Thursday, July 27, 2006

Partnering Language and Thinking

Have you ever wondered why no one can remember any memories from before the age of about 6? The common theory is that the brain organizes your memories in the language which you have just learned to speak. Over time, all those previous memories become an unrecognized format. So if your thoughts are modeled as language, what does that say about how language limits your ability to think?

Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, points out how deeply language affects our thinking. Western thinking is linear. Very cause and effect. So is our language: subject-predicate. I did this. He caused that. Eastern language structure is much more circular, and so is their thinking. From reincarnation to greater notions of causality, eastern cultures see more dimensions and reinforcement effects. Looking at the most successful new technology and Internet services, the majority seem to be viral networks: MySpace, Flicker, YouTube, blogging,, or Squidoo. The Internet has vastly reduced the barriers to connectivity, between businesses and between people. Should our language evolve to do the same?

This brings up an obvious question: How has our language evolved? Last year’s word of the year was podcast. Audio transmissions are becoming much more a part of our lives. It started with the familiar incantation of music. Now I listen about a quarter of my ear bud time to podcasts on business and entrepreneurship and I am looking for lectures on a variety of new topics.

But the word that has most recently struck me is “partner.” My mother recently referred to her 70 year old friend and her partner. I was shocked and responded “My god, Regina is a lesbian?” Well, no she is not. It has just become such a popular term that even heterosexuals are using it, but it still retains its gay undertones. So as “partner” proliferates, so does acceptance of gay unions.

That’s why Republicans are fighting gay marriage now, because people are gaining sensitivity to it. Their only chance is to fight it now. It may not be because of language, but the change in our language is a pretty clear indicator of the way people’s opinions, their thoughts, are changing.

How has language constrained (or enabled) your thinking?


Edward said...

I seem to have forgotten words over the past few years. Birthdays, phone numbers, paying my phone bill——those are the given. But I'm a writer; my lexicon should be ever-expanding. Oh well, at least I have YouTube.

Jeremy Booth said...

Could it be that language is a barrier and an enabler to higher thinking?

I think that language serves as both a structure and impediment to thinking, depending on the scenario. If we hadn't evolved verbal communication how far along would our understanding of our surroundings and technology be? Of course the obvious answer is not very far.

I contend that language evolves right alongside us. A real world example might be the number of new words that we've come up with to describe all of our machinations and observations about nature since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and even moreso now in the Information Age. How many more words per year are we now adding to our collective vocabulary? Certainly, Information Technology has accelerated this pace.

Without language we wouldn't have such a structured and rich medium in which to share information, but due to the inherit flaws in language we are prone to miscommunication.

Now, Telepathy... that's the ticket!

brett said...

I just clicked on the google ad for "". This probably earned you at least 30 cents so I expect that to be added to next month's rent check.

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