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The Imprints of Language on Science – Achyut Priya Shukla

The theme under investigation has always haunted me for several reasons: I believe that the two entities under question, language and science which have always been considered as poles apart must have a common history as both came out of the same womb which is human ingenuity. The former is generally neglected as a girl child (in India) and latter has always remained adorable as is the case with a boy. The difference might not appear very subtle but its evident if one pays attention to the difference in money spend by the contemporary society, including the governments, on the two fronts. Secondly, a traditional view of language in science is that it plays a passive role, Language is simply the vehicle whereby meaning and information are conveyed from one speaker to another. I wanted to examine the endurance of this traditional outlook and set out for a different overture on the issue. The piece discovers how language is integral to human civilization and has influenced every aspect of society. In order to understand the connection between science and language its important to see, how language and science has been structured? What are the possible roles language plays in science? What kind of other human faculties does language influences which in turn affects science?
Language sprouted out of human tendency of sticking labels on everything present around him. Things which he could not identify came to be known as “unknown” but still bore a label. Language developed by different human races reflect the kind of limited world they live in. The language spoken by a community have words or expression denoting things in their immediate surroundings. Humboldt summarises this in his famous treatise “Man lives with objects [around him] mainly, or rather — as feeling and action depend on the ideas which he entertains about the objects — exclusively in the way in which language presents them to him. The very activity by which he spins language out from within himself eventually gets himself entwined in it, and every language draws a circle around the nation to which it belongs.”
American linguist Edward Sapir in an article published in 1929 wrote that language is a guide to ‘social reality.’ Though language is not ordinarily thought of as of essential interest, it powerfully conditions all our thinking about social problems and processes. 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 or reflection. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached. Benjamin Lee Whorf during the 1930’s and 40’s, one of Sapir’s students at Yale, was elaborating upon Sapir’s statements. In an article published in 1940 he called the ‘linguistic relativity principle,’ which means, in informal terms, that users of markedly different grammars are pointed by their grammars toward different types of observations and different evaluations of externally similar acts of observation, and hence are not equivalent as observers, but must arrive at somewhat different views of the world. e.g.: Does treating chairs as masculine and beds as feminine in the grammar make Russian speakers think of chairs as being more like men and beds as more like women in some way? In one study, Researcher Lera Boroditsky asked German and Spanish speakers to describe objects having opposite gender assignment in those two languages. When asked to describe a “key” — a word that is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish — the German speakers were more likely to use words like “hard”, “heavy”, “jagged”, “metal”, “serrated” and “useful,” whereas Spanish speakers were more likely to say “golden”, “intricate”, “little”, “lovely” ,”shiny” and “tiny.” This was true even though all testing was done in English, a language without grammatical gender. The same pattern of results also emerged in entirely non linguistic tasks (e.g., rating similarity between pictures). Even abstract or complex domains of thought like space and time are influenced by the language they speak people’s ideas of time differ across languages in other ways. For example, English speakers tend to talk about time using horizontal spatial metaphors (e.g., “The best is ahead of us”and “The worst is behind us”), whereas Mandarin speakers have a vertical metaphor for time (e.g., the next month is the “down month” and the last month is the “up month”). Mandarin speakers talk about time vertically more often than English speakers do, so do Mandarin speakers think about time vertically more often than English speakers do? Imagine this simple experiment. I stand next to you, point to a spot in space directly in front of you, and tell you, “This spot, here, is today. Where would you put yesterday? And where would you put tomorrow?” When English speakers are asked to do this, they nearly always point horizontally. But Mandarin speakers often point vertically, about seven or eight times more often than English speakers do. Bertrand Russell’s once stated that ‘grammar and ordinary language are bad guides to metaphysics. A great book might be written showing the influence of syntax on philosophy,’ When it had become clear that light was resembling waves in form or motion, physicists argued that as these were disturbances, there must be something in which these disturbances travelled. And so the luminiferous ether became established in scientific thought and misled physics for over a century. It is important here because it was product of a simple thought which prevailed in language that disturb (a verb) cannot exist without a medium (noun, ether in this case).
During the same time period linguistic problems were keenly felt by atomic physicists who were trying to express the new theories of quantum mechanics in German and English. German physicist Werner Heisenberg noted that ‘limitations of our language’ prevented it: “Light and matter are both single entities, and the apparent duality arises in the limitations of our language. It is not surprising that our language should be incapable of describing the processes occurring within the atoms as it was invented to describe the experiences of daily life. Furthermore, it is very difficult to modify our language so that it will be able to describe these atomic processes, for words can only describe things of which we can form mental pictures, and this ability, too, is a result of daily experience. Fortunately, mathematics is not subject to this limitation, and it has been possible to invent a mathematical scheme, the quantum theory, which seems entirely adequate for the treatment of atomic processes; for visualisation, however, we must content ourselves with two incomplete analogies-the wave picture and the corpuscular picture.”
It was in the late 1950’s that many professional linguists, especially in America, began to reject “linguistic relativity” as a matter of principle. This tendency gained force in the late 1950’s and 60’s with the work of the American linguist Noam Chomsky, who began to work out a general theory of universal grammar.
Chomsky theorized that beneath all the variety of different languages there is a common and innate mental sub-structure which generates language. This universal theory of syntax met with immediate and widespread acceptance by linguists during the 60’s, especially in America, and to this day the “transformational-generative” or “Chomskyan” approach continues to have a heavy influence. There had been several reasons laid out for the great popularity of Chomsky’s views among linguists. Two most popular of them are- the fact that the establishment of linguistics as a separate discipline practically required an emphasis on universals. We see therefore an artificial professional bias at work here. The second reason is that the emphasis upon universals was especially compatible with the internationalist spirit of the intellectual culture of the age. After the end of the Second World War there was a great emphasis placed upon the idea that “people are the same everywhere”, and if diversity was acknowledged it was trivialized, merely a matter of skin colour, national costume, and so forth. There was a tendency throughout all the social sciences to downplay significant human differences. In this intellectual environment the idea that differences between languages could be deeply significant was seen as vaguely “racist” and was a hindrance for an intellectual unification.
Later the early 1990’s have been marked with a new surge of interest in linguistic relativity, and research conducted by John A. Lucy at the University of Chicago and by Stephen C. Levinson at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands has given additional scientific support to the concept. Lucy showed that as a consequence of peculiarities of one Mayan language in South America its speakers consistently categorized objects according to the material of which they were made, while English-speaking people categorized the same objects according to shape. Levinson showed that speakers of another Mayan language in Mexico remembered the arrangement of objects differently from Dutch-speakers because of differences of language. These studies were designed and conducted according to rigorous scientific methods. It is fair to say that the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” has never been disproved by the Chomskyan linguists. Rather, it had simply evaporated as an object of serious study among those linguists who were intent upon developing the universalisti implications of Chomsky’s theories. We can imagine a rich socially wonderful life without sense of sight and hearing, but can we imagine it if we never learnt a language. Language is like an added sense organ but a biased one to understand. For example, the Hebrew scholar William Chomsky whose son Noam Chomsky, the famous linguist) introduced students to the study of Hebrew, with the following observations in a book published in 1957 writes “Language is not merely a means of expression and communication; it is an instrument of experiencing, thinking, and feeling … Our ideas and experiences are not independent of language; they are all integral parts of the same pattern, the warp and woof of the same texture. We do not first have thoughts, ideas, feelings, and then put them into a verbal framework. We think in words, by means of words. Language and experience are inextricably interwoven, and the awareness of one awakens the other. Words and idioms are as indispensable to our thoughts and experiences as are colours and tints to a painting.” Apart from influencing thoughts language is involved in defining the structure of science, the heavy dependence of science on metaphors is one of the several such avenues (that has primarily evolved for social interaction and a description of our immediate world) to help us to understand a strange new “world” which science opens up. So we must at all times remain alert of its limitations, its dangers and be prepared to recognise it wherever it is employed. They may initially be used as a descriptive technique to bring common sense to bear on a discipline. This enables it to be described and understood in a relatively uncomplicated way. Although their meanings have often shifted subtly, their authority become unchallengeable without first committing an act of heresy. Metaphors should always remain malleable and their validity should be frequently reviewed; and they must be acknowledged so that we can stay on our guard. Though by now you must be having the feeling that, going by this logic, everything does carry some imprints of language. Its true, albeit to some extent, but for science this influence must be checked. Every discipline needs language to communicate and hence flourish but the use must be restrained only for thoughts to exchange hands but a scientist goes beyond that and borrows the notion of metaphors which belong completely to the domain of poets, novelists, etc. However naïve the use might be but in scientific discipline it could have grave consequences. Its often said “a picture is worth a thousand word” on that line of argument “a metaphor is worth a thousand picture” however wrong or right the pictures might be. Thus if scientists do use metaphors they must constantly adhere to what similarities they mean in order to avoid confusion they must highlight what features of the metaphorical image they are not referring. Metaphors have a strong tendency to beguile science due their very nature. Scientists must always hold this view while dribbling ahead. The heavy dependence of science not only on words but also on thoughts makes science parasitic in nature with language serving as its host. Science needs to break away from this attitude and needs to evolve in true sense. The fundamental idea here is that people use language to think, so languages will tend to shape the thoughts of the people who use them.


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