Pre-Language thought

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admiral-zombie
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Pre-Language thought

Postby admiral-zombie » Wed Jul 09, 2008 8:53 pm UTC

I've always been an enthusiast for how the mind works, and in particular how thought works.


A particular question i've been pondering over in recent months has stumped me. When you "think" about stuff to yourself, we generally think in a language of sorts. I may look at a tree and think "That tree is looking particularly green"

This thought is in English to me.


But how does a newborn think? What language runs through its mind as it observes the world around it?


I've purposely left out the majority of my thoughts on this so that I could hopefully get newer ideas and different views, hopefully i'll get some interesting responses :)

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Re: Pre-Language thought

Postby SnApple » Thu Jul 10, 2008 4:20 am UTC

Recently, I heard a quote by either a Linguistician(?) or a philosopher. It was about how language is everything, because you think in words. But I suppose someone who either hasn't yet learned a language would just understand or comprehend that a particular gopher was chubby, but wouldn't think it in words.

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Re: Pre-Language thought

Postby enk » Thu Jul 10, 2008 9:27 am UTC

Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said that "The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for."

I agree.

My mind, however...
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Re: Pre-Language thought

Postby EstLladon » Thu Jul 10, 2008 10:12 am UTC

You definitly can think about things without words. And babies do not know words yet they think...
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Re: Pre-Language thought

Postby liza » Thu Jul 10, 2008 10:33 am UTC

enk wrote:Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said that "The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for."

Sounds Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis-y.
I dare say thought without language is near-impossible for those who think via language to understand, and vice-versa (for example, feral children who did not acquire language at a young child usually cannot at an older age. I can dig up references if people care). That being said, I'd venture to guess language-less thought is akin to the more visceral reactions we have - for example, responding to danger or sudden sexual attraction to another person. Emotions, I think, would dominate thought even without the corresponding words attached to them. Maybe it's like sitting back and letting music occupy your brain - I of course cannot speak for others, but excellent classical pieces impart moods without me thinking in words about them.
Language-less thought is also, I think, less logical (this is my own extrapolation/guess - I do not state it as fact as I do not have references, but I don't think I'm coming from nowhere on this one). I conjecture this simply because I need words to convey/understand concepts like calculus or advanced physics. I know that when I need to organize my thoughts, I write them down and search for the right words to express them. This perspective is of course inherently biased, as I was raised normally with language and can't exactly ask someone without language if he or she is able to organize his/her thoughts well :P

So yes, thought without language exists, but no, it is not exactly like the thought we're most accustomed to. (In my humble, non-professional opinion.)
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Re: Pre-Language thought

Postby Interactive Civilian » Thu Jul 10, 2008 12:36 pm UTC

liza wrote:That being said, I'd venture to guess language-less thought is akin to the more visceral reactions we have - for example, responding to danger or sudden sexual attraction to another person. Emotions, I think, would dominate thought even without the corresponding words attached to them. Maybe it's like sitting back and letting music occupy your brain - I of course cannot speak for others, but excellent classical pieces impart moods without me thinking in words about them.
Language-less thought is also, I think, less logical (this is my own extrapolation/guess - I do not state it as fact as I do not have references, but I don't think I'm coming from nowhere on this one). I conjecture this simply because I need words to convey/understand concepts like calculus or advanced physics.

You are not alone in this. I think in a lot more than just words. It's just when I express things that I find a need to put them into words. However, I often think in sounds (especially with music) and even more so in images. Especially when I have to think about math and such, sometimes I find it better/easier when I just think about the image of the graph or the action that the math represents rather than putting things into words.

Even in science...Recently, in my biology classes, I have been teaching cellular respiration, and I have found that when thinking about those those processes and thinking about how to explain them to my students, I often find myself visualizing them before putting them into words. Now, my visualizations may not be the most accurate, but I guess they are good enough for me to work with. This is because it is easier for me to describe something that I am "seeing" than it is to do it from just words.

I guess I did a pretty decent job of explaining, though, because nearly half the class aced what I intended to be a very difficult mid-term. 8)
However, I digress...

admiral-zombie wrote:I may look at a tree and think "That tree is looking particularly green"
That thought may be, but is the image of the tree in your mind in English? i.e. Can you not see the tree in your mind without describing it in words? Can you not imagine the wind moving through the leaves without actually thinking the words wind and leaves (regardless of whether or not there was wind in the original memory)?

Or, am I completely misunderstanding the topic?
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Re: Pre-Language thought

Postby the_stabbage » Thu Jul 10, 2008 12:54 pm UTC

I'm not sure what form my thoughts take when I don't concentrate upon them. If I'm walking to the bank or taking the dog for a walk or getting a glass of water, I'm not doing much self-reflection, so I'm not sure if my thought takes form of language, images, sound, music, etc.

I do know that a lot of the time when I do self-reflect, it is in language and images. For example, if I'm taking a walk to think, my focus is not a task at hand but my thoughts, and so I see what shape my thoughts take. It's usually in this state that I think the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis seems to be mostly correct (language is the limit of thought - sorry if I don't know the details of it).

When I talk to someone, I think ahead of what I'm going to say, and therefore think in terms of language. If they tell me they saw a house burning one time or something like that, I visualize it. If they say they heard a nice tune on the radio and hum it, I imagine it with instruments playing it and stuff (there should be an analog for "visualize" for sound! "Sonorize"?). If they say something about math, I get lost :P but I think someone who's a little better at math would work numbers out in their head.

So I think there are non-linguistic ways of thinking. Just like if you learn vocabulary for something specific, hunting for example, you'll be able to think to yourself more clearly than "I point boomstick and it strikes animal dead", I think you can learn non-linguistic ways of thinking and have music running your head, or a painting, or a blueprint, or a molecule.

An untrained mind would still think, but perhaps not as clearly or as in detail as a trained mind. You would think "that thing" instead of "the roughly twenty-year old flowering cherry tree"

Sorry if this is unclear to anyone, but these are my views on the topic.

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Re: Pre-Language thought

Postby goofy » Thu Jul 10, 2008 3:40 pm UTC

Some linguistics like Stephen Pinker argue that we think in a system that is unconnected to our language. He calls it Mentalese.

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Re: Pre-Language thought

Postby Velifer » Thu Jul 10, 2008 3:57 pm UTC

I think in images and senses, I call memories of smell, textures, and all sorts of things to mind. Most of them do have words, or at least could be described with words if I wish to communicate my thoughts to others, but they aren't needed in the internal process.

Think about folding (or unfolding) a paper cube and how many ways it can be done. I don't think in text for spatial concepts. I often construct complex visual representations of database structures and tables. When I think of exploded diagrams, I often have trouble with language and resort to using phrases like "spin the thing so the other thing points to the washer" It takes effort to recall and use the actual nouns to replace "thing."

I assume the same thing happens with infants. I've seen the frustration in one that knows exactly what he wants, but can't communicate it clearly.
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Re: Pre-Language thought

Postby Kizyr » Thu Jul 10, 2008 4:01 pm UTC

I've always disagreed with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I do think it's somewhat accurate to claim that it's difficult, perhaps impossible, to communicate certain thoughts to another person that cannot be expressed in words. I also think there's some validity in claiming that your language can shape your thoughts and how you perceive the world.

But to claim that words form a definite boundary around your own thoughts would have to assume that thoughts are entirely dependent on words--that requires ignoring things like, say, imagery, abstraction, and a host of other methods of thought that humans are perfectly capable off using.

My own thought processes use a combination of words, symbols, and both concrete and abstract images. As an example, there are a few images that come to mind when I think of "logic", but the shape of that image depends on what nuance of logic is on my mind--most of which are distinctions that are difficult to explain in English, but are useful in my mind when I'm trying to solve a particular problem.

admiral-zombie wrote:But how does a newborn think? What language runs through its mind as it observes the world around it?

Another example to bring up... While I'm coding, there are several ways I'll organize information in my mind as I'm coding; this involves images, icons, and spatial placement, but very few words. I'd imagine that any newborn probably uses a lot of visual imagery to organize the new things its learning. Gradually, that imagery gets connected to words so that they can describe their thoughts to others using a common medium.

In fact, that's one way I recommend of learning another language. Don't try to simply equate words with words. Instead, back up to whatever image or thought a word evokes, and try to reconnect that with a new word. For me, it greatly facilitates vocabulary retention.

(I'm sure Interactive Civilian can back me up on this one...) There are plenty of words in other languages that have no good analogue in English. The most immediate one that comes to mind is 思いやり (omoiyari); it's roughly an attitude of thinking about how others will perceive you or react emotionally to what you do or say, and trying to act accordingly to where they'll be in a more positive mood. But, I've yet to find any word or definition in English that effectively conveys the meaning of the word. KF
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Re: Pre-Language thought

Postby seladore » Thu Jul 10, 2008 7:00 pm UTC

I have to agree with the mentalese hypothesis. To equate the limits of thought to the limits of language seems rather silly to me.

There must be concepts in the mind that exist without words... the idea I'm trying to express is that words act as pointers to constructs in the mind. So, learning a synonym just introduces a new pointer.

Otherwise, how would we invent new words for concepts that have none - how would language come about at all, for that matter? If Wittgenstein was right, then proto-humans would never develop language, as they would be stuck, thoughtless, trapped by their lack of language.

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Re: Pre-Language thought

Postby goofy » Thu Jul 10, 2008 7:09 pm UTC

Kizyr wrote:(I'm sure Interactive Civilian can back me up on this one...) There are plenty of words in other languages that have no good analogue in English. The most immediate one that comes to mind is 思いやり (omoiyari); it's roughly an attitude of thinking about how others will perceive you or react emotionally to what you do or say, and trying to act accordingly to where they'll be in a more positive mood. But, I've yet to find any word or definition in English that effectively conveys the meaning of the word. KF


Seems to me that you've effectively conveyed it.

In linguistics, it is generally agreed that a concept that can be expressed in one language can be expressed in all languages. It might take a sentence or paragraph, or more to express a concept, but it can be done.

And while other languages might have words that have no analogue in English, this isn't actually very interesting imo, since there is no reason why we must use single lexical items to encode every concept. For instance English has no single lexical item for the concept "nostalgia for a something you never experienced", but we can still communicate the concept if we need to.

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Re: Pre-Language thought

Postby the_stabbage » Thu Jul 10, 2008 8:12 pm UTC

goofy wrote:And while other languages might have words that have no analogue in English, this isn't actually very interesting imo, since there is no reason why we must use single lexical items to encode every concept. For instance English has no single lexical item for the concept "nostalgia for a something you never experienced", but we can still communicate the concept if we need to.


Since we can write down words and see the shape of their letters, words can be symbols, just like how images can be symbols. A cross can have many connotations: symbol of Christianity; when upside down as St. Peter's cross or a Satanic cross; symbol of the KKK when on fire; symbol of just plain ol' crucifixion. So if we have a single word for a concept - "no-stalgia" instead of "nostalgia for a something you've never experienced" - we can notice the use of the word more and it can develop into a symbol representing all of the times we've had "no-stalgia", perhaps a symbol for reading Proust or something. (I mean, really, how many of us actually read all ~3000 pages of his book?)

Yes we can still communicate roughly a concept with a plurality of words, but by not inventing a new single word or short phrase for it, it escapes our memory, or at least it is harder to turn the concept into a symbol.

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Re: Pre-Language thought

Postby goofy » Thu Jul 10, 2008 9:31 pm UTC

the_stabbage wrote:Since we can write down words and see the shape of their letters, words can be symbols, just like how images can be symbols. A cross can have many connotations: symbol of Christianity; when upside down as St. Peter's cross or a Satanic cross; symbol of the KKK when on fire; symbol of just plain ol' crucifixion. So if we have a single word for a concept - "no-stalgia" instead of "nostalgia for a something you've never experienced" - we can notice the use of the word more and it can develop into a symbol representing all of the times we've had "no-stalgia", perhaps a symbol for reading Proust or something. (I mean, really, how many of us actually read all ~3000 pages of his book?)

Yes we can still communicate roughly a concept with a plurality of words, but by not inventing a new single word or short phrase for it, it escapes our memory, or at least it is harder to turn the concept into a symbol.


A written word isn't the same sort of symbol as a cross tho. A written word has linguistic content, a cross does not. I seem to remember that there is evidence that words can help us remember concepts, but this doesn't tell us whether single lexical items are better at helping us remember concepts than a collection of words.

In other words, I want evidence. Show me the numbers!

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Re: Pre-Language thought

Postby the_stabbage » Thu Jul 10, 2008 10:13 pm UTC

goofy wrote:
A written word isn't the same sort of symbol as a cross tho. A written word has linguistic content, a cross does not. I seem to remember that there is evidence that words can help us remember concepts, but this doesn't tell us whether single lexical items are better at helping us remember concepts than a collection of words.

In other words, I want evidence. Show me the numbers!


Sorry, I was generalizing when I was talking about my personal experience. For myself, single words are easier to turn into symbols, or behave closer to symbols, than large compound phrases.

Generalizing about things that are only my own personal experience is a bad character trait that I have. I try to correct it when I see myself doing it.

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Re: Pre-Language thought

Postby Kizyr » Thu Jul 10, 2008 10:54 pm UTC

goofy wrote:
Kizyr wrote:(I'm sure Interactive Civilian can back me up on this one...) There are plenty of words in other languages that have no good analogue in English. The most immediate one that comes to mind is 思いやり (omoiyari); it's roughly an attitude of thinking about how others will perceive you or react emotionally to what you do or say, and trying to act accordingly to where they'll be in a more positive mood. But, I've yet to find any word or definition in English that effectively conveys the meaning of the word. KF


Seems to me that you've effectively conveyed it.

In linguistics, it is generally agreed that a concept that can be expressed in one language can be expressed in all languages. It might take a sentence or paragraph, or more to express a concept, but it can be done.

I didn't really effectively convey it, since the definition I gave doesn't fully indicate all the kinds of situations where the word is applicable (which is why I said "roughly"). The best way to understand it is just to see all the situations where 思いやり is applied, and then understand it from the point-of-view of Japanese culture. It sounds like I conveyed it only because the definition I gave is a cogent thought, but it doesn't fully define 思いやり.

Hell I still come across applications of the word that force me to expand upon how I previously understood it. KF
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Re: Pre-Language thought

Postby ZLVT » Fri Jul 11, 2008 2:30 am UTC

SnApple wrote:Recently, I heard a quote by either a Linguistician(?) or a philosopher. It was about how language is everything, because you think in words. But I suppose someone who either hasn't yet learned a language would just understand or comprehend that a particular gopher was chubby, but wouldn't think it in words.


I read a bit in a linguistics book (a basic pretty-pictures deal from the SBS) where it said something to the effect that bilingual children grow up with less attachment to the constraints of a language in that they know that a cow is not called a cow because it is a cow, since it might just as well have been called a duck. So no, I disagree, we think in words to an extent, but below them, there lies a deeper comprehension. I know that often when I used english to try and get my thoughts out, and a concept will come to mind which I can express magayrul but not in english, so the ideas I have are not limited by the language I use, rather I try to translate abstract feelings and thoughts into an oddly shaped container or "language".
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Re: Pre-Language thought

Postby poxic » Fri Jul 11, 2008 3:32 am UTC

I just spent a frustrating ten minutes trying to find an article I once read, probably in Scientific American or SciAm Mind. No luck, so you'll have to bear with my faulty memory.

The article's author reported working with a deaf Mexican man who had grown up without a language. He managed well enough, even marrying and having a family. He supported them by crossing the US border illegally to work picking crops and the like.

The author started teaching him sign language. She found that the man had some concepts, including the idea of God or some greater good (he had been to church, though he couldn't understand the services). Learning the word for "green" sent him into a tizzy. All the big things in his life were connected to green: the green plants he picked, the green money he was paid, the men in green (INS) who would come by and make him go back to Mexico unless he had the magic green card.

He did not have a concept for "fake". The author found it impossible to explain to him why the "magic" green card sometimes worked against the green men and sometimes didn't. The card, whichever sort he had at a given time, was treated like a holy talisman and given a place of honour in the house. (It's not good to test one's gods, so he still ran and hid when the INS came by.)

It was a fascinating article. It kills me that I can't find it. What's more, I recently went on a cleaning binge and threw out several years' worth of SA and SA Mind mags that I'd been hanging onto. 'Cuz ya know, I might want to reread them one day. (My father kept several decades' worth of National Geographics until Mom finally made him throw them out. It was the thought of those endless shelves of magazines we never read that made me start hucking the SAs.)

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Re: Pre-Language thought

Postby the_stabbage » Fri Jul 11, 2008 2:47 pm UTC

ZLVT wrote:I read a bit in a linguistics book (a basic pretty-pictures deal from the SBS) where it said something to the effect that bilingual children grow up with less attachment to the constraints of a language in that they know that a cow is not called a cow because it is a cow, since it might just as well have been called a duck. So no, I disagree, we think in words to an extent, but below them, there lies a deeper comprehension. I know that often when I used english to try and get my thoughts out, and a concept will come to mind which I can express magayrul but not in english, so the ideas I have are not limited by the language I use, rather I try to translate abstract feelings and thoughts into an oddly shaped container or "language".


I feel similarly about languages, my mother tongue being Romanian and English my second language that I learned around age 4. English is my everyday language, and Romanian my family language. I find each language has a different "feel" - each language has something untranslatable about it, especially with Romanian's vocative case, which is used a lot in sarcasm.

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Re: Pre-Language thought

Postby goofy » Sat Jul 12, 2008 3:59 am UTC

Kizyr wrote:I didn't really effectively convey it, since the definition I gave doesn't fully indicate all the kinds of situations where the word is applicable (which is why I said "roughly"). The best way to understand it is just to see all the situations where 思いやり is applied, and then understand it from the point-of-view of Japanese culture. It sounds like I conveyed it only because the definition I gave is a cogent thought, but it doesn't fully define 思いやり.

Hell I still come across applications of the word that force me to expand upon how I previously understood it. KF


My dictionary defines 思い遣り as "empathy, consideration". If that doesn't capture all the connotations (it's a cheap dictionary), I don't see any reason why a lexicographer can't research the word and write a more comprehensive definition. It might take a lot of work to capture the connotations and uses, but it's not impossible.

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Re: Pre-Language thought

Postby Interactive Civilian » Sat Jul 12, 2008 7:15 am UTC

goofy wrote:My dictionary defines 思い遣り as "empathy, consideration". If that doesn't capture all the connotations (it's a cheap dictionary), I don't see any reason why a lexicographer can't research the word and write a more comprehensive definition. It might take a lot of work to capture the connotations and uses, but it's not impossible.

My dictionary defines お疲れさま (おつかれさま o-tsukare-sama) as "thank you; many thanks; that's enough for today". Yet, I would never say any of those things in English when clinking beer glasses after work, nor would I just generally say them to my co-workers at the end of a normal work day.

This is just another example. Sure, I could probably explain how to use お疲れさま and what situations to use it in, but there is no English equivalent phrase or word that matches it. It doesn't mean "thank you". It doesn't mean "that's enough for today". It doesn't mean "cheers" (for that after work beer with coworkers). It doesn't mean "good work". It doesn't mean any of those things, however, those are perhaps the closest equivalents that one might use in English in those situations.

Don't ask me what it means, because what it means is "お疲れさま". It's meaning doesn't translate. However, I understand it perfectly well in Japanese. Japanese has a lot of words like this, i.e. words that you can only explain how they are used or meanings that come close to what they mean but are never exactly what they mean.

However, this is a bit of a digression, because regardless of whether or not these words can be translated, they do exist in some language, and the topic is about thinking without language.
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Re: Pre-Language thought

Postby goofy » Sat Jul 12, 2008 1:51 pm UTC

Interactive Civilian wrote:This is just another example. Sure, I could probably explain how to use お疲れさま and what situations to use it in, but there is no English equivalent phrase or word that matches it. [...] It's meaning doesn't translate.


If you can explain how to use it, then it can be translated. Translation is rarely a word-for-word correspondence.

I don't believe there is such a thing as an untranslatable word. All languages are spoken by humans, and any human can learn any language. It might take time to translate a word, but it can be done.

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Re: Pre-Language thought

Postby Interactive Civilian » Sat Jul 12, 2008 5:43 pm UTC

goofy wrote:I don't believe there is such a thing as an untranslatable word. All languages are spoken by humans, and any human can learn any language. It might take time to translate a word, but it can be done.

I am of the opposite feeling. There are words, phrases, and expressions in every language that just don't translate to others. This is why so many languages exist and why there will never be a single, universal language. They don't translate because the thinking style, cultural history, and possibly innate structure of the languages.

I could tell you all of the possible situations (well, I couldn't, but perhaps someone could) in which you could use お疲れさま (for example), but you will not actually understand the phrase unless you are thinking in Japanese.

Each language has a different thinking style associated with it. From this thread and from personal experience, I get the feeling that there probably is some kind of "mentalese" underlying it all, but the languages themselves act as a sort of filter on that (how many times in your life have you had to utter the phrase, "I just can't explain/describe/etc."?). I kind of think of it like this: Imagine each filter is a shape. In this example, I'll say Japanese is circular and English is square (not passing any judgements...just using a metaphor). In which case, there are situations where perhaps you can find enough meaning from the circle of "お疲れさま" to pass it through the English square filter and say something close but is still missing information one way or the other. Same thing with trying to express many English thoughts in Japanese. The square may fit through the circular filter, but either not all of the meaning is conveyed, or, it doesn't completely fill the "equivalent" Japanese in such and such a situation.

However, under those filters is "mentalese" which allows us to learn those languages, but also learn that some things that fit in one language lose a lot in translation when trying to force them through the filter of another language.

That is how I look at it, anyway. However, I am only able to think/"filter" in Japanese and English. I'm not fluent enough in any of the other languages that I have tried to study (French, Spanish, a little bit of Arabic, a little bit of Thai, and a very little bit of Greek) to actually feel I'm thinking in them rather than trying to force them through the filters of other languages in my head...

:?

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Re: Pre-Language thought

Postby goofy » Sun Jul 13, 2008 12:28 pm UTC

Interactive Civilian wrote:I am of the opposite feeling. There are words, phrases, and expressions in every language that just don't translate to others. This is why so many languages exist and why there will never be a single, universal language. They don't translate because the thinking style, cultural history, and possibly innate structure of the languages.


Are you saying that you think that different languages have different innate structures? The opposite is true: the fact that all languages are spoken by humans means that all languages are the same at some level. And the fact that you could probably explain how to use お疲れさま and what situations to use it in means that お疲れさま can be translated.

We just don't find words that cannot be translated. When a linguist or anthropologist discovers a new language, they don't discover that it has words that just can't possibly be translated into English.

Translators translate texts and publish multilanguage dictionaries. Are you saying that translators are wrong, or shouldn't bother?

Each language has a different thinking style associated with it.


This might be true, altho I'm not aware of any research providing evidence for it. But it is certainly true that when we learn a new language we don't have to learn to think all over again.

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Re: Pre-Language thought

Postby Interactive Civilian » Sun Jul 13, 2008 5:56 pm UTC

Translators translate texts and publish multilanguage dictionaries. Are you saying that translators are wrong, or shouldn't bother?
No. I'm not saying that, exactly. However, I do contend that any translation you read is at best an approximation of the original, and often things are lost in the translation. Even when translating from one form of English to another, you will lose a lot of intent and emotion in the translation. Try translating Shakespeare into modern English. You are going to lose a lot.

Even easier: try translating British English to American English. You are going to lose intent and emotion there too.

When going from one language to another, even more is lost. Yes, you can explain. Yes, you can approximate. No, you cannot always communicate the exact same thing. Why do you think many languages borrow words from other languages? One good reason is that the language doing the borrowing doesn't have a convenient equivalent. Why do you say "samurai" instead of "traditional Japanese warrior"? Why do you say "déja vu" instead of "the feeling of seeing the same thing again"? None of those words are English, so why use the original language if they can be translated?

Have you ever looked up words in a Japanese dictionary. In my experience, when a Japanese student looks up a word to translate to English, 7 times out of 10 the first word listed in the dictionary is the wrong word for the situation. The dictionaries only provide approximations which allow you to communicate. However, as I keep saying, a lot is often lost in the translation. Sure, simple nouns will translate easily. So will some adjectives. However, some words that seem simple don't even translate well.

Here's yet another example. Look in your dictionary and tell me the exact English color for the Japanese color 青い (あおい aoi).

So many words from so many languages just do not translate directly. They can be approximated only, and with any approximation, you are going to lose accuracy. This is what I mean by "untranslatable".

Each language has a different thinking style associated with it.


This might be true, altho I'm not aware of any research providing evidence for it. But it is certainly true that when we learn a new language we don't have to learn to think all over again.

I only say that from my own experience, and yes, I know that anecdote is the singular of data. However, when I think in Japanese, it is quite different than English. I doubt I am alone in thinking this.

I'm not being judgmental by asking this question, merely curious: are you fluent in any other languages than English? If so, which language(s), and can you honestly say that you don't think differently when using them?

In fact, I'd like to field that question to everyone here: for those of you who are fluent in a language other than your native language, do you or do you not have a different thinking style when using that language?

Chalk me up as "Yes". When I use Japanese, I have a different way of thinking about things and trying to express things than I do when using English.
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Re: Pre-Language thought

Postby Fryie » Sun Jul 13, 2008 10:52 pm UTC

Always this talk of "untranslatable words" - that's not the essence of Linguistic Relativity, I'd say. In fact, lexical items can be borrowed quite easily if certain concepts are needed.
The question is not whether we can express any thought in any language - we most probably can. The question is what constitutes a community of speakers' habitual thought.

For example, take how differently we can convey information about space:
"The cup is left of the book" (that's Standard Average European use: relative)
"The cup is south of/below/more to the riverside than/etc. the book" (absolute use, as often within less urban communities)
"The cup is in a standing position with respect to the book('s front side)" (intrinsic, as in Tzeltal)
(of course these examples are very schematic)
That's all about how you categorize the impressions you get from the world. We tend to think this is all straightforward. It is not - categories are not inherent of nature, it's the human mind (and human language) that creates them.

Those findings about the semantics of space are, as far as I know, relatively uncontroversial. There are studies showing that they affect even non-verbal tasks (e.g.: you show a speaker a sequence of objects on a table, then you rotate him by 180° where there is another table and tell him to put the objects down another time. If his sequence is the mirror image of the original he has a relative system, if it is not, he has an absolute one). To me, this shows that language shapes thought at least to some extent (resp., to be more precise, that there is a chicken-egg-relationship between language and thought). Other experiments, e.g. on how classifiers as in Chinese or Japanese affect speakers' taxonomies, are much more controversial, but still.

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Re: Pre-Language thought

Postby poxic » Sun Jul 13, 2008 11:31 pm UTC

I've never learned another language to the depth of my first (English). I did get to the point of conversing in class without having to think of the English sentence first, though, for at least a couple.

For me, English sentences taste like breakfast cereal. (No, I'm not a synaesthete, but I am a poet[aster].) Crunchy and full of tidbits, it gets the job done without requiring much elegance on my part.

French forces me to have at least half an idea of what I'm going to say before I say it, sort of like I need to look down the hill a ways before I head down in my full-body rollerskate (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IVrlA3-f29g. I am not at all surprised that Rollerman is French. His roller-skate-suit is about the best metaphor I can come up with for speaking French, compared to English's skateboard).

German, on the other hand, makes me feel a bit like a crab: each sentence gets picked up with forceps, the most important bits being at the front and back ends. In the middle goes all the flavour, sort of a nougat with a crunchy coating (or a crab). Speaking German is fun, like playing "crane operator" with brightly-coloured Legos.

Not a terribly coherent or useful post, maybe, but trying to describe things beyond words is a bit of a challenge when words are your only medium. (Words and YouTube videos, I guess.)
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Re: Pre-Language thought

Postby goofy » Mon Jul 14, 2008 12:57 am UTC

Interactive Civilian wrote:When going from one language to another, even more is lost. Yes, you can explain. Yes, you can approximate. No, you cannot always communicate the exact same thing.


I just think we probably can communicate the exact same thing, given time. Most dictionaries and translations don't take the time, so they give approximations. But with time, a more exactly translation can be made - for instance with a footnote or whole chapter.

When we borrow words it's because it's more convenient to use the borrowed word than to use an English phrase to express the concept. But this is not proof that the concept cannot be translated exactly.

Here's yet another example. Look in your dictionary and tell me the exact English color for the Japanese color 青い (あおい aoi).

It says "blue, green". I don't see what's difficult or obscure about that. Translation is hard and it's rarely word-for-word. I'm sure that it's sometimes hard to find a short phrase in one language that approximates a word in another language. But this is not proof that the word cannot be translated exactly. The fact that words have connotations that aren't listed in multilingual dictionaries is not proof that it cannot be translated exactly.

I'm not being judgmental by asking this question, merely curious: are you fluent in any other languages than English? If so, which language(s), and can you honestly say that you don't think differently when using them?


I'm not fluent in any other languages. I'm not disputing that many people claim that they think differently in different languages. I just don't think that proves that words cannot be translated exactly, given time.

Have you ever looked up words in a Japanese dictionary. In my experience, when a Japanese student looks up a word to translate to English, 7 times out of 10 the first word listed in the dictionary is the wrong word for the situation.


You could say the same thing about thesauruses. It's because dictionaries don't have the room to list all the meanings and contexts.

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Re: Pre-Language thought

Postby Interactive Civilian » Mon Jul 14, 2008 1:24 am UTC

goofy wrote:
Interactive Civilian wrote:When going from one language to another, even more is lost. Yes, you can explain. Yes, you can approximate. No, you cannot always communicate the exact same thing.


I just think we probably can communicate the exact same thing, given time.

I hold that words are more than just meanings. How do you communicate exactly when you lose emotion and intent in the translation?

I could say (and this example is not directed at you, it is just an example ;) ) one of the following, which have the same meaning. Would you argue that they are the same?
"Go fuck yourself."
"Go have sexual intercourse with yourself."

Take it to another language:
I could say "¡joder!" or I could say "fuck!". Are they the same? Perhaps in one situation, however, you lose a good bit in the translation in both directions.

I could say 青い is green, but then I wouldn't be talking about the sky any more. I could use it for blue, but then I wouldn't be talking about traffic lights any more. So, which is it? Green or blue? (the answer is "yes").

That is my overall point. I contend that one may have all of the feelings, intents, and meanings hanging out in their "mentalese", but lack the words in a language to express all of them accurately. Hence the reason people say things like, "I just can't describe it." I found when learning Japanese that I was now able to assign good words to accurately express things that I'd never been able to before. This is one reason that I enjoy learning languages and wish I were fluent in many more. Then I would be able to say exactly what I mean and know that someone out there will understand exactly what I'm trying to say.

I hold that those translations and such in the dictionary are simply approximations that nudge us along the right track (or sometimes on the completely wrong track if the dictionary is as bad as some that I have seen :? ).

Of course, I am not a linguist, so I am probably very wrong and way off base. ;)
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Re: Pre-Language thought

Postby Fryie » Mon Jul 14, 2008 1:28 am UTC

The one problem with translation is - if we have a real-world situation, we can express what we want to express about it in any language. We just have to force the impressions we get into the categories our language provides. But if we want to translate the resulting expression into another language that uses different categories, it's difficult or even impossible to get a translation without knowing what the real-world situation was.
Suppose we have a language without tenses and lacking a colour distinction between blue and green. Now, for the same sentence we could get translations like "this is green", "this was blue", "this will be green", etc. depending on the context.

But that's only translation. Such things do affect thought, too, at least some suppose. It seems, for instance, that Russian speakers can more easily distinguish light from dark blue, since in Russian it's two different words without a common hyperonym, whereas in English it's both "blue" (the distinction "light" vs. "dark" is not obligatory).

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Re: Pre-Language thought

Postby poxic » Mon Jul 14, 2008 1:56 am UTC

Using a paperback dictionary to do translations is largely futile, if you're going for anything other than general meaning. The best translations start from intent, not definitions. A quick example from a translator I met once: the French phrase "bon Dieu" means "good God" in English, if you go word by word. The way it affects French speakers, though, is different from the way "good God" affects English speakers, so he used "for God's sake" to get the (roughly) correct emotional impact.

I think of music and language as being very similar. Both use a set of symbols that connect one person's emotions to another's. It amuses me that musical styles can lead to almost as much confusion as language differences. The teenager whose collection of angry metal "speaks" to him gets into a lot of arguments about music with the stressed-out parent whose classical and easy listening "speak" to her.

In the example of the Japanese phrase that means thank you, or cheers, or "that's enough for today", there is probably an emotion or concept that drives the use of the phrase. That might be an acknowledgment of camaraderie, or a sort of formal fist-bump if you will. Can the exact emotional state that the phrase brings up in a native Japanese speaker be replicated in an English speaker with no knowledge of the language? My internal optimist says yes, though it might take many more words to do so, becoming a description rather than a translation. (My internal pessimist says that it's still not the same thing.)

That's part of what attracts me to languages (and music). I like the mushiness of it. :D

Post-preview addendum: the best book I've read on the problems and joys of language/translation/meaning is probably Le Ton Beau de Marot by Douglas Hofstadter (yes, the Godel Escher Bach guy). There's a chapter or so on working with the the team that translated GEB into Chinese, and all the dickering they did -- they wanted to retain some of the Englishness of the text, just translating the words, but he wanted them to translate the intent of the book. They wanted to translate "speak of the Devil" literally -- to "speak of the Devil and he appears". But that's not a common phrase in their language, so he insisted they use a native idiom that meant the same thing. Apparently there was a lot of bargaining and trade-offs...
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Re: Pre-Language thought

Postby goofy » Mon Jul 14, 2008 3:00 am UTC

Interactive Civilian wrote:I could say 青い is green, but then I wouldn't be talking about the sky any more. I could use it for blue, but then I wouldn't be talking about traffic lights any more. So, which is it? Green or blue? (the answer is "yes").


But there's nothing weird about two words in one language being used where another language has one word. This has nothing to do with a word being untranslatable. 青い is translatable as "blue" or "green" depending on the context.

I found when learning Japanese that I was now able to assign good words to accurately express things that I'd never been able to before.

But is that because you never needed to express these things before, or it is really because English can't accurately express them?

I hold that those translations and such in the dictionary are simply approximations that nudge us along the right track (or sometimes on the completely wrong track if the dictionary is as bad as some that I have seen :? ).


That's basically what I'm saying. Except I see no reason why you couldn't provide more accurate translations, given time and space.

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Re: Pre-Language thought

Postby Interactive Civilian » Mon Jul 14, 2008 4:41 am UTC

goofy wrote:
Interactive Civilian wrote:I found when learning Japanese that I was now able to assign good words to accurately express things that I'd never been able to before.

But is that because you never needed to express these things before, or it is really because English can't accurately express them?

Both. :) I could say for the most part, I didn't even realize there was a way to express a great many things and just chalked it up to "not having the right words" or "just can't explain", but it turned out there were good words and ways to explain those thoughts. Just not in English.
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Re: Pre-Language thought

Postby goofy » Mon Jul 14, 2008 1:01 pm UTC

Fryie wrote:The one problem with translation is - if we have a real-world situation, we can express what we want to express about it in any language. We just have to force the impressions we get into the categories our language provides. But if we want to translate the resulting expression into another language that uses different categories, it's difficult or even impossible to get a translation without knowing what the real-world situation was.
Suppose we have a language without tenses and lacking a colour distinction between blue and green. Now, for the same sentence we could get translations like "this is green", "this was blue", "this will be green", etc. depending on the context.

But that's only translation. Such things do affect thought, too, at least some suppose. It seems, for instance, that Russian speakers can more easily distinguish light from dark blue, since in Russian it's two different words without a common hyperonym, whereas in English it's both "blue" (the distinction "light" vs. "dark" is not obligatory).


Here are more linguistic relativity (aka neo-Sapir-Whorf) references.

Interactive Civilian wrote:Both. I could say for the most part, I didn't even realize there was a way to express a great many things and just chalked it up to "not having the right words" or "just can't explain", but it turned out there were good words and ways to explain those thoughts. Just not in English.


But it seems to me that you've contradicted yourself. Earlier you wrote
Sure, I could probably explain how to use お疲れさま and what situations to use it in, but there is no English equivalent phrase or word that matches it.

If you can explain how to use お疲れさま and what situations to use it in, then haven't you just expressed it in English? It seems to me you're just saying these concepts can't be expressed succinctly in English, which is not the same as saying they're untranslatable.

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Re: Pre-Language thought

Postby Interactive Civilian » Mon Jul 14, 2008 3:56 pm UTC

goofy wrote:If you can explain how to use お疲れさま and what situations to use it in, then haven't you just expressed it in English? It seems to me you're just saying these concepts can't be expressed succinctly in English, which is not the same as saying they're untranslatable.

No, I haven't expressed it. Explaining how to use it as a Japanese word is not the same as just saying it. There is no functional equivalent in English to say that encompasses that phrase for the majority of situations in which it is used. Therefore, it is not translatable. Explaining and Translating are not the same thing.
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Re: Pre-Language thought

Postby goofy » Mon Jul 14, 2008 4:35 pm UTC

Of course there may not be a single phrase in English that encompasses the meaing of a certain phrase in another language. This is normal. If that's what you mean by "translatable", then I agree with you. You're going to need to use different English phrases depending on the context.

But the Japanese word can still be defined in English, and that's what I mean by "translatable": explaining its meaning and how it is used in context.

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Re: Pre-Language thought

Postby Random832 » Mon Jul 14, 2008 5:40 pm UTC

Interactive Civilian wrote:
goofy wrote:If you can explain how to use お疲れさま and what situations to use it in, then haven't you just expressed it in English? It seems to me you're just saying these concepts can't be expressed succinctly in English, which is not the same as saying they're untranslatable.

No, I haven't expressed it. Explaining how to use it as a Japanese word is not the same as just saying it. There is no functional equivalent in English to say that encompasses that phrase for the majority of situations in which it is used.


That doesn't mean it's not translatable - if there's no functional equivalent that encompasses any one of the situations in which it is used, then I might agree it's not translatable.

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Re: Pre-Language thought

Postby the_stabbage » Mon Jul 14, 2008 6:01 pm UTC

Seems to me a lot of this "untranslatable" business is cultural differences.

Eg. it seems easy to translate one thing from French to English or from Spanish to German, since the countries have had some shared history and culture: Christianity, Roman empire, etc.

Japanese <-> English and Chinese <-> English - maybe it's more difficult because the cultures are so different?

Then again, maybe it's because there's not much translating that has been going on in the first place between these languages?

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Re: Pre-Language thought

Postby Kizyr » Mon Jul 14, 2008 7:01 pm UTC

the_stabbage wrote:Seems to me a lot of this "untranslatable" business is cultural differences.
Eg. it seems easy to translate one thing from French to English or from Spanish to German, since the countries have had some shared history and culture: Christianity, Roman empire, etc.
Japanese <-> English and Chinese <-> English - maybe it's more difficult because the cultures are so different?
Then again, maybe it's because there's not much translating that has been going on in the first place between these languages?


Oh no, I think you're right with what you said first. I feel that's the reason it's so easy to move between Spanish and English, but moving between English and Japanese/Chinese is tougher.

A lot of Japanese is tied into both culture and context--the "proper" context in which to interpret something is also frequently rooted in cultural ideas. Understanding those cultural ideas is essential to getting a good grasp on using Japanese effectively and being understood the way you intend.

Those cultural ideas, furthermore, are often ones people are socialized into. They're not explicitly stated, and they rely on a lot more things than just words. That's why the idea that thoughts are limited by something as arbitrary as vocabulary seems patently ridiculous, because we use far more than just words to communicate our thoughts. In Japanese this is very pronounced (and might I add really irritating when you don't understand the unspoken context someone is trying to communicate).

Reading the entire back-and-forth between Interactive Civilian and goofy, I'll have to echo everything IC said already. I don't have much to add except for where this discussion currently seems to be heading: what relationship is there between "explaining" and "translating", and is it possible to explain a term--like お疲れ様 or 思いやり--by merely citing all sorts of examples in which it can be applied?

Interactive Civilian wrote:
goofy wrote:If you can explain how to use お疲れさま and what situations to use it in, then haven't you just expressed it in English? It seems to me you're just saying these concepts can't be expressed succinctly in English, which is not the same as saying they're untranslatable.

No, I haven't expressed it. Explaining how to use it as a Japanese word is not the same as just saying it. There is no functional equivalent in English to say that encompasses that phrase for the majority of situations in which it is used. Therefore, it is not translatable. Explaining and Translating are not the same thing.

This, basically.

Let me try to put it this way: we could give a laundry list of all the situations where お疲れ様 and 思いやり can be used, and just say "find the common thread between all of these". That would be the most effective way to convey the meaning of each. But your interpretation of the word would still depend on your own cultural mindset. In other words, two different people could read the same laundry list and derive different meanings of the word in question. That, to me, indicates that the laundry-list-of-examples method doesn't fully convey the meaning of a word. It may convey it enough to use it in many or most situations, and for some or many people, but it'd be far from universal.

Might I suggest we put this to the test? Me and/or IC could come up with sets of examples in which お疲れ様 or 思いやり would be appropriate (aside: 思いやり is one of my favorite words, so I'd rather do that one), and see how well it conveys the meaning of each. KF
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Re: Pre-Language thought

Postby goofy » Mon Jul 14, 2008 7:56 pm UTC

Two different people could look a list of contexts where word X is used and derive different meanings of the word, but this is true for two people who speak the same language as well. I cannot expect that every single English speaker will have the same connotations and denotations of English words that I do. Translation, like communication, is possible but never perfect.

Really my argument is that what can be expressed in one language can be expressed in any language. This is generally agreed to be true in linguistics afaik. That doesn't mean it is true, of course, but that we haven't found any evidence to the contrary.

This expression might include a definition, context, cultural information, etc, and would differ depending on whether it's a dictionary, scholarly work, novel, video, etc. If we're looking for a word-for-word translation, then no words are translatable.

Not everyone who speaks two languages is a translator. Translation requires training, and some translators are better than others.


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