(Roughly) Daily

“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought”*…

In an excerpt from his book A Myriad of Tongues: How Languages Reveal Differences in How We Think, Caleb Everett on the underappreciated importance of syntax and recursion in our languages…

Words are combined into phrases and sentences in a dazzling array of patterns, collectively referred to as syntax. The complexity of syntax has long confounded researchers. Consider, for example, the previous sentence. There are all sorts of patterns in the order of the words of that sentence, patterns that are familiar to you and me and other speakers of English. Those patterns are critical to the transmission of meaning and to how we think as we create sentences. It was no coincidence that I put “complexity” after “the,” or “syntax” after “of,” or “researchers” after “confounded,” to cite just three examples of many in that sentence alone. You and I know that “researchers” should follow the main verb of this particular sentence, in this case “confounded.” If I put that word somewhere else it would change the sentence’s meaning or make it confusing. And we know that articles like “the” should precede nouns, as should prepositions like “of.” These and other patterns, sometimes referred to as “rules” as though they represented inviolable edicts voted on by a committee, help to give English sentences a predictable ordering of words. It is this predictable ordering that is usually referred to when linguists talk about a language’s syntax.

Without syntax, it would seem, statements could not be understood, because they would be transferred from speaker to hearer in a jumbled mess of words. This is, it turns out, a bit of an oversimplification since a number of the world’s languages do not have rule-governed word order to the extent that English does. Still, let us stick with the oversimplification for now, because it hints at something meaningful about speech…

An illuminating read: “What Makes Language Human?” via @lithub.

* George Orwell, 1984


As we contemplate cogitation and communication, we might spare a thought for Sigismund Schlomo “Sigmund” Freud; he died on this date in 1939. A neurologist, he was the founder of psychoanalysis– a clinical method for evaluating and treating pathologies seen as originating from conflicts in the psyche, through dialogue between patient and psychoanalyst, and the distinctive theory of mind and human agency derived from it.

Freud’s psychoanalysis further complicated our thinking about language: In his theory dreams are instigated by the daily occurrences and thoughts of everyday life. In what Freud called the “dream-work”, these “secondary process” thoughts (“word presentations”), governed by the rules of language and the reality principle, become subject to the “primary process” of unconscious thought (“thing presentations”) governed by the pleasure principle, wish gratification, and the repressed sexual scenarios of childhood.

Jacques Lacan built on Freud’s approach, emphasizing linguistics and literature. Lacan believed that most of Freud’s essential work had been done before 1905 and concerned the interpretation of dreams, neurotic symptoms, and slips, which had been based on a revolutionary way of understanding language and its relation to experience and subjectivity, and that ego psychology and object relations theory were based upon misreadings of Freud’s work. For Lacan (as, in a way, for the author above), the determinative dimension of human experience is neither the self (as in ego psychology) nor relations with others (as in object relations theory), but language.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 23, 2023 at 1:00 am

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