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Tags linguistics , philosophy , semantics

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Old 12th April 2011, 05:03 AM   #1
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Linguistics question

I am writing a blog entry that has something to do with linguistics, and would like a reality check from anyone who knows more about the subject than I do.

It seems logical that there should exist languages associated with primitive cultures that have no means of expressing lofty ideas such as self-determination, or meta-cognition, or any number of other notions that require a great deal of self-reflection. I would imagine that cultures that are concerned mainly with the nuts and bolts of survival will find no need to develop vocabulary and/or idioms to express complex philisophical ideas.

The closest parallel that I know of is the Cherokee language used by the code talkers in WWII. Although I know of no philisophical restrictions in the language, there was a problem with communicating ideas having to do with recent technological advances...the language had no words for "airplane" or "tank", for instance, so existing words had to be co-opted to refer to these things. It seems reasonable to assume that there might be other languages that would have difficulty with communicating other advanced concepts, particularly those having to do with intense self-reflection.

Am I correct in this assumption, or are the semantics of these philisophical concepts universal?

(PS -- I'm sure that any language in the world is CAPABLE of expressing these ideas, the question is, DO they?)
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Old 12th April 2011, 05:18 AM   #2
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Originally Posted by aggle-rithm View Post
It seems logical that there should exist languages associated with primitive cultures that have no means of expressing lofty ideas such as self-determination, or meta-cognition, or any number of other notions that require a great deal of self-reflection. I would imagine that cultures that are concerned mainly with the nuts and bolts of survival will find no need to develop vocabulary and/or idioms to express complex philisophical ideas.
How far back and primitive do you have to get before this is true? "Cave" paintings are a pretty good indication that early man was thinking about non-corporeal entities in one form or another. It is logical, then, to think that they'd also have some degree of language to explain to each other the significance of the images. (OK, modern art is NOT evidence for that assumption).
Quote:
The closest parallel that I know of is the Cherokee language used by the code talkers in WWII. Although I know of no philisophical restrictions in the language, there was a problem with communicating ideas having to do with recent technological advances...the language had no words for "airplane" or "tank", for instance, so existing words had to be co-opted to refer to these things.
I don't know if that is such a great example as these aren't transcendental imagery that was trying to be understood, just a different technology. I had the same problem when talking about rain to my cousin who'd lived all his life in outback Australia. In his 9 year old life he'd never seen rain. He stood there sceptically eyeing his city cousin thinking, "You're taking the piss, now.".
Quote:
It seems reasonable to assume that there might be other languages that would have difficulty with communicating other advanced concepts, particularly those having to do with intense self-reflection.
Self awareness, IMO, is part and parcel of the human brain/psyche - it is what singularly separates us from the "lower" animals. For instance, I cannot conceptualise the pre-Big Bang environment nor visualise 4+ dimensions, it doesn't mean that I've never contemplated my own mortality.
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Am I correct in this assumption, or are the semantics of these philisophical concepts universal?

(PS -- I'm sure that any language in the world is CAPABLE of expressing these ideas, the question is, DO they?)
Any people with art and language probably do. But this is only my gut reaction.
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Old 12th April 2011, 05:29 AM   #3
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Originally Posted by aggle-rithm View Post
Am I correct in this assumption, or are the semantics of these philisophical concepts universal?

I am reading a book about anthropology which just covered this area. According to the author's exhaustive research of the latest expert thinking, humans had a fully-developed sense of self, religion and ceremony between 12,000 and 9,000 years ago. The most primitive stone-age culture still existing is far advanced from anything at the end of the last ice age. So, there shouldn't be a proto-language left on earth that lacks a basis for very deep philosophical thinking.
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Old 12th April 2011, 05:38 AM   #4
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Originally Posted by EHocking View Post
How far back and primitive do you have to get before this is true? "Cave" paintings are a pretty good indication that early man was thinking about non-corporeal entities in one form or another. It is logical, then, to think that they'd also have some degree of language to explain to each other the significance of the images. (OK, modern art is NOT evidence for that assumption).I don't know if that is such a great example as these aren't transcendental imagery that was trying to be understood, just a different technology. I had the same problem when talking about rain to my cousin who'd lived all his life in outback Australia. In his 9 year old life he'd never seen rain. He stood there sceptically eyeing his city cousin thinking, "You're taking the piss, now.".Self awareness, IMO, is part and parcel of the human brain/psyche - it is what singularly separates us from the "lower" animals. For instance, I cannot conceptualise the pre-Big Bang environment nor visualise 4+ dimensions, it doesn't mean that I've never contemplated my own mortality.Any people with art and language probably do. But this is only my gut reaction.
Part of the reason I believe there might be languages that lack the richness to talk about certain self-reflective concepts is that there are people speaking "civilized" languages that don't understand these concepts. Alexander Luria once conducted a study where he interviewed a number of people from many different backgrounds, asking them questions having to do with self-identity. He found that most people in urban areas, when asked how they felt about themselves, would talk about things like self-esteem and interpersonal relationships and other intangibles.

On the other hand, uneducated peasants working their farms didn't seem to understand the question. When asked how they felt about themselves, they answered in a way that showed they clearly thought of themselves as extensions of the farm. They spoke of getting the crop in on time, getting ready to plant for next year, storing for the winter, etc., etc.

If there were a whole society that thought in this way, it seems to me that the language they spoke would reflect this strange lack of self-identity. If no one ever thinks of anything but getting the harvest in, what use are the more complex philisophical ideas?
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Old 12th April 2011, 05:56 AM   #5
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Originally Posted by aggle-rithm View Post
I am writing a blog entry that has something to do with linguistics, and would like a reality check from anyone who knows more about the subject than I do.

It seems logical that there should exist languages associated with primitive cultures that have no means of expressing lofty ideas such as self-determination, or meta-cognition, or any number of other notions that require a great deal of self-reflection. I would imagine that cultures that are concerned mainly with the nuts and bolts of survival will find no need to develop vocabulary and/or idioms to express complex philisophical ideas.

The closest parallel that I know of is the Cherokee language used by the code talkers in WWII. Although I know of no philisophical restrictions in the language, there was a problem with communicating ideas having to do with recent technological advances...the language had no words for "airplane" or "tank", for instance, so existing words had to be co-opted to refer to these things. It seems reasonable to assume that there might be other languages that would have difficulty with communicating other advanced concepts, particularly those having to do with intense self-reflection.

Am I correct in this assumption, or are the semantics of these philisophical concepts universal?

(PS -- I'm sure that any language in the world is CAPABLE of expressing these ideas, the question is, DO they?)
I have no evidence for it, but my feeling is that you would be wrong. because culture only interrested into self preservation and food and warm place to live, have a lot less to care for than the later culture in accomodation infrastructure and are usually much smaller in scope. Leaving them plenty of time to think about their lives.
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Old 12th April 2011, 06:01 AM   #6
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Originally Posted by Aepervius View Post
I have no evidence for it, but my feeling is that you would be wrong. because culture only interrested into self preservation and food and warm place to live, have a lot less to care for than the later culture in accomodation infrastructure and are usually much smaller in scope. Leaving them plenty of time to think about their lives.
I have no evidence, either...that's why I would like some linguists to weigh in.
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Old 12th April 2011, 06:08 AM   #7
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Originally Posted by aggle-rithm View Post
It seems logical that there should exist languages associated with primitive cultures that have no means of expressing lofty ideas such as self-determination, or meta-cognition, or any number of other notions that require a great deal of self-reflection. I would imagine that cultures that are concerned mainly with the nuts and bolts of survival will find no need to develop vocabulary and/or idioms to express complex philisophical ideas.
This depends on what you define as a language. It is commonly thought that any language can express everything that other languages can. They might lack the appropriate vocabulary at some point, but then they extend their vocabulary by importing words from other languages.

On the other hand, it seems that just like cultures have formed the languages, the languages can also restrain the culture, and there are examples where speakers of certain languages have great difficulty adjusting to new concepts, simply because their language lacks the structure for it. By structure I now mean to signify something that goes beyond the vocabulary.

There is for example the language of the Pirahã people in the Brazilian rainforest.This language is special because it has no tenses: no past and no future, only the now, and there is no concept for numbers bigger than 2!

Professor Daniel L Everett originally came to the Pirahãs as a missionary, but he was utterly unable to convert the Pirahãs, simply because their culture is completely impenetrable for this kind of nonsense. Because the Pirahãs have no concept for the past, they cannot relate to a Jesus Christ that lived 2000 years ago, and because they have no concept for the future, they cannot be frightened with tales of eternal Hell.

When told about JC, the Pirahãs would ask "do you know this man?", or "do you know somebody who knows this man?" (not "have you met somebody who has met this man?", because that would be impossible for them to conceive of), and the missionary had to answer "no", and the discussion had ended.

As far as I can gather, the Bible has never been translated into Pirahã (for obvious reasons).

From an article in The Spiegel:
Quote:
Living in the now also fits with the fact that the Pirahã don't appear to have a creation myth explaining existence. When asked, they simply reply: "Everything is the same, things always are." The mothers also don't tell their children fairy tales -- actually nobody tells any kind of stories. No one paints and there is no art.
It should be noted that Pirahãs can learn Portuguese, but they still have difficulty adjusting to the concepts of past and future, although numbers larger than 2 seem easier to grasp.
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Old 12th April 2011, 08:01 AM   #8
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There is for example the language of the Pirahã people in the Brazilian rainforest.This language is special because it has no tenses: no past and no future, only the now, and there is no concept for numbers bigger than 2!
I find this very difficult to believe and I would seriously question the scholarship involved. Don't these people have dead parents, grandparents that they remember? How could they possible have no concept of the past? Perhaps their manner of expressing the past was inscrutable to the researcher because it was more subtle (or complex) than conjugation or any other obvious marker for the past.
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Old 12th April 2011, 08:28 AM   #9
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Originally Posted by Perpetual Student View Post
I find this very difficult to believe and I would seriously question the scholarship involved. Don't these people have dead parents, grandparents that they remember? How could they possible have no concept of the past? Perhaps their manner of expressing the past was inscrutable to the researcher because it was more subtle (or complex) than conjugation or any other obvious marker for the past.
I know that not all cultures think of time as being linear like most Western cultures do, as is evidenced by religious traditions that have a Creation and a Judgement Day serving as bookends for the present. A lot of cultures think of time in a more cyclical fashion, such as the ones that believe in reincarnation.

However, I have always assumed that this was a matter of emphasis on one or the other aspect of time. People with a linear sense of time can also understand cyclical time, and vice-versa.
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Old 12th April 2011, 08:56 AM   #10
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Originally Posted by aggle-rithm View Post
I know that not all cultures think of time as being linear like most Western cultures do, as is evidenced by religious traditions that have a Creation and a Judgement Day serving as bookends for the present. A lot of cultures think of time in a more cyclical fashion, such as the ones that believe in reincarnation.

However, I have always assumed that this was a matter of emphasis on one or the other aspect of time. People with a linear sense of time can also understand cyclical time, and vice-versa.
Sorry, that appears to me to be a lot of sophistry. A man cut his finger, he wakes up the next day with the wound. Does he not remember it was yesterday? His language is so impoverished that he cannot conceive of yesterday because his culture has no creation myth? Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Where is the evidence for this? All we have are the claims of one man. Has Daniel L Everett provided such evidence? From Wikipedia:
"Pirahã has one of the simplest sound systems known. Yet it possesses such a complex array of tones, stresses, and syllable lengths that its speakers can dispense with their vowels and consonants altogether and sing, hum, or whistle conversations."
It is likely that such a system, so foreign to Everett, was beyond his grasp. It should be noted that Everett's scholarship is quite controversial concerning his theories about recursion, which he bases on his "discoveries" about the Pirahã.
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Old 12th April 2011, 09:04 AM   #11
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Originally Posted by steenkh View Post
There is for example the language of the Pirahã people in the Brazilian rainforest.This language is special because it has no tenses: no past and no future, only the now, and there is no concept for numbers bigger than 2!.
I have nothing to add, but I thank you for linking to the articles on this. I read them and the cited articles and just ordered his book. What a fascinating subject!
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Old 12th April 2011, 09:18 AM   #12
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Originally Posted by steenkh View Post
This depends on what you define as a language. It is commonly thought that any language can express everything that other languages can. They might lack the appropriate vocabulary at some point, but then they extend their vocabulary by importing words from other languages.

On the other hand, it seems that just like cultures have formed the languages, the languages can also restrain the culture, and there are examples where speakers of certain languages have great difficulty adjusting to new concepts, simply because their language lacks the structure for it. By structure I now mean to signify something that goes beyond the vocabulary.

There is for example the language of the Pirahã people in the Brazilian rainforest.This language is special because it has no tenses: no past and no future, only the now, and there is no concept for numbers bigger than 2!
Thanks, this is exactly the sort of thing I'm looking for.

Let me tell you why I'm asking. The blog entry makes the proposition that the oft-repeated phrase, "music is a universal language", is a myth. I plan to argue that music is a whole collection of constantly evolving non-verbal languages, and the ability to comprehend one doesn't mean you can comprehend another.

Music lacks vocabulary, of course, but it has syntax and semantics much like verbal languages do. When I have spoken to people about the differences between popular music and "classical" music, I often hit a wall because the other person seems unable to comprehend that the differences go beyond the stylistic (syntactical), but involve semantics. There is meaning expressed in symphonic music that is rarely or never expressed in popular music. Here, by meaning I'm not talking about emotions or poetic concepts, but things that have meaning within the context of music and nowhere else.

An example would be the meaning of the keynote; the tone that is understood as the resting point in a piece of music (in a piece in the key of C, the keynote would be C). The syntax as well as the semantics for this are essentially the same in a Brahms symphony as they are in a heavy-metal song, but the syntax is quite different in Gregorian chant, and there is no concept for it at all in atonal music of the 20th century.

The crux is that there are certain musical languages (popular music) that lacks the structure to express some of the semantics of other types of music, although in principle it should be possible to extend them to do so.
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Old 12th April 2011, 09:30 AM   #13
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Originally Posted by aggle-rithm View Post
Let me tell you why I'm asking. The blog entry makes the proposition that the oft-repeated phrase, "music is a universal language", is a myth. I plan to argue that music is a whole collection of constantly evolving non-verbal languages, and the ability to comprehend one doesn't mean you can comprehend another.
Ooh -- check out the differences between Turkish, Iraqi, and Egyptian "maqams" (actual plural is "maqamat.") A maqam is something like a scale, or more accurately a mode, but in each of the above musical cultures, a similar maqam will evoke much different emotional feelings in the listener. Musicians will say the maqamat are "designed" to do this. The maqam closest to the C major scale evokes one emotion in Egyptian music, yet a different one in Turkish music. Might be an interesting side-note to your theory. PM if you want a light reading list.
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Old 12th April 2011, 09:37 AM   #14
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Originally Posted by AmandaM View Post
Ooh -- check out the differences between Turkish, Iraqi, and Egyptian "maqams" (actual plural is "maqamat.") A maqam is something like a scale, or more accurately a mode, but in each of the above musical cultures, a similar maqam will evoke much different emotional feelings in the listener. Musicians will say the maqamat are "designed" to do this. The maqam closest to the C major scale evokes one emotion in Egyptian music, yet a different one in Turkish music. Might be an interesting side-note to your theory. PM if you want a light reading list.
It sounds a lot like the concept of "modes" used in Gregorian chant.
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Old 12th April 2011, 05:57 PM   #15
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Originally Posted by Perpetual Student View Post
Sorry, that appears to me to be a lot of sophistry.

< snip>


It is likely that such a system, so foreign to Everett, was beyond his grasp. It should be noted that Everett's scholarship is quite controversial concerning his theories about recursion, which he bases on his "discoveries" about the Pirahã.
I agree. Before giving this theory any credence, I'd like to see some more studies by other researchers supporting this.

Originally Posted by aggle-rithm View Post
Part of the reason I believe there might be languages that lack the richness to talk about certain self-reflective concepts is that there are people speaking "civilized" languages that don't understand these concepts. Alexander Luria once conducted a study where he interviewed a number of people from many different backgrounds, asking them questions having to do with self-identity. He found that most people in urban areas, when asked how they felt about themselves, would talk about things like self-esteem and interpersonal relationships and other intangibles.

On the other hand, uneducated peasants working their farms didn't seem to understand the question. When asked how they felt about themselves, they answered in a way that showed they clearly thought of themselves as extensions of the farm. They spoke of getting the crop in on time, getting ready to plant for next year, storing for the winter, etc., etc.
I'd also like to see more studies supporting this idea also. It's very likely that:
* the peasants didn't trust Luria
* they viewed him as a powerful outsider
* and were simply telling him what they thought he would like to hear.

Russian peasants were treated horribly. They were among the last to be freed from serfdom. Perhaps someone more familiar with Russian history can post about this, but my understanding is that during most of it's history, Russia never really had much experience with freedom. Most of the country had less than two generations between the end of serfdom and the start of communism.
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Old 12th April 2011, 06:20 PM   #16
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The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis seems relevant here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_relativity
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Old 12th April 2011, 07:38 PM   #17
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Originally Posted by aggle-rithm View Post
On the other hand, uneducated peasants working their farms didn't seem to understand the question. When asked how they felt about themselves, they answered in a way that showed they clearly thought of themselves as extensions of the farm. They spoke of getting the crop in on time, getting ready to plant for next year, storing for the winter, etc., etc.

If there were a whole society that thought in this way, it seems to me that the language they spoke would reflect this strange lack of self-identity. If no one ever thinks of anything but getting the harvest in, what use are the more complex philisophical ideas?
I don't understand how you progress from not understanding a question to lacking self-identity. Maybe they simply don't understand the question.

I think there are more clear cut examples though to be found in technical languages (I certainly wouldn't expect a tribesman to understand what an indefinite integral is).

But I for one would be much more interested in the kinds of concepts that these lowly tribesmen came up with that us advanced Westerners have difficulty with than the other way around.
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Old 12th April 2011, 07:51 PM   #18
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Originally Posted by Kaylee View Post
I agree. Before giving this theory any credence, I'd like to see some more studies by other researchers supporting this.
There are replies and a rebuttal in the article.

http://llc.illinoisstate.edu/dlevere...rticle.web.pdf

Here is an argument agaist Everrt's arguments.

http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~nevins/npr09.pdf

It looks like it is not that the Piraha can't talk about the past or the future. They can. It seems they just aren't very concerned with precision or anything outside their close experience.

I thought the most interesting thing was the experiment with laying out spools and asking “How many?”

Quote:
In the most recent study, Frank and colleagues (2008) conducted a pair of experiments with a small group of Piraha˜ speakers, designed to test (among other things) for the existence of number words. In the first condition, the experimenters placed ten spools of thread on a table, one at a time. As each spool was added, Everett asked the subject a question reported as ‘how much/many is this?’ As Frank and colleagues note, the subjects’ responses were consistent with earlier translations of Piraha˜ ho’i as ‘one’ (and possibly also with hoı’ as ‘two’). Every subject answered with ho’i in the presence of a single spool, and every subject answered with hoı’ when a second spool was added. With three to ten spools of thread, subjects’ answers were a mixture of hoı’ and ba’agiso ‘many’

A second condition that reversed the procedure, however, yielded a strikingly different result. This experiment began with ten spools on the table, which were removed one at a time. This time, one subject offered ho’i for as many as six spools, with one additional speaker producing ho’i as each additional spool was removed. At three spools and lower, every subject used ho’i.
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Old 12th April 2011, 08:00 PM   #19
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Originally Posted by steenkh View Post
On the other hand, it seems that just like cultures have formed the languages, the languages can also restrain the culture, and there are examples where speakers of certain languages have great difficulty adjusting to new concepts, simply because their language lacks the structure for it. By structure I now mean to signify something that goes beyond the vocabulary.
This sounds similar to the Saphir-Whorf hypothesis that was mentioned in another post. It is by no means universally accepted among linguists or anthropologists.
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Old 12th April 2011, 08:52 PM   #20
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Pirahã does have past and future. You can see their places in a categorized list of different things conveyed by its rather elaborate verb conjugation system (which apparently can include up to eight suffixes at a time) on Wikipedia's page about the language.

And even if it didn't, if you removed just those two particular parts, with a verb conjugation system as big and complicated as that, it wouldn't be hard to build a reference to past or future out of other basic parts, like they do with pronouns, saying "I-you" or "I-they" to mean "we" due to the lack of a unique "we". Some of those other concepts they convey with those verb suffixes even already include time-related concepts like completeness/incompleteness anyway, so it wouldn't even be much of a stretch.

Here's a short video of Daniel Everett talking a bit about his interactions with these people. He's talking about religion and ways of looking at the world, but along the way he also mentions some points relevant to our conversation here about the language... such as verb forms they have that we don't, in some cases obligatory, one of which can even be used as a verb itself sometimes rather than as just a suffix... and that they don't care much about the past or future (note the difference from having no concept of them or ability to talk about them)... and how, without many unique color words, they describe colors by comparison with examples of things that are those colors.
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Old 12th April 2011, 10:11 PM   #21
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Originally Posted by steenkh View Post
This depends on what you define as a language. It is commonly thought that any language can express everything that other languages can. They might lack the appropriate vocabulary at some point, but then they extend their vocabulary by importing words from other languages.

On the other hand, it seems that just like cultures have formed the languages, the languages can also restrain the culture, and there are examples where speakers of certain languages have great difficulty adjusting to new concepts, simply because their language lacks the structure for it. By structure I now mean to signify something that goes beyond the vocabulary.

There is for example the language of the Pirahã people in the Brazilian rainforest.This language is special because it has no tenses: no past and no future, only the now, and there is no concept for numbers bigger than 2!

Professor Daniel L Everett originally came to the Pirahãs as a missionary, but he was utterly unable to convert the Pirahãs, simply because their culture is completely impenetrable for this kind of nonsense. Because the Pirahãs have no concept for the past, they cannot relate to a Jesus Christ that lived 2000 years ago, and because they have no concept for the future, they cannot be frightened with tales of eternal Hell.

When told about JC, the Pirahãs would ask "do you know this man?", or "do you know somebody who knows this man?" (not "have you met somebody who has met this man?", because that would be impossible for them to conceive of), and the missionary had to answer "no", and the discussion had ended.

As far as I can gather, the Bible has never been translated into Pirahã (for obvious reasons).

From an article in The Spiegel:


It should be noted that Pirahãs can learn Portuguese, but they still have difficulty adjusting to the concepts of past and future, although numbers larger than 2 seem easier to grasp.
That's fascinating. I find this whole subject fascinating.

There are some interesting things revealed just looking at common languages. For example in Spanish, things get lost or broken without a person being involved. In English people lose things and break them. This isn't an absolute difference but it is a significant difference.
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Old 13th April 2011, 03:39 AM   #22
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Originally Posted by Perpetual Student View Post
I find this very difficult to believe and I would seriously question the scholarship involved. Don't these people have dead parents, grandparents that they remember?
Of course they have, but culturally, they do not think about the past, so it is not important to speak about the past. Although I know nothing of this language, I am quite sure, that if they wanted, they would be able to express past tense, even if it in a roundabout fashion. Many languages have no future tense, but people can still talk about the future.

Originally Posted by Perpetual Student View Post
Sorry, that appears to me to be a lot of sophistry. A man cut his finger, he wakes up the next day with the wound. Does he not remember it was yesterday? His language is so impoverished that he cannot conceive of yesterday because his culture has no creation myth?
First of all, I am quite sure that the Pirahã language is not impoverished, because it can certainly express anything that the Pirahã people need. I am also sure that they can think about the past that influences the "now" that is important for them. If a man has been wounded by touching something, he can of course remember it, and avoid being wounded again, or they would not be able to survive.

Quote:
"Pirahã has one of the simplest sound systems known. Yet it possesses such a complex array of tones, stresses, and syllable lengths that its speakers can dispense with their vowels and consonants altogether and sing, hum, or whistle conversations."
Yes, I wondered at this quote too. How on Earth can they claim that the language has one of the simplest sound systems known, and at the same time explain that it has "a complex array of tones, stresses, and syllable lengths"? Surely we have a cultural prejudice at work here!

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It is likely that such a system, so foreign to Everett, was beyond his grasp.
It may be that Everett cannot grasp the Pirahã culture, but we know he can speak the language, so surely the sound system was not beyond his grasp.
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Old 13th April 2011, 03:45 AM   #23
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Originally Posted by aggle-rithm View Post
The blog entry makes the proposition that the oft-repeated phrase, "music is a universal language", is a myth.
It most definitely is a myth! Just think of how people tend to regard the music of other cultures as "noise", or "screaming". Reading a book of music history, I was fascinated by how European "explorers" described African natives as having no sense of music, and they could not understand why when natives collected stones for percussion, they selected stones with a "dull" sound, when there were other stones around with a "beautiful" sound.

It is a rather modern phenomenon that people respect and even like the music of other cultures.
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Old 13th April 2011, 03:50 AM   #24
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Originally Posted by godless dave View Post
This sounds similar to the Saphir-Whorf hypothesis that was mentioned in another post. It is by no means universally accepted among linguists or anthropologists.
I think I expressed something akin to the weak version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and according to the Wikipedia article, it is not regarded as discredited, unlike the strong version.
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Old 13th April 2011, 03:52 AM   #25
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Originally Posted by Skeptic Ginger View Post
There are some interesting things revealed just looking at common languages. For example in Spanish, things get lost or broken without a person being involved. In English people lose things and break them. This isn't an absolute difference but it is a significant difference.
Did you also read the recent article in Scientific American? I found it very interesting, and this was one of several examples of how our mindset is influenced by linguistics.
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Old 13th April 2011, 04:26 AM   #26
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Originally Posted by Skeptic Ginger View Post
That's fascinating. I find this whole subject fascinating.

There are some interesting things revealed just looking at common languages. For example in Spanish, things get lost or broken without a person being involved. In English people lose things and break them. This isn't an absolute difference but it is a significant difference.
It seems to me that, although syntax is supposed to be a mechanism for semantics, it sometimes seems to shape semantics to a certain extent. I've heard that learning some Eastern languages is more that just learning vocabulary and syntax, you must learn to "think" differently.

I find it fascinating that you so often hear, "there isn't really a good English translation for this phrase, but it means something like..." followed by two or three phrases that seem to mean completely different things.

But, again, I'm only an "armchair" linguist (if that), and can only comment on my limited experience with the subject.
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Old 13th April 2011, 04:32 AM   #27
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Originally Posted by Delvo View Post
Pirahã does have past and future. You can see their places in a categorized list of different things conveyed by its rather elaborate verb conjugation system (which apparently can include up to eight suffixes at a time) on Wikipedia's page about the language.
I'm reminded of The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, where Douglas Adams described the new grammar that had to be invented to accommodate time travel. Trying to parse sentences with phrases like "am going to would have been" seems like it would be problematic.

Which brings us to some of the modern scientific concepts that our languages can just barely describe...and in some cases cannot describe at all without mathematics. The whole idea that there might be spatial dimensions that are too small to see, for instance, is something I just haven't been able to wrap my brain around, even when explained with dumbed-down analogies.
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Old 13th April 2011, 04:39 AM   #28
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Originally Posted by yy2bggggs View Post
I don't understand how you progress from not understanding a question to lacking self-identity. Maybe they simply don't understand the question.
It actually wasn't my conclusion. The study was described in Restak's The Brain, where he was discussing the fact that we don't know what consciousness is. As one example, he cited the study, which (he felt) showed that consciousness could be different things to different people.

Quote:
I think there are more clear cut examples though to be found in technical languages (I certainly wouldn't expect a tribesman to understand what an indefinite integral is).

But I for one would be much more interested in the kinds of concepts that these lowly tribesmen came up with that us advanced Westerners have difficulty with than the other way around.
I would also find that interesting. It would be analagous to a symphonic composer who doesn't have the "knack" to communicate something simple, like a pop song.
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Old 13th April 2011, 08:52 AM   #29
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Quote:
First of all, I am quite sure that the Pirahã language is not impoverished, because it can certainly express anything that the Pirahã people need. I am also sure that they can think about the past that influences the "now" that is important for them. If a man has been wounded by touching something, he can of course remember it, and avoid being wounded again, or they would not be able to survive.
And he can communicate his experience to others. Surely the language can do that and that is the point. It does not matter how they may express the past, be it a phrase marker, pitch, whistle, conjugation, agglutination, augment, grunt, whatever. Unless we are willing to postulate that the Pirahã people are sub-human, Everett missed it!
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Old 13th April 2011, 09:08 AM   #30
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Originally Posted by Perpetual Student View Post
And he can communicate his experience to others. Surely the language can do that and that is the point. It does not matter how they may express the past, be it a phrase marker, pitch, whistle, conjugation, agglutination, augment, grunt, whatever. Unless we are willing to postulate that the Pirahã people are sub-human, Everett missed it!
As I said, everything can be expressed in all languages. But sometimes it has be expressed in a roundabout way. The point is that the Pirahã have a culture where the past is rarely touched upon, and we may well speculate that the lack of a past tense in the language is not helping this mindset, even if it is created by this mindset in the first place.

I do not see how you can claim that Everett missed anything given the scant information you have.
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Old 13th April 2011, 09:19 AM   #31
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Originally Posted by steenkh View Post
As I said, everything can be expressed in all languages. But sometimes it has be expressed in a roundabout way. The point is that the Pirahã have a culture where the past is rarely touched upon, and we may well speculate that the lack of a past tense in the language is not helping this mindset, even if it is created by this mindset in the first place.

I do not see how you can claim that Everett missed anything given the scant information you have.
In spite of my "scant information," I know that the very continuity of any culture is based on recognizing the past and communicating it. Perhaps I am missing something. Was it not Everett who asserted that they cannot express the past? As I already mentioned, it does not matter how it is done (e.g., a hand gesture), communicating the past is fundamental to being part of any human clan that survives as a clan.
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Old 13th April 2011, 09:26 AM   #32
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Originally Posted by Perpetual Student View Post
In spite of my "scant information," I know that the very continuity of any culture is based on recognizing the past and communicating it. Perhaps I am missing something. Was it not Everett who asserted that they cannot express the past?
I believe he said they do not have a past tense in their language. And I do not think that your idea of how a culture survives need to pertain to a culture in the Amazon rain forest. Other primates than humans seem to be surviving quite well without having stories or needing to communicate about the past.

Quote:
As I already mentioned, it does not matter how it is done (e.g., a hand gesture), communicating the past is fundamental to being part of any human clan that survives as a clan.
And I think you are wrong in principle. I have no idea if the Pirahã really have no conception of the past or not.

I am reminded of the similar cases of Australian aborigines, who do not speak much about the past, even though they do have a past tense in their language. Some tribes never speaks about dead people, and they insist of getting rid of everything that reminds them of dead people, such as photographs. They are literally obliterating their past, and they have no stories of their ancestors. I think it is quite similar, even if the Australian aborigines certainly have stories about gods, and creation.
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Old 13th April 2011, 09:46 AM   #33
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Originally Posted by steenkh View Post
I believe he said they do not have a past tense in their language. And I do not think that your idea of how a culture survives need to pertain to a culture in the Amazon rain forest. Other primates than humans seem to be surviving quite well without having stories or needing to communicate about the past.


And I think you are wrong in principle. I have no idea if the Pirahã really have no conception of the past or not.

I am reminded of the similar cases of Australian aborigines, who do not speak much about the past, even though they do have a past tense in their language. Some tribes never speaks about dead people, and they insist of getting rid of everything that reminds them of dead people, such as photographs.
A not quite accurate description of the practice and I don't think the correct interpretation of what is happening. This "avoidance practice" is only out of respect for the deceased and to ease the grief of their families. They still talk about the person, they just do not use their name.
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They are literally obliterating their past, and they have no stories of their ancestors.
Look up Dreaming and First People for the literal take on your their reference to their ancestors.

If you are merely talking about immediate predecessors, again, you are not quite correct. They are merely not referred to directly, or by name, out of respect.
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I think it is quite similar, even if the Australian aborigines certainly have stories about gods, and creation.
Their "gods" are, in fact, their ancestors.
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Old 13th April 2011, 10:10 AM   #34
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Quote:
I believe he said they do not have a past tense in their language.
It does not matter how they might express the past; whatever method, no matter how obscure or convoluted, would constitute a "past tense" and is part of their language. My point here has been that "past tense" does not necessarily mean some conjugation or other marker that is easy for us to deal with. Everett must have just missed it.
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Old 13th April 2011, 10:28 AM   #35
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Originally Posted by Perpetual Student View Post
It does not matter how they might express the past; whatever method, no matter how obscure or convoluted, would constitute a "past tense" and is part of their language. My point here has been that "past tense" does not necessarily mean some conjugation or other marker that is easy for us to deal with. Everett must have just missed it.
For clarification, if someone were to ask you, "who ate the pie?" and your response were to simply point to someone, that is part of language. Pointing may not fit in any grammatical category, but it certainly is clear and precise communication, and part of how we communicate and consequently part of our language, just as much as saying, "Mary."
So, somehow these people can communicate that something happened earlier this morning. Whatever that method constitutes a "past tense."
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Old 13th April 2011, 08:15 PM   #36
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Originally Posted by DevilsAdvocate View Post
There are replies and a rebuttal in the article.

http://llc.illinoisstate.edu/dlevere...rticle.web.pdf

Here is an argument agaist Everrt's arguments.

http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~nevins/npr09.pdf
Thanks for the links DA, I'll probably read them over the weekend.


Quote:
It looks like it is not that the Piraha can't talk about the past or the future. They can. It seems they just aren't very concerned with precision or anything outside their close experience.

I thought the most interesting thing was the experiment with laying out spools and asking “How many?”
Sounds like hoi' could mean "two or a few." I was also wondering if in the Piraha language inflection or tones carries more meaning than Everett picked up on, especially since some of the posts said that the Piraha can converse in whistles. So hoi inflected one way could mean two, inflected another way could mean a few more than two. (Your links to the 70 plus pages might answer that question. I can usually skim quickly, but some days it takes me a long time to get through something on an Adobe Reader. My laptop can be fickle. Anyone wanna buy me a kindle? )

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Old 13th April 2011, 08:20 PM   #37
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Originally Posted by DevilsAdvocate View Post
There are replies and a rebuttal in the article.

http://llc.illinoisstate.edu/dlevere...rticle.web.pdf

Here is an argument agaist Everrt's arguments.

http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~nevins/npr09.pdf
Thanks for the links DA, I'll probably read them over the weekend.


Quote:
It looks like it is not that the Piraha can't talk about the past or the future. They can. It seems they just aren't very concerned with precision or anything outside their close experience.

I thought the most interesting thing was the experiment with laying out spools and asking “How many?”
Sounds like hoi' could mean "two or a few." I was also wondering if in the Piraha language inflection or tones carries more meaning than Everett picked up on, especially since some of the posts said that the Piraha can converse in whistles. So .. hoi' inflected one way could mean "two", inflected another way it could mean "two plus a few more." (Your links to the 70 plus pages might answer that question. I can usually skim quickly, but some days it takes me a long time to get through something on an Adobe Reader. My laptop can be fickle. Anyone wanna buy me a kindle? )
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Old 13th April 2011, 08:42 PM   #38
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It's kind of worth noting that some Indo-European languages tend to treat verb tense as optional, prefering to use aspect for most things...
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Old 13th April 2011, 10:31 PM   #39
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Originally Posted by EHocking View Post
A not quite accurate description of the practice and I don't think the correct interpretation of what is happening. This "avoidance practice" is only out of respect for the deceased and to ease the grief of their families. They still talk about the person, they just do not use their name. Look up Dreaming and First People for the literal take on your their reference to their ancestors.
I see I used a bad example. thank you for pointing it out.
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Old 13th April 2011, 10:34 PM   #40
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Originally Posted by Perpetual Student View Post
Everett must have just missed it.
Or he just used the term "past tense" in the linguistic sense. It is amazing how you can criticise somebody you hardly know anything about.
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