Archive for category Language

The power of language

Two hundred thousand years ago, give or take, we acquired the problem-solving gene that defines Homo sapiens. Intelligent man. The Bible poetically refers to it as eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge. And the first problem we had to overcome was the very limited ability of homo erectus to communicate with each other. For achieving dominion over all the beats of the land and birds of the air required strategic planning, co-operation, idea sharing, imagination. It required language. And sophisticated language.

And we developed it and achieved great things as a result. So successful were we in fact that the Bible also records that God and his angels became alarmed that we had built the Tower of Babel and were challenging God himself, (Gen. 11: 6-9) “the Lord said, ‘If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.’ So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world.”

So the solution to denying Homo sapiens intellectual ambitions was to create confusion in their ability to communicate with each other. And we still carry out this confusion of languages today. Language is just as often used to confuse as to illuminate. We are fundamentally tribal and we use language to define our tribe and confuse other tribes. We can be amazingly co-operative within our tribe and brutally violent to those outside our tribe. The Middle East and African conflicts are largely created because of the political desire to unite tribes into artificially created countries under a common language. It just is not working. They define their community by their language not by artificial lines on a map. In Papua New Guinea there are between 800 and 1000 languages. It is our ears more than our eyes that tell us if someone is from Northland or Southland, New Zealand or Australia, England or America. The Americans were from England so why did the founding fathers create such a distinctive accent? To define themselves as a new tribe of Americans? Even within a city, the East-End London Cockneys developed their own rhyming slang primarily to confuse the outsiders who could not be trusted and, of course, the old Bill.

My interest in the power of language was piqued this week by hearing a Ted X lecture by a Vietnamese immigrant in the USA, Phuc Tran talking about the subjunctive mood. Probably like you, I could not recall back through my youthful education when the intrigue of the subjunctive mood was explained by my English teacher. But to recap, the subjunctive mood is used in English to explore imaginary or conditional situations.

“If I were prime minister I would ban brocolli”

“If it had not rained we probably would have gone to the beach”

“If I could just make this thing do that then the outcome would be…”

Subjunctive forms of verbs are typically used to express various states of unreality such as wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, obligation, or action that has not yet occurred. And as such the subjunctive mood is so critical to the fundamental point of language for Homo sapiens, that is to problem solve. For problem solving can only occur in the language of imagination.

Which is why Phuc Tran’s talk was so interesting. He was raised from a child in the USA and so was very familiar with the subjunctive mood in English. Phuc Tran has taught Latin, Greek, German, and Sanskrit at independent schools in New York and Maine and was an instructor at Brooklyn College’s Summer Latin Institute. In 2010, he served on a committee to revise the National Latin Praxis exam for ETS. Phuc currently teaches at Waynflete School in Portland. But his parents were raised in Vietnam and although his father was a lawyer and politician with the expected skills in the Vietnamese language, and yet he had no comprehension of the subjunctive mood in that language.

That came to light in a very poignant way. When they were escaping during the fall of Saigon, the Tran family was about to board a bus to the airport when young Phuc became hysterical. In calming him down they missed the first bus and caught the second. That first bus was hit by artillery and all on board were killed. The second bus made it safely. So today Phuc ponders the ‘what ifs’. His father cannot comprehend this line of thought. His father does not do “what ifs”. His father says “Why on earth do you waste time talking about what did not happen?”

His father has a point. And in that point we can also see that the subjunctive mood has two very distinctive moods. On the positive side it is the pathway to discovery, to problem solving, to inventiveness, to progress. On the dark side it can spiral down into regret, fear and fatalism. Sometimes through history some of our greatest geniuses were also among our most troubled minds. Soaring with the positive possibilities, then spiralling down into the negative fears of failure. The subjunctive mood is a wild horse that should not be ridden bareback; it needs reins, saddle and stirrups.

Phuc thinks that absence of the subjunctive mood may be the reason for the stoic resilience of the Vietnamese people. Does that mean that they are also an unimaginative, uncreative race because they do not have a subjunctive mood in their language?

Of course Phuc’s talk attracted some intellectual debate from other linguistic academics over the true definition of the subjunctive mood and whether the Vietnamese language does express it in different ways to English.  That is not a debate I wish to explore as, whatever the outcome, the point is what a significant tool language is in the development of our species and how fascinating it is that we have this conflict that originated in the time of babel whereby language is used as much to divide us as it is to unite us. Anyway the only Linguist’s observation that actually made any sense to me was from my daughter, Samara, who studied linguistics at Otago University, when she simply observed that the culture creates the language, not the other way round.

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