Saturday, December 18

Ramblings on the relationship of language and thinking


ELIZABETH SPELKE: Everybody has always talked about how language is this incredible tool for communication that allows us to exchange information with other people so much more richly and affectively than other animals can. But language also seems to me to serve as a mechanism of communication between different systems within a single mind.

== Notes ==

Ideas in the brain are like islands. Ideas of space, color, shapes, time, etc.

What connects these islands is language itself. Without language we could not connect these ideas (of space, color, shape, time, etc.) even in our own minds, let alone communicating them.

Language is not a result of the thinking being.

Language is a process the brain itself needs to think, to relate and to combine desperate ideas into one.

Hence language is not a result of the thinking being, language is the very thing that has lead to the thinking being itself.

Without language thought itself is fragmented.

Language isn't just a interpersonal communications tool, it is an interpersonal communications tool as well allowing parts of the mind to talk to relate to one another.

== What is thought without language? ==

JAD ABUMRAD: But Charles, what I’m wondering is that if language allows you to construct a though that is so basic as, “The biscuit is left of the blue wall,” what is thought without language?

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: Well I don’t think it’s very much at all.

JAD ABUMRAD: What do you mean?

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: I’m going to put it a different way and this involves making quite a controversial statement. I don’t think very young children do think.

JAD ABUMRAD: Like think period. (C. laughing.) Was there a period at the end of that sentence?

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: I don’t think they think in the way I want to call thinking, which is a bit of cheat, but let me say what I mean by thinking.


CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: If you reflect on your own experience, if you think about what’s going on inside your head as you’re just walking to work or sitting on a subway train. Much of what’s going on in your head at that point is actually verbal. I want to suggest that the central thread of all that is actually language, it’s a stream of inner speech. That’s what most of us think of as thinking.

ELIZABETH SPELKE: Well on the other hand what I’m most aware of when I’m reflecting is the stuff that I can’t put into words. I think that he’s exaggerating the role of language here. Yes…


JAD ABUMRAD: This all really hinges on how you would define thinking, and Liz would say take a musician, like I’ll give you my example Bill EvanSusan Schaller: Here is a form of thought that carries you through a definite sequence of phrases, feelings, emotions, changes. And there are no words!

ELIZABETH SPELKE: But there’s something that we get access to when we gain a full natural language that we can use not only to communicate with other people but with ourselves.


Hence language is not just spoken, or written, and there is not just one form of language. There are languages of all types, for all ways of thinking... music, emotional, math, etc. In order to access some ways of thinking we must learn new languages. The language itself is the key to thought.

And what of the subconscious, is it merely "all that stuff we can't put into worlds"... is it simply which we cannot make literal or verbalize?

If nothing else, this explains why I like to write, writing creates understanding, it opens new doors of perception. Only by externalizing ideas by putting them down on paper, or designing them into objects can one turn them over and gain new perspectives on them, if only by time, but also if one creates physical manifestations of thought through sculpture or indeed the design and creation of tools then one can actually physically turn over these manifestations of thought and gain new perspectives on them.

This also has wider ramifications. In a world where people are constantly writing and conversing online on forums on topics of obscure interest... because for the first time the Internet gives that tuba player in a town of 110 in Idaho an audience who can fully appreciate and understand their work... well suddenly we are through writing re-enforcing the connections between "islands of knowledge"... thus the Internet allows for a huge evolutionary step forward in the world of thought.

== the traffic jam at the door of language and thought ==

JAD ABUMRAD: It's a little bit maybe like that experience you might have at a nightmare New York club. We’re you’ve got like thousands of people in a tiny space and everyone’s trying to push their way out, and they’re like, “God, let me through the door. Get out of my way!” It’s just like this

JAMES SHAPIRO: Throng of images, sounds, conceits, thoughts, ideas. And they are providing the pressure that's needed to produce words.


JAD ABUMRAD: You know what?


JAD ABUMRAD: This makes sense to me, this interpretation. And not just for Shakespeare, for anybody. Certainly the guy we met at the beginning Ildefonso.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Who just learned words for the first time.

JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah. I mean as you move through the world if you're sensitive at all and your observant, you're gonna get filled up with all of these things which you have to express but can't until you get those words. Then…boom! The door opens.

The entire transcript is at:

The original audio post is here:

And the direct link to the mp3 is here:

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