Language and Life
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
Language and thought are closely related. It is true that one can think without talking. And you have observed, as I have, that some people can talk without thinking! Let's think about thinking. Do you think with words?
Thought and Language
The only informant I can reliably use for this is myself, since I cannot get into any one else's head! But I know that the way I frame my thoughts, define questions, sort answers, and reflect on life, thought is closely related to language. Sometimes I can conceive an idea in free thought, and this is exhilarating.
But then to clarify and communicate that idea, it has to be brought into the parameters of one language or another. My free thought has to be brought into the parameters of thought of the hearers to make some point of contact with them.
Likewise the words of language stimulate certain images or ideas in the hearer or reader. Anyone learning a new language has to learn the frame of reference for meaning and thought that go with that language. When someone seems to have overlooked some important factors, we say "You are not thinking straight."
The parameters, patterns and structures which produce "straight thinking" and enable us to make sense in our home culture, may pull us off balance for the different expectations, patterns and requirements of making sense in the host culture.
Culturally Determined Thought-Language
Each culture has a different set of parameters and guidelines for thought. And they are not written out – you just have to learn them by experience. When we try to express the thoughts of our previous culture in the language of our new host culture, our expressed thoughts may sound "crooked." Learning the language of the local culture helps mold our thought patterns into the "straight" thinking expected and required in the new culture.
One area of confusion is where one word is used in two related meanings, but these categories do not go together in the new language. Or there may be two words with different meanings which sound the same. This often shows up in humor.
Puns use a word with one of its meanings in a context where the other meaning is normally used. French and English abound in puns and homonyms, because they have borrowed words from so many other languages over the years. These almost never translate.
Not Word for Word
But a learner often tries to learn one meaning for a word by its equivalent in the learner's native language. Then this native language word is applied to every usage of the target language word in every context, often with embarrassing or dangerous implications!
In English someone trying to emphasize the truth of some claim may exclaim "I am as serious as a train wreck!" A variation on this is "I am as serious as a heart attack!" This works in English because of two meanings of the word "serious."
A person is serious when what he is saying might be taken as a joke, but he in fact really means it. The other meaning of "serious" has to do with illness or injury. A person may have a mild illness or a serious one. In serious condition, a person requires much more careful attention in the hospital.
It is virtually impossible to translate this dual meaning into, for instance, Swahili. Different word-concepts are involved in being serious about a report and being in serious condition in a hospital.
Serious about a report or idea = Swahili: "Hachezi" (He is not kidding) or "Hili ni jambo zito" (This is a heavy matter); to be in serious condition = Swahili: "Yeye ana hali mahututi" (He has a serious condition) or "Yeye ni mahututi" (He is seriously ill).
Categories of Experience
Your native language (your "mother tongue") has set categories of experience and categories of types of experience. What you have associated in the same category of experience or word meaning may be unrelated in the target language. Look for the word sets and concept groupings in your target language. You'll find pleasing (and sometimes confusing) new ways of looking at reality!
The Color of Music. Word categories give some idea of how the people of a language group think. In English, for instance, we use many of the same words for various areas of art: tone refers to color, music, or speech; texture refers to feel or sight.
Feeling the Smells. In Swahili, the same word, "sikia," is used for hearing, smelling and feeling, and for the latter, it may be feeling something with your hand or skin (I feel cold, the wind, the pressure, etc.) or it may be your health. It also carries the connotation, as in English, of understanding.
Writing and Composing. In English one can "write" a letter, a receipt, a book, a song or a play. In Swahili we use "andika" for letters, receipts, and a book if you mean the actual writing with a pen or typewriter. But you do not "andika" artistic things. You "tunga" poems, songs and books or plays (in the sense of making up the story).
Mis-Matches. In the relationship of language to thought, it may be that the choice of words is limited, so new generations learning the language learn to think in those categories. Or it may be that the categories extant in the language reflect the felt needs of that language-culture group. It is probably some of both of these.
Thought Changing Language
But then some languages change very fast and develop new categories. Sometimes this is due to contact with outside cultures or languages or new technologies. In these cases, the speakers of the language may find it convenient to borrow terms from another language, the terms used in that language for the new technology or cultural artifact, or a social pattern or role borrowed from that language group. Some of the many French words in English are in these categories.
English also made up new words from borrowed roots from Greek and Latin for new scientific concepts over the last few centuries. Similarly Swahili uses mostly Arabic loans for scientific and mathematical concepts. All of Europe has borrowed from Arabic in that area, notably the concept of zero, also showing up in the Swahili word "sufuri." The words for tea and coffee in every language of Europe and Africa that I know have come from Arabic.
Bonnets and Tanks
Or a people may look into the current stock of vocabulary and begin to use a well-known word for the new idea, so that the old word now has an additional meaning. When cars were invented people needed words for the parts. So the part that covered the engine seemed to be like a covering for a person's head, so it was called a "bonnet" or a "hood," depending on your dialect and geographical location.
When English speakers needed a word for a patch on the tire of the car (different from the one for the tube), they decided to call it a "boot" (American) or a "gaiter" (British, from a boot with a cloth upper or a turn-of-the-century covering for men's shoes which came up to the ankle or calf).
When army tanks were introduced into Africa by the European powers, the Swahili word chosen for the vehicle was "faru," meaning "rhino." On the other hand, the reason they were called "tanks" in English, is that the British developed them in the desert of North Africa. To keep the project secret, they said they were experimenting on a new kind of (water) tank for the desert. When they turned out the machine, it had been called a "tank" so long, that became its permanent name.
Culture and History
The language carries a lot of the people's culture and history. The stories of words, their categories and their usages are important clues to the world of the people who speak that language as a first language. Learning a language can be an exciting adventure, because one is learning about a people, a part of human history and culture – another way of organizing the world we all share.
When we learn someone else's language, we are given the opportunity to learn another different, exciting, frustrating, and equally valid way of thinking. When we think in the way of our first language, we learn how to think straight in that culture.
But that way of thinking may not be "straight thinking" in the new culture. As we make progress in the new language, we are learning to "think straight" in the way of the new culture.
Copyright © 1989, 2007 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Cognitive and Social Culture
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Worldview in Language: Language and Thought
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Original version of this article published in Language and Life (Limuru, Kenya: Communication Press, 1989)
Also published in the communication journal Afri-Com, Nairobi, Kenya, April 1991
Finalized as an article and posted on Thoughts and Resources 27 December 2007
Orville Boyd Jenkins, Ed.D., Ph.D.
Copyright © 2007 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.