Is language a straight-jacket for thought?

October 25, 2009

To have another language is to possess a second soul.  Charlemagne


Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about. Benjamin Lee Whorf


Infants are born with a language-independent system for thinking about objects. These concepts give meaning to the words they learn later. Elizabeth Spelke, a professor of psychology at Harvard



As we can see from the Charlemagne quote above, the notion that the language we speak somehow channels our thoughts goes back a long way. It clearly informed George Orwell when he created his fictional language Newspeak, the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year. The rationale of Newspeak is if something can’t be said, it can’t be thought. Thus you can remove ideas such as freedom, rights and rebellion.


Newspeak seems to have been influenced by the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which Wikipedia is “the idea that the varying cultural concepts and categories inherent in different languages affect the cognitive classification of the experienced world in such a way that speakers of different languages think and behave differently because of it.” This is a tantalising thought but is it really true? I am very sceptical; it seems to have causation in the wrong way. I am more convinced by the argument that concepts precede vocabulary.


What is clear is that different languages express things differently. But does that mean some thoughts can only be expressed in one language? Is it possible to have thoughts in one language that can’t be translated into another? I am a big fan of the quirks of language. A while back I did a piece on untranslatable words and they are a lot of fun. The Japanese have one word, kyoikumama: for a mother who relentlessly pushes her children toward academic achievement and the Germans have backpfeifengesicht: for a face that cries out for a fist in it. Does the lack of one-word English equivalents mean that English speakers are incapable of recognising these concepts? In Spanish you haves conocer and saber where in English you only have know. Does this mean that Spanish speakers are somehow more attuned to the difference between knowing a person and knowing a fact than English speakers are.


A lot of the evidence in this debate comes from analysis of tribal languages such as Hopi, a Uto-Aztecan language spoken in north-eastern Arizona, USA. I am not a professional linguist so it can be a bit difficult to analyse the conclusions that the opposing sides come to. A lot of the motivation behind Whorf’s studies was to demonstrate that indigenous peoples were not “primitive.” And studies of tribal languages have shown that they are incredibly complex. But Whorf wanted to overcompensate. His description of Hopi seems to be trying to show that the Hopi language existed on a higher plane of thinking. Whorf also appear to have got the grammar wrong when he claimed that the Hopi had no words or grammar that refer to past or future time. But it appears that Hopi does have time markers.


Another tribal language that has come under the spotlight is Pirahã, an Amazonian language. This language has no words for numbers. They are incapable of performing even the most basic mathematical operation. This is said to be because their language has no words for number, they are prevented from doing maths. A more logical explanation is that it is the lack of need which explains both the lack of counting ability and the lack of corresponding vocabulary.


Some people say that they feel like a different person when they speak another language. I can’t say I have ever had that feeling. I wouldn’t want to say that language has no influence on our thinking but it is greatly exaggerated.

My media week 25/10/09

October 25, 2009 has an article Let us now praise… the cliché – It’s concise, time-tested, and instantly familiar. What’s not to love?


In this Guardian piece Consistency is overrated Julian Baggini asks should there be freedom to mislead?


The Onion has this article: Television, Processed Foods Couldn’t Be More Proud Of Child They Raised


ABC All in the Mind looks at how the brain sciences are changing our understanding of addiction, and the powerful consequences for notions of free will, responsibility and culpability: Addiction, free will and self control

My favourite links #34

October 25, 2009

This is more of an update really. I have already featured Open Yale and they have recently added ten new courses, recorded during the 2008-2009 academic year:


Dante in Translation with Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta

European Civilization, 1648-1945 with Professor John Merriman

Freshman Organic Chemistry with Professor J. Michael McBride

Global Problems of Population Growth with Professor Robert Wyman

Introduction to New Testament History and Literature with Professor Dale B. Martin

Introduction to Theory of Literature with Professor Paul H. Fry

Listening to Music with Professor Craig Wright

Principles of Evolution, Ecology and Behavior with Professor Stephen C. Stearns

The Psychology, Biology and Politics of Food with Professor Kelly D. Brownell

Roman Architecture with Professor Diana E. E. Kleiner


Here is the link:

Rights: a pragmatic perspective

October 18, 2009

The Oxford Dictionary has a very pithy definition of a right: moral or legal entitlement to have or do something. Unfortunately in the real world actually defining what should be included as a right is more problematic. In the last 800 years we have seen The Magna Carta, The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen from revolutionary France, The United States Bill of Rights, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and more recently The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union The Universal Declaration of 1948 declares that the “…recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…”

But humans are more complex than that and there are wildly differing interpretations of where rights come from and what they should include. There are some interesting ways of approaching the subject. In 1979 Czech jurist Karel Vasak came up with the division of human rights into three generations:

• First-generation: liberty and participation in political life – freedom of speech, the right to a fair trial, freedom of religion, and voting rights.
• Second-generation: social, economic, and cultural in nature – a right to be employed, rights to housing and health care, as well as social security and unemployment benefits.
• Third-generation: the softest set of rights and have proved hard to enact – group and collective rights, self-determination, economic and social development, a healthy environment and even intergenerational equity and sustainability. Critics would argue that this is an attempt to dress up a political agenda as rights

I have forgotten the fourth generation – the right to see football on free-to-air terrestrial television.

The exponential growth of claimed rights over the last few years has led to a complicated situation of conflicting rights. In his book Shouting Fire, lawyer Alan Dershowitz has a list of rights and counter-rights:

Right to free speech – Right not to be offended
Right to life of foetus – Right to choose abortion
Rights of criminal defendants –Rights of victims
Right to keep one’s money – Right to equitable distribution of wealth
Right of gay couple to adopt right of child to be adopted by a heterosexual family
Right to know of sex offenders in neighbourhood – Right of privacy after serving sentence

This is just a sample of a list that goes on for three pages and makes fascinating reading. How can we possibly sort out all these contradictory claims?

Dershowitz takes a pragmatic view; rights come from wrongs. It is a practical viewpoint based on human experience. As we have seen what constitutes perfect justice is very controversial and will probably never be resolved definitively. Intelligent people can and do disagree about economic justice. There is however much more consensus as to what is perfect injustice. The inquisition, slavery, Stalin’s purges, the Holocaust and the massacres in Rwanda show us what can happen when there is an absence of basic rights. I tend to favour a negative conception of rights. Negative liberty means that there are certain things that states and others cannot do to you. Just a few negative rules go a long way. Such things as freedom of speech, property rights, due process of law freedom of association are absolutely fundamental. Positive liberty, the right and frequently the obligation to do certain things, has often produced overblown bureaucracies and sometimes even tyranny.

Quotes about rights

October 18, 2009

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Thomas Jefferson


Individual rights are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority; the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by majorities (and the smallest minority on earth is the individual). Ayn Rand


Get up, stand up, Stand up for your rights. Get up, stand up, Don’t give up the fight. Bob Marley


We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. It is time now to write the next chapter – and to write it in the books of law. Lyndon B. Johnson


Both free speech rights and property rights belong legally to individuals, but their real function is social, to benefit vast numbers of people who do not themselves exercise these rights. Thomas Sowell


If the evens of September 11, 2001, have proven anything, it’s that the terrorists can attack us, but they can’t take away what makes us American – our freedom, our liberty, our civil rights. No, only Attorney General John Ashcroft can do that. Jon Stewart.


It is time in the West to defend not so much human rights as human obligations. Alexander Solzehnitsyn


You don’t have to love them. You just have to respect their rights. Edward Koch


Can any of you seriously say the Bill of Rights could get through Congress today? It wouldn’t even get out of committee. F. Lee Bailey

My media week 18/10/09

October 18, 2009

Better regulation is not the panacea for all our problems as John Kay shows in How the skies proved the limits of regulation.


The Telegraph had a piece about the 50 most annoying things about the internet.


I am always interested in the world of books so I was interested to listen to NPR’s Talk of the Nation on the changes in book publishing –The Book Industry Turns A Page.


I did a piece last year about the Oxbridge interview and this week The Telegraph invited seven Oxbridge alumni to answer a typical interview question. Would their replies pass the test? Are you clever enough to get into Oxbridge?

Monopoly is a terrible thing

October 11, 2009

Monopoly is a terrible thing, till you have it. Rupert Murdoch


I think it’s wrong that only one company makes the game Monopoly. Steven Wright


We [Microsoft] don’t have a monopoly. We have market share. There’s a difference. Steve Ballmer


They will come to learn in the end, at their own expense, that it is better to endure competition for rich customers than to be invested with monopoly over impoverished customers. Frederic Bastiat



The Economist’s A to Z glossary of economic terms defines monopoly thus:

When the production of a good or service with no close substitutes is carried out by a single firm with the market power to decide the price of its output. Contrast with perfect competition, in which no single firm can affect the price of what it produces. Typically, a monopoly will produce less, at a higher price, than would be the case for the entire market under perfect competition. It decides its price by calculating the quantity of output at which its marginal revenue would equal its marginal cost, and then sets whatever price would enable it to sell exactly that quantity.


When we think of monopoly we are worried about the monopolists’ ability to charge higher prices. From an economic point of view if some Monet is transferred from one group to another. This may be deemed socially unacceptable but it is an equal transfer of wealth from one group to another and doesn’t reduce aggregate welfare. What economists object to is that as the monopolist raises prices above the competitive level in order to make extra profits, customers buy less of the product, therefore less is produced, and society as a whole is worse off.


Monopolies go back a long way. Traditionally it has been state power, which has been used to restrict access to particular sectors and industries. In the past kings would grant or sell monopoly rights. More recently it has been governments who have played this role. One way to keep out potential competitors is to have the government make it illegal for others to operate in particular industries. An extreme example was India at the end of the last century which would licence companies and decide what and how much these companies could produce. There are always political justifications for these interventions.


As monopoly has come to be seen as harmful to economic growth, over the last century or so we have seen a rise in the number of antitrust cases. They are called like this because cartels used to be known as trusts. There is more to these cases than meets the eye. There are often underlying political motivations and it would be unwise to assume that protection of consumers is the rationale. We often think of the robber barons of late nineteenth century USA, companies such as Standard Oil. They were growing but they were in fact reducing prices. That is hardly typical behaviour for a monopolist Often pressure comes not from consumers but competitors who resent losing their market share. The Microsoft case is a prime example. I don’t think that consumers were clamouring for the prosecution. Microsoft would quickly discover what would happen if they tried to abuse their customers.  There are alternatives to the Windows – Linux, Apple, unauthorised copying and more alternatives would undoubtedly spring up. The latest panic is about Google but who knows how they will be doing in 2030?


We also lack an historical perspective. Just because a company is dominant now doesn’t mean that it will hold that position in twenty years time. History is littered with the cases of megaliths that have seen their position eroded by more agile competitors. Bigger is not always better. Natural history teaches us that – Where are the dinosaurs now?