Yesterday I made the mistake of listening to the TED radio hour, and learned that because the Vietnamese language has no subjunctive, Vietnamese people can’t speculate about choices they didn’t make or the possible outcomes of decisions. The credulous host and the hooting audience offered no hint of having considered the idiotic implications of this claim.
In things like color, if you are from a culture that does not have, say, pink, you can stare at pink all day and not see it as pink but as just a shade of red. We just have blue, the Russians have three blues. Not shades of blue but different colors, just as we have a purple, a blue and a red. There are all sorts of things that you we will not be aware of even if looking right at them because the concept does not exist in our brain. This even extends to numbers. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has been revived somewhat, backed up by neurology, just not the absurd claims about it that were made before. But it is true that there are things we do not see because we do not know they are there. Making sweeping TED Talk pronouncements about the subjective are absurd, of course, but if you’ve ever seen the endless list of tenses, aspects, moods (and evidentiality and mirativity) found in human languages it begins to dawn on you that depending on which language you are raised in, you are going to experience things in slightly different ways, or at least describe them in different ways, so that when someone else is hearing your experience you will describe it in a way that fits into the grammar of the language you speak. That is where reality is changed by language, in the retelling and second hand experience of it. People around the world will see pretty much the same thing, but when they go to describe it to those who did not experience it first hand, it gets squeezed into the very limited capabilities of an individual language to describe it, and that is where you will not see a ship even though you are not looking at it, not first hand but second hand. That is not by direct observation but by indirect observation. Reality winds up being shaped by the language it is being described in, if there are literally hundreds of tenses, aspects and moods to express reality, each of us is only allowed a few each, because no language can contain all of them. So we wind to trying to describe something we saw in impossibly limited terms. Language can only adequately describe an infinitesimal amount of what our brain’s occipital lobe is capable of seeing (and even less able to describe the other senses), which means that inevitably we can describe something in a way that leaves out almost everything we saw (heard, smelled, felt), and depending on what that language is capable of conveying, that is what we will hear or read second hand. So even if a polyglot bunch all saw the same thing at the same time, we would be unable to convey equally what we had seen in our respective language, but only what our lexicon and grammar enable us to say. A second hand account in one language would differ slightly or more than slightly from one in another language. An account written in English would differ dramatically from one recited in Tok Pidgin. And yet it is those second hand accounts that become reality in a culture, whether in history or in tales told round the fire. Language doesn’t have much impact on direct experience (as little of what we experience goes anywhere near the language parts of our brain anyway), but it has a vast impact on the retelling of that experience. When a guy says that the Viet Namese people, with no subjunctive, can’t speculate about choices they didn’t make it seems ridiculous. But not having a subjunctive will affect how a story gets told in Viet Namese, because the facts will have to be written or told in such a way to make up for the fact that they have no subjunctive. It can be a subtle difference, though sometimes it can be a huge difference. Every language is affected this way. Language is this vast, extraordinary thing that, alas, each of us is allowed to use only a tiny bit of. Such a shame. Perhaps as we evolve as a species we’ll be able to use more and more of the wealth of languages, and instead of the handful of tenses and moods and aspects each grammar has, we’ll be able to use all of them, interchangeably, and be understood. Maybe someday we will speak as well as we can see.