Comment on Is Language a Window into Human Nature?

Ashalynd Tue, Jun 30, 2009
Language, as I now think, is first and foremost a symbolic representation of the cultural context where it is used as a communication medium. Language can't exist (in the sense, to be alive, to develop) without people using it. Different societies of people have different "common denominators" (not a very suitable term, may be it would be better to say about "collective mind"), because of many reasons - nature conditions, technology level, historical background etc... these differencies are both mirrored and reinfluenced with the language.

One interesting phenomenon in favor of the idea that any language is intertwined with the cultural context: the dialects of the minorities living outside of their native country in the society different from their own. The "level of deviation" for the speakers of the original language who moved abroad can differ, but it is almost ubiquitos: some people start using the words from the new "major language" to describe the concepts which, as they feel, are not properly represented by their own, some borrow certain grammar constructions and some even do it with idioms, literally translating them into their language, by the way of adoption. I have observed this phenomenon by many Russian people who emigrated to the West, it is always a target of jokes at home, which also indirectly proves the scale of it :)

When I read the example from the Lera Boroditsky article, mentioning well-known issue of two distinct words in Russian for "blue" and "light blue" I have realilzed that both my children, who speak grammatically correct Russian language but have lived in the Netherlands for most part of their lives, know both these words but use them almost at random. Do they not care about the difference because in the context which is now primary for them it is not that important? Language is used by the children to mirror the reality, not vice versa; they do get it from the adults but mold it to suit their own needs as they please.

From the other side, language and the associative field related to it can guide the thoughts of both adults and children (everybody likes playing with language). Knowing more than one language makes your thoughts more polyphonic. I am wondering, whether the world where only one language would exist, an unambigous and all-purpose language, would not be too dull and predictable? We don't want the whole Earth full of people living exactly the same way, do we?..

I thought earlier that the language is a living and conscious thing of sorts, which uses the minds of its speakers as the neuron cells, but now I think that the living thing is the whole community and the language just represents it like a human mind is a representation of the whole person. The experienced travellers know that to truly emigrate from one place to another, it is not enough just to learn the grammar and vocabulary of the other language, - you have to adopt the other culture. If you failed to do it, you will return back sooner or later and you won't accept the language either, or the language won't accept you (I have seen quite a few of these situations as well, being for a while an administrator of a portal for Russian speakers in the Netherlands). I can't also help mentioning Daniil Andreev and his book The Rose of the World where he tried, among other things, to explain the idea about the existence of different subcultures in the humanity and their roles in history. May be the language is one of the strongest links with these subcultures, and moving from one to another means letting go of one link and grabbing another - not an easy task for a human being. And can you ever truly emigrate? Or could you still keep holding both links? Is it possible to be truly polylingual person, knowing several languages together with their associative fields and cultural backgrounds? This surely must be one of the richest experiences one could have...