Sunday, July 6, 2008

Linguistics and Perception

Simone Weil says, "A mind enclosed in language is in prison." I wonder.

Over the past few years I've noticed a very interesting phenomenon working in my life. I'll tell a story to explain:

When I first met my wife we were walking somewhere together and we were doing that thing that couples do when they're falling in love -- sharing our likes and dislikes, our passions and our fears, and so on. We started talking about dogs. As it turned out, we were both allergic. But somewhat surprisingly, we were both quite fond of dogs "but for the allergy." When my wife said that her favorite breed was a Corgi, I said, "A what?"

Never heard of it. She explained to me what it was and couldn't believe I'd never heard of it.

The next day on our walk, as if on cue, we walked past someone walking a corgi and as soon as we passed them my wife pointed, bulged her eyes, and whispered -- "That's a corgi!"

And then for the next month or more I saw corgis everywhere I went. In the four years since then, I've seen at least a hundred corgis (or is it corgies?). But I swear I cannot recollect ever having seen a corgi before learning what it was called. Here's a picture in case you've never seen a corgi, though I can hardly believe that could be possible, since they're around every corner:

Fastforward to last week. I'm playing a kind of virtual and timed generic scrabble with Wishydig who pounds me routinely in the word game. Looking at the words he formed after the timer dinged, I noticed "Ecru." I looked it up, stunned that he'd have typed in such a bizarre arrangement of letters -- Ecru describes the shade greyish-pale yellow or a light greyish-yellowish brown, according to wikipedia. I sent him a message, and he replied by linking me to a recent television commercial where a kindergartener says "ecru!" while guessing about color identification. This is ecru, by the way:

Anyway, my point should be pretty easy to grasp now: are words the gateway to perception? That is, have I trained my senses to receive only that information which I have already codified in my personal mental dictionary? I suppose there must be a stupid thought experiment somewhere instructing readers to "imagine something they've never heard of."

Does my friend the linguist have a more variegated visual experience as a consequence of his broader vocabulary?


Wishydig said...

welcome back. you're back on the sidebar. it's a little sad that i can't put on the purdue blogs list. but we move on don't we.

Casey said...

What? -- no thoughts about linguistics and perception? Typical "scientist."

Wishydig said...

OK. Try this. Type Ecru into Google™ image search. Which of those is the right colour? You probably tried that already.

But let's take your claim to the extreme. Let's say that I pick a random color from the RGB spectrum on my image editor. I have no idea what that specific shade is called. I can still see it can't I?

Our labels are not rigid. I have a word "beige" that's pretty close to "ecru" in my mind. In fact I would never argue that they are necessarily different. But I can talk about a dark beige or a light beige and that productivity of flexibility in a shade isn't born of the term that I use. Someone without a word for colour still has functioning cones in their retina.

But this isn't to say that labels don't help us categorize. In fact I'd say that your corgi example makes a nice point about attention and labels. Once I learned about brands of guitars I started recognizing features that helped me to recognize what my favourite musicians were playing. But I didn't gain an ability to see a new pattern -- just a tendency to note it and hold on to it.

EnthyAlias said...

Wishydig's mention of pattern recognition is key here.

In complexity theory patterns can only be recognized when a certain tipping point is reached: the noise that eludes definition is de-fined, brought under the auspices of categorization to become sensible. In perception, that might be the noise of tonal differences in color that suddenly taken on distinction: beige looks different from ecru.

Language is another complex system that works in tandem with perception and attention - particularly the latter. Richard Lanham suggsts that language structures our attention to help us cope with the flood of information - from stimuli and from the mass amounts of data we encounter in our current economy. Our attention might get re-structured, then, through the rise of a new word in our vocabulary that labels a pattern that was always there but which we did not recognize (e.g. "corgi").

Since perception is always interpretive, maybe it's not our whole mind that is imprisoned by language, but our attention.

Casey said...

"[Language] structures our attention" -- I like that. That's sort of what I was thinking... so, then, the mind enclosed in language IS sort of in prison.

But I wonder, is it a prison of our own making? -- wouldn't the overload of stimuli, if it were not moderated by the (perceptive?) filter of language, overwhelm us? Would experience be like a constant LSD trip if we didn't have language to order it?

There's a long tradition in mysticism that relies on self-imposed silence as a path to... well, whatever one strives toward spiritually.

EnthyAlias said...

Language appears to be a necessary prison - in the sense of being a required constraint on our attention for exactly the reason you say: we'd be overwhelmed by non-sense and communication would be impossible. (Maybe it's my rhetorical bias, but I still say the purpose of language is communication, despite postmodern pretensions otherwise.)

I guess I'm really just paraphrasing a Foucauldian idea, though. Interesting that Weil used the term "prison." Language operates as a disciplinary force, a system that enables even as it constrains. Thus I would say: could we even escape such a prison? Would my mind be a "mind" in any sensible way outside of language?

I do have to throw my own bug into this, though, by suggesting that this prison is not of our own making, but evolves of its own accord through us. Language exceeds willful human agency to determine its evolution as a symbolic system. We can make up neologisms, but for them to become part of any linguistic system requires a much more unpredictable process of adoption and adaptation.

That's not to say there aren't wardens in this prison. I believe we English PhDs all fit that role neatly - along with all those lay grammarians out there.

Wishydig said...

"so, then, the mind enclosed in language IS sort of in prison."

Well the mind enclosed in anything in sort of in prison. The question then is, IS the mind enclosed in language?

You'll have to make a better case than it helps us with categorization so we are at its mercy.

My jury is still out on this one: does language help us give order to ideas which allows us to make connections or does language limit our understanding of a dynamic knowledge by (falsely?) convincing us that it captures a stable nature of knowledge.

"That's not to say there aren't wardens in this prison. I believe we English PhDs all fit that role neatly - along with all those lay grammarians out there."

Funny. Any warden with a track record like these would be fired for having no idea where the inmates are. But that's assuming we even know who the inmates are and what the bars are. A lot of English PhDs are pretty good about accepting language as it is -- most lay grammarians have no idea what they're talking about. They've memorized Strunk and White and they think it's a good description of effective language.

But neither group has really done anything to shape or contain language. It's those darn kids that make language what it is.

But perhaps it's worth remembering to make a distinction between writing and language.

Casey said...

Michael once said (I think): The purpose of language is to understand children. And I've never heard a better definition.

Wishydig said...

I did. Wow. You actually pay attention to MySpace questionnaires.