Fortieth Edition -
Think before you speak?
The chicken and egg question of whether thought precedes language or
language determines the way we think, has been the subject of lengthy - and
sometimes heated - debate among linguists, psychologists, philologists,
philosophers, anthropologists and others. The implications of this debate are
significant in many areas, including translation.
In the fourth century AD, St. Agustine (Aurelius Augustinus - known as St.
Augustine of Hippo -354-430 AD.) theorized that he himself had acquired
language. “By constantly hearing words, as they occurred in various
sentences,” he wrote “I collected gradually for what they stood, and
having broken in my mouth to these signs, I thereby gave utterance to my will.”
In De Magistro, St. Agustine argues that language does not determine what
we know, it just reminds us of what we already know. Therefore, we do not learn
anything new, but we only remember what we already know. For St. Agustine, as
for other classical thinkers, language is only the tool that our minds use to
In Prometheus Unbound, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822), proposes an
entirely different point of view – that language determines how we think:
“He gave man speech, and speech created thought,
Which is the measure of the universe;”
This was the view that Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), a German philosopher,
scholar, philologist and statesman took to an extreme. His Weltanschauung
(the way someone sees the world) hypothesis proposes that all thought is
controlled by language. Therefore, without language there is no thought.
“Der mensch lebt mit den Gegenständen hauptsächlich, ja…sogar ausschliesslich
so, wie die Sprache sie ihm zufürt.” (Human use objects mainly, well… even only,
as language makes them accessible to them.)
“It is only through the study of language that there comes into the soul, out
of the source of all thoughts and feelings, the entire expanse of ideas,
everything that concerns man, above all and beyond everything else, even beauty
Humboldt’s hypothesis does not have many followers today, because there is
evidence that disputes the theory that language determines thought and that
thought without language is impossible.
At the time of his death, Humboldt was writing about the ancient Kawi language
spoken in the island of Java, Indonesia. Although his work was unfinished,
“The Heterogeneity of Language and its Influence on the Intellectual Development
of Mankind” an essay that he wrote as an introduction , was published in
Linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity are the basic principles of the
Whorf-Sapir theory proposed by the Americans Edward Sapir (1884-1936), Yale
linguist-anthropologist and his student Benjamin Whorf (1887-1994), a chemical
engineer who became interested in linguistics. In his work “The Status of
Linguistics as a Science”, Sapir writes:
“Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the
world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the
mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for
their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality
essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an
incidental means of solving specific problems of communication and reflection.
The fact of the matter is that the "real world" is to a large extent
unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group.”
For his part , Whorf studied the language of the Hopi Indians of Arizona, and
noted such peculiarities as the lack of distinction among tenses of verbs
(present, past, future), and their use of one term 'masa'ytaka' to
designate everything that flies, including airplanes, flying insects and even
pilots. This led Whorf t the conclusion that the Hopi’s perception of the world
must be different from his own. However, he was pointed out that “The Hopi
language is capable of accounting for and describing correctly all observable
phenomena of the universe.”
In the following decades, The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis came under attack by the
followers of Avram Noam Chomsky. An American professor of linguistics at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Chomsky laid down the foundation for many
of the present theories about how the mind works. According to Chomsky, the
human mind is cognitive – it contains mental states, beliefs, doubts,
etc., and the adult mind is innately wired to be able to do large parts of what
it can do. For example, although children are not born with the ability to speak
a language, all are born with a very powerful ability to learn languages, so
that they are able to learn several languages in their early years.
Psychologists have taken Chomsky’s theory even further, and today we do not
consider the mind to be a blank slate at birth. For example, in the 22
July 2004 edition of Nature magazine, Paul Bloom reports on a study
conducted by Susan J. Hespos, of the Department of Psychology and Human
Development of Vanderbilt University and Elizabeth S Spelke, of the Department
of Psychology of Harvard University. The purpose of this study was to research
whether thought precedes the acquisition of language, and it is based on a
linguistic contrast between English and Korean.
Korean makes a distinction between tight-fitting contact and
loose-fitting contact that does not exist in English. Even young children in
Korea, who are just beginning to learn the language, are able to make this
distinction. Therefore, Hespos and Spelke decided to investigate whether five
month-old babies in an English-speaking environment would be able to make this
conceptual distinction, or whether the distinction is only present as a result
of acquiring the Korean language, in which case only Korean adults and children
with some knowledge of the language would be able to make the distinction
between these two different types of contact.
What they found was that the infants detected this distinction, but adult
English speakers did not. Therefore, this capacity does not depend on language
experience. According to Hespos and Spelke “Language learning therefore seems to
develop by linking linguistic forms to universal, pre-existing representations
of sound and meaning.
What does all this mean in terms of translation? Fortunately for InterSol,
common wisdom says that although there are differences among languages, it is
possible to translate from one language into another. Translation is much more
than converting words in one language into words in another language, but even
that task can be tricky, because what in one language can be expressed with only
one word, can require two or more words in another.
For example, in Spanish there are two different words for “corner”: “esquina”
and “rincón”, (an inside corner). As you can see, it is necessary to use two
words in English to convey the meaning of “rincón”. “Gasoline” means “car water”
in Navajo. The Japanese, for whom rice is the most important staple of their
diet and the centerpiece of almost every meal, use many different terms to refer
Kome: Rice in general, as a plant, as a grain crop, or as an uncooked foodstuff.
Gohan: Cooked rice, usually served in a bowl, usually steamed, but may also be
Raisu: Cooked rice (generally steamed) served on a dish instead of a bowl
Onigiri: A hand-packed cake or ball of rice (derived from the verb nigiru - to
grip or grasp).
Of course, there is much more than this to the art of translation, but that will
have to be the topic of a future newsletter.