind and consciousness would change.  Fiction plays with time.  Fiction alters time.  Fiction is a way to step out of our lives, and even out of our thoughts, and transport ourselves into a make-believe abstraction.  When I was watching The Big Bang Theory last night, I stopped thinking about work, the pain in my back and hip, the financial collapse, Obama and McCain, global warming, and all the other abstractions I try to grasp when my mind isn’t occupied with a task at hand.

Except for the direct experience of pain, and creating web pages at work, all those other things are about imaginary abstractions that I don’t see in my day-to-day life.  Who knows, maybe the purpose fiction is not to kill time, but to focus our minds.  The funny nerds of the sitcom are not real, but my high-definition TV made them real enough.

If I wasn’t a fiction addict, I’d have a lot more time.  And that might reflect something about me, maybe I have too much time.  Might we all have too much time and need to fill it with fiction?  If we lived in the jungle and had to hunt and gather all our food, and slept when it got dark, maybe we’d have just the right amount of time.

Even if I stopped pursuing fiction, my mind wouldn’t stop creating it.  Every time I do anything, from writing this essay to going grocery shopping, I imagine what it will be like before I do it.  I create a fictionalize version to map out my real actions.  I don’t think the Pirahã do that.  I’m not even sure they think about food before they see and eat it.  Because of drugs or illness I have had a few moments in my life when language didn’t work.  The very act of dredging up a name for an object made it feel like I had brought the object into being.  During these moments there were no words without objects.  I would not like to live in such a limited reality.

I just finished Clifford Simak’s Hugo award winning novel, Way Station, that came out in 1963.  The novel is merely a succession of words strung together, but it decodes into images in my mind, and it’s chock full of fantastic ideas that my mind loved to entertain.  I think the world is a much richer place because of this novel.  I feel it has added much to my life, even though it’s all make-believe.  But I have to wonder would the real world be far more vivid if my mind wasn’t distracted by fiction?

Do the Pirahã see the world more intently than we do?  I love fiction, but I suppose a heroin addict loves his dope too.  I should try and go a month without fiction and see what happens, but sadly, I know I can’t give up fiction for even a day.  Do linguists take into account the role of fiction in our language and consciousness?

JWH – 10-7-8