02 Mar The True Nature of Reality: The Building Blocks of Language – 24

At first glance, it seems language only serves as a label for identifying and communicating various objects found in the world, but it actually plays a much larger role in helping us to form a picture of reality.

If we take a look at various cultures, we find disparate qualities and quantities of words. For example, the Hawaiian language has only about three words for “snow” and “ice”, but the Inuit of Alaska have over fifty words to describe the same, with some researchers placing that number closer to one-hundred. This is because the Alaskan climate requires specific knowledge of snow and ice to increase the Inuit’s chances for survival in that harsh environment. Likewise, a culture that lives or travels through a desert will have many more words and distinctions of different types of sand.

On the other end of the spectrum are cultures that have fewer words than average to identify objects or even complex ideas. There is a tribe in Papua New Guinea that has only one word to describe anything that is positive or good in their culture. Happiness, love, comfort, goodness, and every other positive idea we have in our language can be expressed by a single term, “pururambo”. These kinds of anomalies in language are interesting, and one wonders about their origin. Is the word more esoteric in nature, purposely chosen to elegantly express all the goodness in this tribe’s world, or is their life so harsh and mundane that they had little use for distinguishing different types of goodness?

Looking at language in this sense, we see the environment influences what we identify as important and noticeable. Environmental conditions influence language which goes on to influence the concepts we formulate about life. Much like our brains filter the raw data from our senses and use it to manufacture a picture of reality that it seems stable, language too is filtered by our environment and social focus.

Another fascinating thing that takes place is the relationship between language and our ability to hear and speak. As infants our mouth had the capability to mimic the sounds of any language, but as we started to learn our native tongue, we lost the ability to speak phonetic sounds not found in our own language.

Perhaps even more strange, our ability to hear various noises is affected by the language we speak. There are certain words in language called onomatopoeia. These are words that mimic sounds we hear. Some examples include the “woof” we use to imitate the bark of a dog, the “meow” used to mimic a cat, and the “tick-tock” used to mimic a clock. What may surprise you, however, is the onomatopoeia used by different languages do not sound the same. This means people who speaks English, Chinese, or Russian will mimic the same sound in ways that sound completely different. Said another way, when we ask different languages to mimic a sound they hear, we get completely different sounds, which means those people are perceiving the sound they hear differently. It is common that people hear the same sound differently depending on the noises used in their own language. From our studies on sensory perception, we know the brain changes the sound into something that is consistent with the sounds that person understands as intelligible.

So how do the building blocks of language affect the way we perceive reality? They determine what we pay attention to and what we will filter out as unimportant, something done on a subconscious level. In this way, language is not just a passive identifier of an object found in reality, but serves to influence how our brain chooses to present that information to our conscious minds.

Exercises:

More terms often means more distinction. Why would developing more terms for types of snow or sand be important to the survival of the people who live in those types of regions?

Are there distinctions in language due to environmental conditions that are not survival related?

List three words that are specific to your work (jargon), that would not be understood by the general public.

If the environmental conditions dictate the language and conceptualization of a culture, then language itself can be thought of a living, evolving entity. Take a moment to write about how the English language has changed over the past few hundred years.

Why do people who grow up in New York, Texas, Louisiana, and South Carolina speak English differently?

Write down two foreign words you know that express ideas with no English equivalent. Define them and write about how they changed your way of understanding the world.

How does our perception of reality expand when we interact with other cultures?

How does our perception of reality contract when we isolate ourselves from the rest of the world?

Because different languages have more identifiers, more ideas, and different concepts based on their environments, might we grasp a better sense of reality by collaborating with other cultures?

Write about two global issues we are currently facing due to a difference in cultural ideals and beliefs.

How might these issues be better understood by all parties involved?

Michael Ken
writingblade@yahoo.com