Two of the things that take up a lot of my time these days are language and salsa. Language is the object of my research: this fascinating tool that human beings acquire almost effortlessly in their childhood years, which is, at the same time, a system so complex that many of its aspects still constitute unresolved puzzles for linguists. Salsa is currently my favourite hobby: a dance of Cuban origin which is danced in couples with occasional rapid change of partners when a number of couples dance in a circle. Given how much of my time language and salsa occupy, it didn’t take long before I started thinking about the relation between the two (as if it’s not already bad enough that PhD students invest time and effort in drawing correlations between concepts, the relevant processes become so ingrained that they spread to other aspects of their lives. Sad? Geeky? I’m not really sure).
What does salsa (or any kind of partner dance, for that matter) have to do with language, you may wonder. Well, knowing how to dance means that you are in a position to meet people on the dancefloor whom you have never seen before, and interact with them, achieving a certain (preferably graceful) motion outcome.This becomes possible thanks to the use of appropriate signals which the man as the leader needs to convey accurately, and the woman as the follower needs to interpret correctly (and no, before you ask, these dances are not a suitable context to talk about feminism). So, just like talking, this kind of dancing in couples requires communicative accuracy between participants – a feature that makes these exchanges of meaning different from expressions of meaning we may attribute to solo dancers (or any other artists, for that matter) which are more open to alternative interpretations on the audience’s part. In this sense, communication between salsa dancers who have never met before does not seem very different from a conversation between people who meet for the first time at, say, a wine reception and use a common language to convey and interpret thoughts, facts, jokes. Of course, the language of dance has a much more limited scope than natural language. In fact, the meanings conveyed by dancing signals could be translated into natural language along the lines of ‘go left/right’, ‘turn’, ‘give me your hand’, ‘pass underneath my arm’ etc. But my aim here is to point out in what way the two might be similar: both dancing and talking are based on an exchange of mutually understood signals that make up a system of communication; knowledge of the system makes it possible to invent new combinations of dance moves, or create new sentences on the spot.
This comparison between language and dance takes us to the wider issue of the relationship between language and thought: Do the two overlap? Are they distinct? Can we have one without the other? The example of communication between dancers suggests that there are ways to formulate and communicate thoughts without the use of words, which in turn implies that language and thought do not coincide. In the video below, Nicky Clayton, a professor of comparative cognition, and the artist Clive Wilkins consider a few more such examples of thinking and communicating that go beyond language. These include the performance and observation of tricks with cards which create expectations about what outcome would be predictable or surprising, communication between birds, and more.
For linguists and anthropologists, the question of the relationship between language and thought is (among other relevant debates) associated with the idea of linguistic relativity, and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (you can read more about this here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/relativism/supplement2.html). The latter suggests that the language we speak determines the way we think about the world, confines the concepts we can entertain, and even constructs our reality. This is a particularly strong claim that mainstream contemporary linguistic theory does not accept, in part due to lack of experimental evidence in its support. At most, our native language may influence to some extent the way in which we draw distinctions, or categorise concepts in our mind, but there is no reason to believe that it is a cause of fundamental differences in the way we think or perceive the world (for more on this, see Pinker 1994, Ch. 3).
A commonly cited piece of trivia relating to this discussion is that Eskimo languages have a much larger than average number of words referring to the concept of ‘snow’; this might indicate that speakers of these languages can perceive finer distinctions of types of snow, as opposed to speakers of, say, Greek. But this is probably a difference about the reality of the populations in question which is simply reflected in their languages, rather than an indication of radical differences in the way Eskimos and Greeks think about snow. In other words, the daily life of Greeks simply does not place them in situations where they have to think about snow very often, which is why they have not bothered to recognise and lexicalise as many distinctions between different kinds of snow. Another similar example I once heard and found fascinating is that of the conceptualisation of time in Malagasy language in a way that is reversed with regard to most other languages (Dahl 1995). In Indo-European languages, for example, we tend to conceptualise time linearly, with ourselves facing the future and having the past behind, which is reflected in expressions like ‘I look forward to x’, ‘Those sad events are behind me now’ etc. But Malagasy conceptualises time as a backward movement with the face turned towards the past, because, after all, the past is something we have already faced, whereas the future is completely unknown. This conceptualisation is reflected in expressions denoting time in this language. But as fascinating as this difference may be, it does not necessarily suggest that the concept of time for speakers of Malagasy is fundamentally different from ours. A more plausible conclusion is that, among the many possible ways in which we could talk about the world, different populations simply made different choices. Moreover, using examples such as the above to claim that alternative concepts are not conceivable unless one’s native language has words for them – which is the idea behind linguistic relativity – seems counterintuitive, because if this were the case, we would be unable to expand our existing inventories to accommodate words for new concepts.
The idea that seems to put language and thought into a better perspective is that language facilitates thought: consider situations where we have to count things; uttering the words for numbers while doing so definitely helps the process. Then there are those times we instantaneously conceive ideas which we then decide to put into words, either by explaining them to someone, or by writing them down. And it is only then, when thoughts are transformed into words, that the abstract ideas become more tangible. They may not even sound so good anymore, because possible logical fallacies and incoherencies of arguments become more evident when the ideas are spelled out. But these examples merely suggest that thinking becomes more efficient if supported by language, which is arguably why verbal thinking is relied upon so much in modern societies. It does not follow from this that language and thought overlap, nor that language determines the way we think. The fact that (to choose an example at random) while dancing salsa it is possible to conceive, communicate, and interpret thoughts without the use of natural language suggests that language and thought are two distinct fields. But this does not undermine the power of language in any way; in fact, the ability of language to build bridges between people’s minds and its presence in most of our daily activities is the reason we tend to equate the two, and the reason I had to resort to considerations about salsa dancing to point out that language and thought do not actually coincide.
- Dahl, Oyvind. 1995. ‘When the future comes from behind: Malagasy and other time concepts and some consequences for communication’. International Journal of Intercultural Relations 19(2). 197-209.
- Pinker, Steven. 1994. The language instinct. New York: Harper Perennial.