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Radically Inept
Monday, August 23, 2004
  Are you defined by your vocabulary?

Via KurzweilAI.net Newsletter comes this interesting link, NewScientist.com, "Language may shape human thought"
Hunter-gatherers from the Pirahã tribe, whose language only contains words for the numbers one and two, were unable to reliably tell the difference between four objects placed in a row and five in the same configuration, revealed the study.

Experts agree that the startling result provides the strongest support yet for the controversial hypothesis that the language available to humans defines our thoughts. So-called “linguistic determinism” was first proposed in 1950 but has been hotly debated ever since.

“It is a very surprising and very important result,” says Lisa Feigenson, a developmental psychologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, US, who has tested babies’ abilities to distinguish between different numerical quantities. “Whether language actually allows you to have new thoughts is a very controversial issue.”

Peter Gordon, the psychologist at Columbia University in New York City who carried out the experiment, does not claim that his finding holds for all kinds of thought. “There are certainly things that we can think about that we cannot talk about. But for numbers I have shown that a limitation in language affects cognition,” he says.
Hell, I've never heard of “linguistic determinism”, but I know it's true. As a child gowing up learning one language at home, and another outside the home, this concept was apparent to me.

It usually showed up when I couldn't take an obvious concept in German and adequately translate the idea into English. Some concepts, for instance I remember trying to explain 'degrees' of fatalism, just didn't work. Humor, which often revolves around the multiple meanings of a single word or phrase, obviously just dies when it has to be explained, but it was often the concept itself, the humor in 'fate', that my English speaking friends just didn't get.

And I know some of my foreign born friends have had the same frustration in commuicating ideas to me that seem perfectly natural to them.

I do believe in the end, some of these concepts can be learned. I just think it takes a novel or a movie, something where the reader becomes emotionally and intellectually involved in the story, that the idea may be absorbed.

On the other hand, sometimes it is a case of, "You just had to be there." 
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