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  1. sfr
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    sfr Contributing Member

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    language and thought

    Discussion in 'The Lounge' started by sfr, Jul 9, 2008.

    I recently read a quote that basically said anything we feel we can be expressed through language. When I first read this quote I thought it was a novel idea. However, I have thought many times that some things are ineffiable. The quote got me thinking maybe they are only ineffiable because I don't have the control of English, for instance a large enough vocabulary or the syntax to put it together, or perhaps English isn't complex enough of a language (I know it's hard to believe). Maybe If I had a much more complex language then some things that I might consider ineffiable today could be expressed to a statisfying degree. Maybe a feeling that I could describe in 1,000 words in the English I use could be described in less with a better control of English or maybe even far less in another more complex or efficent language. That made me think back to my first quater of college when in Sociology we learned of the Sparrier-Whorf hypothesis, which basically said that how we think is directly connected to the language we use, that our thoughts come from language to a large degree. But no matter how large the vocabluary or how well you put it together there will always be the ineffiable, because it will never be a perfect language, and thoughts will always push the limits of the language that describes it. Maybe it has something to do with how we put thoughts together and make new thoughts out of existing ones. Maybe in a future one word will equal a novel from today. To sum it up I think the quote was right in that you can always try to describe what your thinking however crudely with the language that you have. However, there will always be a limit to push, thus the ineffiable. What do you think?
     
  2. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Language can only express shared concepts. The more individual a particular idea or feeling is, the less certain it is that language can communicate it correctly.

    We even see it it in everyday words like love. And if I say red. how do I know that what your brain interprets of that color is thye same as mine? We will both agree that a particular rose is red, but if I could tap into your perception directly I might see something more like purple.

    But it stands to reason, at least to me, that there are ideas or emotions or perceptions that are unique to me, or to you, and there are therefore no words to express them. We might be able to construct a metaphor, and communicate that, but would it still be received the same?

    So I think that language covers a subset of our perceived reality.
     
  3. penhobby
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    penhobby Contributing Member

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    This is actually a form of therapy to some people...I guess namely me. As a child I loved to write, but when a crisis hit my family I shut down that part of myself. Writing about it, was the same as living it and I couldn't do that. I think maybe the pain of what happened could not be put to paper, because I was hurting so much at the time. Words simply could not describe it.

    Years later, when a doctor discovered my old love of writing, he encouraged me to go back and try to record everything, good and bad that I had lost somewhere along the way. This was hands down, the hardest thing I have ever done. But it worked.

    Writing down the most horrific moments of life allowed me to let them go to some degree. Yes, it was painful, but in the end, I was, and am the better off for it.

    I think perhaps these are the type thoughts you speak of, the ones that must be forced from our minds out of necessity. No, the reader will probably never really understand how we truly felt at the time, but we will. We strive to do the best we can to describe those feelings, knowing all the while that our descriptions will ultimately fall short of the feelings themselves.
     
  4. tehuti88
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    tehuti88 Contributing Member

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    Language can express all kinds of wonderful and complicated things. But it's true, it does have its limitations. You can easily find these when looking at the words and terms of another language, preferably one not related to the one you speak, and see the differences in terms they have for things our language doesn't have. For example, Native American Indian languages have some expressions that English doesn't have, and thus some ideas and concepts that are very basic to them are difficult for non-natives to understand, simply because we haven't the language with which to process them. One thing is the English word "reality." What's considered "reality" to a non-native is often very different from what an Indian would consider "reality." So when someone like me uses the word "reality" it strictly limits understanding to the English/European meaning of the word when for other cultures it might be quite different. This can result in lots of misunderstandings.

    Also, many American Indian terms which have been translated as "Great Spirit" or "God" are inadequately understood because they mean much more than the English translation would indicate. There aren't any adequate phrases in English to describe all the meanings of such terms. At best one can just use lots of different words to describe something which for an Indian can be summarized in one small phrase.

    Some cultures have no word for "goodbye," simply because for them, there is no "goodbye" in the English understanding of the term. So language and thought are certainly related and can limit each other in various ways.

    PS...ineffable. :)
     
  5. sfr
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    sfr Contributing Member

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    Interesting Cogito, I never really thought that language can only express shared concepts but that assement seems pretty good. While one might describe a unique situation the concepts are usually shared. Unless someone experiences a unique concept which is probably pretty rare. I remember a philosophy major I worked with when I was at UCSB, he believed that everyone was capable of the same range of emotions, but I guess that doesn't mean that everyone experiences the same emotions, only that they can. Heraclitus said that your a fool is you don't realize that all life is one. I know what your saying about perception, but when it comes to that I think of Occam's razor, it makes more sense that what you call red is actually my peception of red. I do think language is a subset of reality.

    **Off topic**That made me think of this concept this physics major tried to describe to me about the axiom of choice and how you could take a ball and make two balls of them without losing any mass. Since I know you want to teach math could you explain this concept to me in laymans terms. I wikipediaed it and think I understand that that given any collection of bins, each containing at least one object, it is possible to make a selection of exactly one object from each bin, even if there are infinitely many bins and there is no "rule" for which object to pick from each. I know it's kind of topic but I this thread brought the thought to me, so maybe you could help. I don't understand that much math above very simple calculus so if you can't really explain the concept well that's understandable. - thanks for your orginal response. btw thanks tahuti88 I now know how to spell ineffable.
     
  6. RomanticRose
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    RomanticRose Active Member

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    Maybe off-topic, maybe not.

    Way back in my undergraduate days, a professor (public speaking, I think) said, "Perfection is not an option."

    My first reaction was DUH! In my world, up to that point perfection wasn't an option, but a requirement. It made perfect sense to me, and to her, but communication had definitely not taken place.

    It was several weeks later in a conference with her that I found out that she meant something totally different than I understood.

    It was several years before I discovered that perfection really isn't an option.

    *end of possibly off-topic ramble*
     
  7. sfr
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    sfr Contributing Member

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    yeah rose maybe it's off topic maybe it has something to do with what we were talking about.
     
  8. Amadeo
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    Amadeo Member

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    Thank you, Cogito, for your wonderful explanation! The one thought in particular that stood out to me was the following quote:

    Many times, when I really want to express a thought about how deeply something has affected me, it is very difficult to make someone understand exactly what I feel or think. Sometimes, this has resulted in misunderstandings which further adds to my frustration.

    After reading what you have written, I feel a sense of relief because you have explained why I have experienced such difficulty in making myself understood. To be able to express oneself completely and accurately is sometimes not possible because, as you mentioned, an idea or feeling is so individual. Others would have to feel or think exactly as you do in order for that feeling or thought to be communicated correctly. When that happens, there is a sense of oneness with the person(s) you are communicating with because words or lengthy explanations are not needed to convey the depth of what is being felt. What a joy it is to have this kind of communication!

    I used to think it was because I had to learn to speak English when I was a very young child. (My parents spoke mostly Italian because my grandparents could not speak English. When my brothers and I went to school, that is when we began to learn to speak English.)

    There are many expressions in the Italian language that are difficult to translate properly into English. It is as Tehuti mentioned regarding the American Indian language: although the words can be translated, the deeper meaning behind them cannot be as easily conveyed. Part of the problem lies in the fact that some ideas are better understood in the particular city or town they originated from. This is similar to many expressions or ideas that originate from the Deep South which are sometimes difficult to completely understand if a person is from the Pacific Northwest. The experiences and ways of life are different in each of these parts of the country.

    I am so happy to have read this thread and found so many wonderful explanations regarding the complexities of expressing thoughts through language. Very interesting and enlightening.

    Take care,

    Amadeo
     

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