Conversations On The Leading Edge
Of Knowledge and Discovery
With Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove
LANGUAGE AND CONSCIOUSNESS
Part I: ARE OUR THOUGHTS
CONSTRAINED BY LANGUAGE?
with STEVEN PINKER, Ph.D.
JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. I'm Jeffrey Mishlove. This is the first in a four-part series on "Language and Consciousness." Today we'll be exploring the question of whether or not our very thoughts are shaped by the language that we use. With me is Professor Steven Pinker, a member of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, and director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Center at MIT. Dr. Pinker is the author of numerous books, including Visual Cognition and most recently, The Language Instinct. Welcome, Steve.
STEVEN PINKER, Ph.D.: Thank you.
MISHLOVE: It's a pleasure to be with you. You know, I have to confess, I have always assumed that our thoughts are constrained by the limitations of the language that we use. For example, I'm very interested in consciousness, and it's always struck me that people who use languages like Sanskrit have a much richer texture in which to look at the various nuances of consciousness. I know that you take a different point of view, I think, about language.
PINKER: Yes, I don't think that we think in language, or think in words. I think we think in visual images, we think in auditory images, we think in abstract propositions about what is true about what. And I think that language is a way of communicating thoughts, of getting them out of one head and into another by making noise. I think that even if you look at language itself, you see that there's got to be something underlying the words themselves, because words can be ambiguous. So if you take one of those unintentionally ambiguous newspaper headlines, like "Stud Tires Out," which was in a New Hampshire newspaper when they banned stud tires, but most people give it a different interpretation, the fact that there can be two ideas underlying the word stud, for example, or underlying the word tires, shows that words and thoughts can't be the same thing.
MISHLOVE: Well, isn't it considered pretty much of a truism for people that different cultures have more words for some things that are important to them? I mean, we talk about the Eskimos, for example, having many words for snow.
PINKER: Right, and even that is really a bit exaggerated. There is a famous essay called "The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax," where someone actually went to a dictionary of the Eskimo language and counted the number of words for snow, and the first dictionary they picked up had the following number of words for snow -- not four hundred, not two hundred, not one hundred -- two. Now, that was a pretty stingy dictionary, and if you go to slightly bigger ones you can come up with maybe a dozen, maybe twenty. But if you think about it, English has a lot of words for snow too. We've got avalanche and blizzard and hard pack and powder and sleet and slush, and we're not really that far behind the Eskimos. This isn't to deny the point that if you're an expert in something you're going to have more jargon words for it. But I don't think it's that you have all these jargon words and you think more thoughts or more finely discriminating thoughts. I think if you know a lot about something, you invent the words to express them. And I think the fact that we invent slang, we invent jargon, we invent new figures of speech when we need to, shows that we have the idea first, and we think to ourselves, "How am I going to clothe this in words so I can make it clear to some other person?"
MISHLOVE: Well, language, of course is more than just words. A language has a cadence. It has certain sounds and pitches and timbres. Don't you think these things may affect the environment in which we think?
PINKER: Well, those are certainly what make for great literature and poetry and prose, and artists and writers take advantage of those things to get across a certain emotional effect. And I think that's why great poetry and great literature is often very hard to translate, because even if you translate the meaning you're not getting the resonances of the sounds. You might have like a harsh staccato set of sounds in one language, and their exact translation might be something very mellow and smooth, and so you might lose that extra layer of meaning that resonates with the literal meaning. But the fact that you can translate at all, when you think about it, shows that there's got to be something other than words, because what would it mean for two sentences in different languages to be translations of each other, if not for the fact that both of them have the same meaning, where the meaning isn't exactly the same as either string of words? When we translate, it's obviously not like one of those phrase books, where it's, "How do I get to the train station?" and then you find the equivalent in Hungarian, because if you know two languages, you can translate an unlimited number of sentences. There has got to be something, I think, underneath it, something like a set of propositions that don't really have sounds, that don't have any left-to-right linear order the way language does, but that has a web of connections between concepts, and that are also connected with other aspects of experience -- with visual images, with body sensations.
MISHLOVE: Well, if we were to follow that line of thinking, it would seem to me that one might say that a person who has no language at all could still think, could still have thoughts.
PINKER: And I think that's true. In fact, recently there have been a number of techniques that scientists have used to try to tap the minds of creatures that don't have language. We now know that babies, for example, before they begin to talk have a fairly sophisticated understanding of the world around them. They pay attention to objects; they make predictions about how objects will behave -- what will fall, what won't fall, what can pass through, how people behave. Babies clearly are making sense of the world, and that's before they're saying a word. Animals too -- I think there's a lot of good evidence that many non-human animals engage in some form of thought, even though obviously they don't have the words. And even people with words -- if you look at the autobiographies of great scientists and authors and poets and sculptors, one thing that runs through all of them is that they say that their moments of inspiration often come from a vivid visual image, and that they then have to struggle to find the words to express that image -- not only in the sciences, like Einstein, who claimed to have come upon his insight about relativity theory by, say, imagining what it would be like to be in a plummeting elevator and then to take a coin out of your pocket and try to drop it. Often novelists will say that the first idea for a novel will be a scene, with people in the scene, and then they struggle for the words to express it. So I think that aspect of experience jibes with what the science of mind has recently found out, namely, that language is a very rich part of the mind, but only one part.
MISHLOVE: Well, I suppose it's incontrovertible, if you look at the biographies and autobiographies of creative people, that they describe their breakthroughs, their intuitions, coming to them in many different forms other than normal language. But when we look at babies, or when we look at other animals, many critics of this research would say we have to be careful not to project, to anthropomorphize, or to read more into the data than is actually there.
PINKER: Yes, that's certainly true, and you can't just look at a baby, guess what it's thinking, and leave it at that. The techniques are very clever, and they involve indirect ways of looking at, say, the baby's eye movements, what the baby is staring at, and controlled displays, to try to figure out what's going on in the baby's mind. Babies might even be able to keep track of number; they might even do a simple form of arithmetic. They seem to know that one and one is two. These are things that you don't just get by hunches, but by seeing how long they look at various kinds of displays, and what surprises them and what bores them.
MISHLOVE: You seem to be suggesting, then, that the mind has a language of its own, independent of the language that the mouth uses.
PINKER: Yes, right. You can think of it as mentalese.
PINKER: The language of thought. And I think speaking is almost like translating mentalese into English or Japanese, and understanding is almost like translating English or Japanese into mentalese, depending, of course, on which language you actually speak. But I think that's why we can understand each other, why we can translate, why we can coin new words when we need them. If words and thoughts were the same thing it would be impossible to coin a new word. Where would the impetus to coin a word come from, if you didn't have some idea that you needed to express? And also, when you're speaking or writing, people often have the sense that they didn't express themselves properly. They'll say, "Oh no, that isn't what I meant to say. Don't misunderstand me. It came out wrong. What I really meant to say was such and such." Or when you're writing you get frustrated, and you tear up the paper, and you say, "Darn, that sentence wasn't what I meant. I know what I want to say, but I just can't put it into words." And I think there's something real behind that intuition.
MISHLOVE: Well, that's a subtle feeling, when you know that you have an intention that's not quite expressed by the language that you use. Has that been subjected to rigorous research?
PINKER: Well, what has been researched is the subtle shades of meaning that different orders of words convey. It's probably true that no two sentences have exactly the same meaning, even ones that are very, very close, like, to give you an example, "I sprayed paint on the wall"; "I sprayed the wall with paint." They sound like synonyms, like two different ways of expressing the same thought. The thoughts they express overlap by a lot, but there's a subtle difference. Most people will say that if you sprayed the wall with paint, the wall's completely covered with paint, whereas if you sprayed paint on the wall, there could just be a little dab in one corner. And it's when linguists start to pay very close attention to the nuances of meaning of different orders of words that you discover that there's a reason why people often feel that their thoughts aren't being expressed properly by words -- that even tiny differences in the words can convey very subtle differences in meaning.
MISHLOVE: I think you've also suggested that the possible sentences that can be constructed are virtually infinite, even though the number of words and letters are much more finite.
PINKER: I think they're literally infinite, in the mathematicians' sense that there is an infinite number of numbers. Of course, there isn't any room in the universe to store an infinite number of numbers, or an infinite number of sentences, but we can infer that in principle the number is infinite, by the old trick that you probably learned in elementary school. Your teacher may have given you the following demonstration. Let's say that you think that you've found the largest number. Well, I'll prove to you it isn't the largest number; I'll add a 1 to it, and that's a number that's even larger. It's the same thing with language. The Guinness Book of World Records actually claimed to have found the world's longest sentence. It was a sentence by Faulkner in his novel Absalom, Absalom, and it was 1300 words long, and it began something like, "They both bore it as though in desultory flagellation," or some sequence of words that I can't even remember. But I'll prove to you that that is not the world's longest sentence, because I can say, "Pinker said that Faulkner wrote that they both bore it as though in desultory flagellation." And you can say, "Who cares that Pinker said that Faulkner wrote. . . ?" And someone else could say, "Jeffrey said, 'Who cares that. . . ,'" etcetera. So in that sense, in principle there's no limit to the number of sentences that a human mind can create and understand -- except for the fact, of course, that eventually we die, so we can't process literally an infinitely long sentence.
MISHLOVE: Well, let me go back, though, to the distinction between thought and language. Let us assume for the moment that there is mentalese, that we have a way of thinking that is quite independent of language. You even have argued, I think convincingly, that certain people who were born deaf and never learned language were still able to express thoughts once they were taught sign language.
PINKER: Yes. Now, deaf people who have sign language are people with a language, because sign language is a fully expressive, grammatical, complex language. So the crucial case are those unfortunate deaf people who grew up without sign language, and occasionally they're discovered, and there are some very interesting case studies looking at their conception of the world. And even though they are obviously cut off from a lot of our culture, because we convey our culture through words, it's clear that they have minds, and that the minds are capable of some abstract understanding. Just to give some simple examples: one person can repair a broken bicycle lock. When you think about it, that's not so easy; I don't know if I could repair a broken bicycle lock. It obviously involves a kind of mechanical intelligence -- knowing what the lock is for, knowing how the different parts interact, and so on. They can handle money. Money involves a very subtle concept of debt and what you owe and social exchange. They can pantomime their life history. Pantomime isn't the same as sign language; pantomime is more like charades. They can do that, so they have memory of their own autobiographies, which they can communicate. And when people first encounter a languageless deaf person, they often get a sense of the intelligence, simply by the eye contact and by the nonverbal. So you really get a sense that there's a mind there, and it's just that there are lots that they don't know.
MISHLOVE: Well, so I think that you might conclude from that that there is a mentalese; there is a way that we think without language or words. But then we might begin to ask ourselves the question, is our mentalese shaped by language nonetheless? Obviously it would be in the case when you're listening to someone else's speech.
PINKER: Yes, absolutely. Certainly the contents of mentalese are supplied a lot by language, by learning about objects in faraway places and abstract concepts from conversations with other people and by reading. So it's like the entry port into the mind. The actual sentences of mentalese often derive from language, although not directly, because we never remember the exact wording of what we hear; we remember the gist, and the gist is probably something like mentalese. And I think probably in the evolution of the human species, evolution of language and the evolution of language in thought probably went together; each one helped the other. If you can think more complex thoughts, that puts pressure on you to be able to share them, and if you've got other people supplying you with complex language, that puts pressure on you to be able to have those thoughts. And you can imagine a kind of feedback loop, where each one helped the other.
MISHLOVE: Well, surely in this conversation, my thoughts are being shaped by your words, and I think your thoughts must be shaped to some degree by my words.
PINKER: Clearly. Yes, absolutely.
MISHLOVE: And so now I suppose the question is, to what extent are we conditioned, is our mentalese conditioned, by the kinds of reinforcement that we get from other people in the culture around us?
PINKER: Yes, certainly a large extent. When we talk about persuading and convincing and winning friends and influencing people, one thing that's really true about human beings, clearly, is that a lot of our social interactions are by words. So we certainly try to get people to see things our way by aiming these noises at them, what we call language. I think it's the machinery of the mind, it's the ability to have thoughts, that's independent of language; but language is obviously very important to supplying the actual content of the thoughts, I think.
MISHLOVE: Now, some cultures, particularly in Asia, have developed, let's say, a mystical tradition that we haven't had with nearly as much depth in the West. And I think that's reflected in their language. Is it fair to say that the people who are raised in that linguistic environment might be more prone to have mystical experiences?
PINKER: I'd be willing to bet that the experiences come first, and the reason they have the words for them is that they need the words to talk about them. I'll give you an example that's a little closer to home -- closer to my experience, anyway, because I don't know much about these Eastern cultures. But Yiddish, the language that my grandparents spoke, has many words for which there are no exact equivalents in English. The word naches any Yiddish speaker will instantly recognize, describes the emotional state of pride and satisfaction, typically from a family member, most prototypically from one's child. When your son wins the Nobel Prize, you experience naches. And there's no exact English equivalent; pride doesn't quite capture it. I think, though, having even explained it to you, even if you didn't know a word of Yiddish, you'd probably know exactly what emotion I was talking about. It's maybe talked about more often in Yiddish culture, but I don't think I've expressed something that you can't grasp, even if you never heard the word before. You probably know what I'm talking about; maybe you'll even start to use the word. And I suspect that for some of the words in these Eastern cultures, it may be like that. I probably haven't had much occasion to talk about those states, but if I was in that kind of circumstance where I would experience them, and someone said, "Oh, by the way, that's called blah-blah-blah," I think I would be able to use blah-blah-blah.
MISHLOVE: Well, maybe it's a question of habits -- that certain language groups habitually cultivate certain states that then they like to talk about.
PINKER: I think so, and I think that's the kernel of truth behind the Eskimo snow myth. They probably have a few more words for snow than we do. It's probably for the same reason that bicycle mechanics have more words for parts of bicycles, and painters have more words for shades of mauve, and so on. As you say, when you're in the habit of dealing with different aspects of the world, and dealing with other people who are also dealing with those aspects, you're going to invent the words to be able to communicate them. But the fact that we can invent words is what makes me think that the experiences come first.
MISHLOVE: What about the cadence of the languages? Like some languages, the Polynesian language, or Japanese, or German, it seems like it's very crisp and precise, a lot of sharp consonant sounds. Other languages, the Romantic languages -- I think other languages emphasize the vowels more. Doesn't that create a whole different personality?
PINKER: I tend to doubt it, to be honest. I think the sounds of language change without necessarily a change in the culture. English sounded very different several hundred years ago than it does today. I don't know if the mind of English speakers has changed. Also think about the way that different cultures adopt new languages. I mean, the English language now is spoken over huge parts of the world, but I don't know if the sounds of English have actually caused all the cultures that have adopted it to start thinking differently. But I think where it probably might have influence is in art and literature and poetry. The sounds of the language might make it more appropriate to express it in kinds of emotion that might resonate more with certain kinds of experience. There's a wonderful line in one of Woody Allen's movies, where he's trying to seduce a woman and she says, "Say something to me in Spanish. Spanish is such a romantic language." And he says, "I don't know any Spanish. I can say something to you in Hebrew." The humor in that is there is something about the rhythm and the cadence of Spanish that puts us in the mood, perhaps, of more romantic thoughts. But I think that's probably the extent of it.
MISHLOVE: Well, it seems to me that your message, then, is that our thoughts are really totally free, at least as regards any constraints that might be imposed by language -- that whatever modifying influences language has, it doesn't anywhere impose a constraint on what we can think.
PINKER: I don't think it imposes a sharp constraint. I think it helps to think in certain ways, for the following reason. You've got, as you're thinking a complex thought, as you're formulating an argument to yourself, or as you're trying to solve a puzzle, you often have to keep a bunch of things in mind, sort of juggling a lot of balls in the air. And if you can keep some of those in mind by imagining yourself saying the words, you've got almost like a little echo in the back of your head, that's one more mental scratch pad that you can use to keep the ideas from fading.
PINKER: Like subvocalization, right. And if a thought corresponds exactly to a word, you can play it to yourself in your auditory imagery, and if you have a language that has words for certain things, you can probably keep more of them in mind. I know people who know sign language and spoken language, who often when they're thinking, when they're following a complex argument -- when they're, say, sitting in a lecture, or you told them something very mind boggling and they're trying to reason it through -- they'll be gesturing with their hands, even though there's no other signer in the room, simply because the muscle memories of the motion you just made with your hands, if they have linguistic meaning, are yet another form of short-term memory that you can use. So I think that's a way in which language does interact with thought. But it's not that you are incapable of thinking certain thoughts if you don't have the words for them.
MISHLOVE: But what about most of the time? Don't most people report, if you were to ask them, "How do you think?" they would say, "I think in words"?
PINKER: A lot of people do, although, remember, a lot of people don't. A lot of people say that they think in images, that they think in body sensations. I think that what you're aware of is probably a tip of the iceberg as to what's actually happening in the mind, and words are the things that we can talk to each other about. How am I going to tell you what I'm thinking unless I use words? And so the thing that's going to be uppermost in my mind, if I'm trying to convey to you how I think, are going to be things like the vocalizations, the auditory imagery of words. That's what we notice, although I don't think that's where the real heart of the matter is in thought processes. I think it's just a part that's most accessible to us.
MISHLOVE: In other words, it's a consequence of the accident that we were born with mouths instead of multimedia projector systems.
PINKER: Exactly. We use our mental imagery of words, I think, as one extra, almost like a piece of paper that we jot down a phone number to remember it, but of course all inside our heads. But clearly, when you look at all these ambiguities in language -- "Hershey Bars Protest" -- that's another headline; the town of Hershey outlaws protest. Whoever wrote that headline, it probably didn't even occur to that person that it had another meaning. He might have reported that he was literally thinking in words, but if he was thinking in words, then both of these meanings should have been apparent, but there's got to be an idea underlying it that he had in mind, that he probably wasn't even aware of.
MISHLOVE: So you're arguing that the ambiguities that exist in language would suggest that they can't possibly constrain our thoughts.
PINKER: Exactly. In fact most of us don't even realize how ambiguous language is, and that's why it's been so hard to program computers to have a conversation. We think each sentence has a meaning. We actually try to program a computer to do it, and the computer will find nineteen meanings, and won't know which one you had in mind. But those are really below our level of awareness.
MISHLOVE: Well, in a way I suppose it's close to a miracle that we can sit here and have this conversation and understand each other, and thousands of people at some other point in time are going to be listening to some sort of electronic representation of this conversation, and they'll know what we're thinking.
PINKER: That is astonishing -- that noises are coming out of our mouths, and we could be narrating the play-by-play of a basketball game, or we could be talking about a soap opera plot, and they would just be slightly different noises, but human brains are capable of unpacking the meaning behind the noises, to figure out in our case that we're talking about language itself, but we could have been talking about anything.
MISHLOVE: Well, obviously we've raised more questions in all of this than we have answered. I mean, the mechanism of mentalese, the way in which the subvocalizations and the words and the pictures all fit together and interact with our brain is a subject of great interest that we will explore together in future portions of this series. Steven, this has been an eye-opener for me, because I have to confess honestly it's caused me to change my opinion about language. I was certain that there were certain inherent limitations in the English environment, and you really have convinced me otherwise, and I find that very liberating. So for that I thank you.
PINKER: It's been a pleasure.
MISHLOVE: We've got just a few seconds yet before we need to close this program. I might mention for people who are viewing that we're going to look more into the mechanisms of how we produce language, and how we understand language, and we'll look at the evolution of language, and finally, as we approach the fourth part of this series, we're going to explore the nature of consciousness itself. You have some very interesting ideas about the modules in the nervous system that produce consciousness. Steven, thanks so much for being with me.
PINKER: My pleasure. Thank you.
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