Search This Blog

Saturday, May 06, 2006

How I Make Sense of How People Talk

As I listen to someone speak or write, I'm first paying attention to how they put the building blocks of language together - what they associate, how they jump from one subject to the next, how they tag similarity and difference; where they go when they make these associative leaps.

I threatened to continue the conversation I started about how the structure of language dictates what you can say or think as you're using it.

I'm reminded of Whorf's work. In Hopi, there are only two forms of the verb - objective and subjective. Meaning, it's built-in to not tell a lie in Hopi; everything is presented as your point of view (POV) as if it is an intangible that you are referring to. You'd use the subjective when what you're talking about is not able to be seen by both people. In Hopi, it is the built-in structure that always says "it seems to me that..." This structure is in what you did yesterday or what you intend to do next. As you talk in Hopi, the past, the future, etc. is all brought to the present moment. The reason you're bringing it to the present is inherent in your motives for saying it. (Actually, there's alot of teasing that goes on in Hopi that speculates and assigns humourous "shameful" motives. )

In Hopi, instead of conjugating verbs, there is a huge category of adverbs that talk about direction, duration, qualities, sequences - it's these many, many adverbs that some say make Hopi regard the world from the POV of physicists and superb observers. To the Hopi, the world is made up of actions that are internal or witnessed; these relationships are described, not defined.

You can try, but you cannot really say "from my point of view" in English. It's always a qualification, a frame, an add-on uttered in an attempt to modify the rest of the what you say. It relies on the the other person to compensate for whatever you say that follows. So saying it implies that the other person has the ability and also does know how to add the frame in to modifiy the meaning of what follows.

In fact many people cannot do this brain-work, because they have little practice at suspending. Suspension is what I'm asking someone to do when I'd qualifiy something that I say with the phrase, "from my point of view." Since that's what I'm asking people to do, now I specifically ask them to do that and teach them how to do it instead of just using the paraphrase.

Every time we open our mouth or write in English, there's a larger implication that we are adding to or defining POV globally - we are saying what reality "is" as if what "is" is an affirmed, shared set of "facts." The repetitive teen expression of "like" seems to try to compensate for this in English. It means, "as if" but not yet quite committed to whatever follows. It's tricky to describe relationships in English, because to describe something, you almost have to exaggerate the characteristic.

What English seems to do better than any other language is reflected in using the direct object - giving the cultural impression that people can "do something" to another thing and affect it, control it. To some extent, you can, so that's why English has become more popular worldwide. English is also useful for gratuituous reordering - you can change the sequence of words in English and still be understood by those other people who order words differently than you do.

Anyway - this is some of what I'm looking at when I think about how language affects my ability to communicate with other people.

No comments:

Post a Comment