Thursday, June 16, 2011

Through the Language Glass + Beyond

"Through the Language Glass" by Guy Deutscher
in September, i came across a link to a NY Times essay on language, which i then took with me on a (shortish) road trip to Austria, together with a travelogue on China.

the essay had the title: "Does Your Language Shape How You Think?" and was written by Guy Deutscher. the article takes a larger look at language, and picks also up on the german gender system for nouns. "Let’s take genders again. Languages like Spanish, French, German and Russian not only oblige you to think about the sex of friends and neighbors, but they also assign a male or female gender to a whole range of inanimate objects quite at whim."

the striking thing about this lanugage peculiarity is that when you grow up in Germany, you don't really think about this until you start to learn another language. it's a thought that also connected to the China travelogue: there are so many details to every culture, and many of them, you don't think about much until you are in a different cultural surrounding, where everything happens in the same, but slightly different way, which also changes your own habits slightly.

i returned to this theme a bit later again, through the language/place blog carnival - and in spring, finally ordered Deutscher's book. it took a while to read through it, but it's very interesting. one thing that is a bit unexpected: from title, and from the essay, it seemed the book would focus on languages. yet it also plunges into science, iinto the evolution of our senses, especially our colour sense, and the discovery that color terms emerge in all languages in predictable order. the Guardian has a review of it which gives an idea:

"It takes Deutscher half his book to tell the story of (this discovery), and fascinating and well written though it is, the discussion is a diversion from the point he really wants to make, which is that language can affect how we perceive the world. Is it possible that two people may think about the world differently purely by dint of the language they speak? Deutscher believes that this is the case, and he provides three examples.." (Guardian / Book Review / Deutscher)

personally, for me this evolutionary "side-trip" was rather interesting, as it connected to a scientific book i read in spring last year, while in Mallorca: "Der Geist fiel nicht vom Himmel" ("The Mind didn't fall from the sky") by Hoimar v. Ditfurth (1980). Ditfurth's ook is written for non-experts (like Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time"), and focuses on the evolution of consciousness, with insights into how our senses developed, and from them, our consciousness.

"Mind Time" by Benjamin Libet
seen from that angle, the book i am reading these days is a logic next step in theme. it's "Mind Time", written by  Benjamin Libet, a neurophysiologist whose pioneering studies of the human brain explored the nature of free will and revealed unsuspected links between the conscious and unconscious aspects of action and awareness. one of the highlights of Libet's book is an imaginary conversation with Ren√© Descartes that leads back to the classic asumption: "Je pense donc je suis" / "I think therefore I am."
there's a summary of Libet's work and experiments online at consciousentities: Libet's short delay.
hadn't known about the consciousentities-page, but the main page looks interesting - and connects back to Libet, with the second entry from top: "Beyond Libet". now, for some extra mind time to read and reflect.. but first, the last book in the picture:

"Du Stirbst Nicht" ("You're Not Going to Die") by Kathrin Schmidt
in 2009, this book won the "Buchpreis" - the award for the best german novel. It also touches the theme of languae and consciousness, but from a very different perspective: it's partly autobiographic. Here's a short review in english:

"The 51-year-old author was honored for her novel "You're Not Going to Die," the story of a woman who wakes up in a hospital after a coma unable to speak or move or remember her former life. Through her rehabilitation, the character discovers a past self that is difficult to reconcile with her current situation. The story was in part influenced by Schmidt's own coma experience after suffering from a brain aneurysm." (link)

it's not an easy book - reading it gives an idea of the helplessness you experience when your brain is stuck, when you can't find words, or mix up words. when you have to work to make sense of the most common things. but it also holds a wonder: the ability of the human brain to learn. to learn anew, to remember, to "make sense". here's a second review: You're Not Going to Die.
now. time for a walk. to get some fresh air, and delve in the colors of outside, after all the theory.
(and here, the link to the post from September: "currently reading... travelogue from China, Yiyun story, language essay")

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