Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Language, DVDs, and the End of the World

A couple more good ones today.

Maura asks,

"Is it possible to ever become absolutely fluent in another language or, otherwise stated, can we ever really leave the world we were born into and fully rejoin another?"
As Maura correctly points out, there are two aspects here. One is mechanical. Fluency can be considered merely as a technical skill, and this is a function of neurophysiology. We know that the language portions of the brain are pliable for a while, but "ossify" over time and thus, if we pick up a new language later in life, we can speak better and better with practice, but never in the way we would have had we been a native speaker.

But Maura asks the question in a much more interesting way. Aside from the mechanics of speaking, languages come pregnant with worldviews. Anthropologist Benjamin Lee Whorf, for example, argues in great detail that the Hopi language cannot be translated faithfully into English because with respect to basic notions like time and object, Hopi concepts are radically different from ours in the West. To use Plato's analogy, we carve nature at different joints. As such, we live in different worlds and our terms to describe what we see as populating those different worlds will not correspond in a way that would allow a simple translation dictionary to exist. Words label what we see as real, but if we divide the world up into "real" objects differently, our words cannot be translated and therefore we could never learn to speak the language beyond the most rudimentary level.

The problem gets a step more complicated when we look at the famous second chapter of Willard van Orman Quine's book Word and Object, in which he creates a scenario in which an anthropologist discovers a new culture and sets out to understand its language. Allowing that we could quickly determine assent and disagreement, our anthropologist notices that the word "gavagai" gets used in sentences often soon after a rabbit has been observed. He conjectures that gavagai means rabbit. When he finds a rabbit, he tests the hypothesis by pointing at it and saying to a speaker of the language, "Gavagai?" He gets affirmation. He tries it several more times all to a positive effect.

Here's the punchline. So, does "gavagai" mean rabbit or undetached rabbit parts? The two have different meanings (consider the difference in our own language between cow and undetached beef parts -- aside, why do we have different terms for beef and pork, but not chicken, turkey, lamb, or fish?), but there is not a case where we could produce an empirical stimulus for our anthropologist to differentiate between them. As such, it seems like we could never even get ourselves in a position to be able to completely figure out another culture's categories and therefore never have even the possibility of fluently speak the language.

But I'm not sure I buy this. We do have Rosetta Stones, bi-lingual people who bridge the cultures and some of them can be very thoughtful in translating the worldview in ways that can be communicated. Once done, cultures can incorporate notions from other ways of seeing. We do it all the time. Cultures are constantly stretched and enriched by contact with each other. Further, we can study and come to understand other ways of carving up the world, that's what many scholars do. Yes, it is hard, but once you are aware of where some of your own presuppositions lay, it is not impossible to dig deeper, figure out where another worldview shares commonalities and exhibits differences and appreciate the other culture's approach. Immersion is often required for this, but even without, the fact that we can converse cross-culturally gives some sense that we can speak others' languages and the possibility of fluency seems to remain.

Kerry asks,
"Why do the captions on a foreign-language DVD disappear from the screen when you fast-forward, but reappear when you hit "play"? (One of the great mysteries of my life.)"
For the same reason that the sound turns off when you hit the fast forward button on a VCR or the reason you only hear one song at a time when playing an 8-track cassette (look it up on Wikipedia, kids, I'm not going to explain it). It might help to use an image you are more acquainted with, Kerry -- a DVD is like Leibniz's pre-established harmony version of metaphysical dualism where you have correlated, but independent tracks on the DVD (man, that's the first time I've ever used that analogy in the other direction). Or think of the DVD like a translated book with the ancient Greek on the left hand page and the corresponding translated English on the right. When you hit play, the DVD player puts both the Greek and the English for every page up on the screen; but when you hit fast forward, it puts up only the Greek from every third page.

Helmut asks,
"Why does the sun go on shining? Why does the sea rush to the shore?"
(sigh) 'cause you don't love me anymore? (sigh)