Meditations on Mentalese

Question: Cognitive Scientist Steven Pinker states that “People think in a language different to any spoken language”. Discuss.

(Alright it was a little moe specific than that but I can’t quite find anything on my desk at the moment. I’ll clean it one day. Promise.)

Introduction

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” If I had to choose one sentence to represent my argument then it would be this quote attributed to Flannery O’Connor. Mentalese exists across the board, that much is necessary. What we humans have is a ‘levelled up’ form that uses human languages to help to represent abstract terms like love and lust, emotions and ideas, things in faraway galaxies that we have never even seen but we know that they exist from what we know of mathematics and physics. I agree with Pinker that there is mentalese. But I disagree that it is ‘different to any natural language’ in the case of humans.

My argument is against Pinker’s claim that “we think in a language different to any spoken language” because to phrase it as such is deliberately misleading. There are two potential interpretations that we could conclude from this statement. At first glance, Pinker seems to be saying that this thing we call ‘mentalese’ is a language in the sense that it obeys the properties of Universal Grammar, this would be a false assumption as mentalese is not an ‘acquired’ thing, it is how we represent propositions in our molecular minds (Pinker, 2004, p. 82).

The other possible interpretation that one conclude, would be that spoken languages and the language of thought, are fundamentally different things. I agree with the view that language and thought are different things, but not that they are so different that they cannot affect one another as this interpretation of Pinker’s claim suggests.

My stance is closer to that of Nativism than Linguistic Determinism but denies that language and thought are independent systems. I shall be basing my claims off the works of Keith Chen (Could your language affect your ability to save money?, 2012), Monique Fleckon (Flecken, et al., 2014). They, state that the feature of a language to portray the future as a distinct and separate state has an effect on the way in which we perceive the world (Fleckon) and the way in which we spend (Chen).

Discussion

Our brains are too big. We, as a species, would have a greater success rate if we had a smaller head, and smaller brain, simply because birth would not be as traumatic and life threatening (The Science of Dank Memes, 2016). So why is our brain so big? Human intelligence is the obvious answer here but I wish to look at a more specific aspect of human intelligence. One of the functions that our big brain has is that it seems to set us up for language (Pinker, 2004, p. 32) . Be this through general purpose learning strategies or through something like Steven Pinker’s Universal Grammar. Yet, even though the vast majority of our brains have this remarkable ability to acquire language, there are those who have either grown up without the input needed or are suffering from an aphasia. If language and thought are the same thing then those who have either never acquired language, or have lost language, should not be able to think. The fact that they can proves that there is something like a mentalese. But to say that is not to state the whole story. Mentalese does not account for abstract thought. This is another equally possible conclusion that we could draw from the tip of the tongue phenomena that Pinker claims to be layman proof for mentalese (Pinker, 2004, p. 57).

Language and thought being fundamentally different things implies that there can be one without the other. Although thinking about the nonsense that certain politicians sprout, it really does seem like they can manage without it. Language does require thought. What we say is certainly shaped by our thoughts and to some degree, what I wish to discuss is that our thoughts are aided by our language.

For argument’s sake, let’s assume that there is a Language of Thought. We’ll take Pinker’s idea of mentalese as a name for this ‘language’. What properties and features would such a ‘language’ need to have in order to actually exist in a world beyond our hypothetical imaginings? How does it relate to languages as we know them? Any mature human being able to understand/produce a sentence must have some kind of mental representation of what they said. This follows by necessity. In order to be able to impart meaning to what it is that I say, I need to know that what I am saying has some kind of a meaning, even if I do not know exactly what that meaning is for you, I at least have some preconceived idea that is just so automatic that it is quite possibly innate.

This means that mentalese has to be more inclusive than human language. It needs to be able to account for the recursive ability of language and the simplest explanation for this would be that it too has a recursive system (Aydede, 2015). This is not the only similarity between a Language of Thought and human languages. But recent arguments have been laid forth that suggest that it may just be the recursive ability of our thoughts that allow us to construct grammar and language (see Corballis, M.C., 2014). But this supports Pinker’s claim that language is a universal feature of the human aspect (Pinker, 2004). But, so must a system of representation which acts as a medium of thought be present in all thinking life. Humans have mentalese in common with the likes of dogs, and cows, and wolves, but dogs, cows and wolves cannot do abstract mathematics, so if we have the same kind of mentalese then what makes us able to do more with it than the rest of the animal kingdom?

Taking a closer look at what Fleckon, von Stuterheim, and Carrol (2014) have found, we see that their findings support the claim of a ‘weak’ form of linguistic relativity. This helps to explain how, with mentalese aided by human language, we have a far wider range of possibilities of thought. Their study showed that speakers of German were more likely to focus on the potential end points of a motion event than Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) speakers were (Flecken, et al., 2014). They attribute this to the different aspectual markers found in each language. The speakers of German have greater focus on endpoints in both their expression of the event and for the duration of time that their eyes dwelt on the potential endpoint.

Their findings oppose Pinker and gives support to the gentler version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which states that our language and our thoughts are directly interlinked (Kay, P. and Kempton, W., 1984). Such a theory of Linguistic Determinism is commonly supported by the supposedly massive array of words for snow that Eskimos supposedly have. This originally comes from Franz Boas’ text Introduction to the Handbook of North American Indians (Boas, 1911)and has escalated out of proportion since Whorf himself misreported on Boas’ findings in an MIT technology review (Whorf, 1940). Time and time again has the reported number of Eskimo words for snow been changed and misreported, even by lecturers meant to be perpetuating evidence and not what it has been falsely cited as (Pullmum, 1989, p. 280). Despite the untrustworthiness of some of its claims, the idea that our language determines our thought is a possible one, but not on as strong a level as Sapir and Whorf suggested.

To make the claim that our languages shape our thoughts is to make the claim that one without language is one without thoughts. This is what the strictest version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis entails. We have observed feral children being taught languages (Long, M.H., 1990). We saw how difficult it was for them to learn language but to assume that they have no thoughts because they have no language to shape it is absurd. That very idea seems absurd to me. That’s why we have this thing called mentalese.

Keith Chen gives us more ground to stand on with the claim that it is human language that enables us to think abstractly. He matched families on as many levels as he possibly could with the only difference being their language. What he found was that the concept of a future in our mother tongue has some impact on the way in which we spend and save (Could your language affect your ability to save money?, 2012). A handful of families with this difference would mean little as it could be the case that those families who saved more and spoke a futureless language just had a tradition of saving more. But if we replicate this study on more and more groups of people then we can find out just what it is that causes the difference in their saving habits. If it really is the case that futureless language speakers are better savers because their concept of the future is an extended form of the present (Could your language affect your ability to save money?, 2012), then we can conclude that our language definitely has an impact of abstract thought.

Outlook

Pinker definitely seems to be on the side with the stronger arguments for base thoughts. Thoughts which must be present in animals and language-less people alike. On some level, Pinker and those who stand beside him must be right when they say that there is this so-called mentalese. Where I disagree with Pinker is the level to which this occurs. In my personal experience, I have never been able to ponder about abstract concepts such as love versus lust without formulating my ideas in strings of words. Mentalese exists. It is a base system of representation that enables thought. But this is limited in its capabilities. What studies like those conducted by Fleckon, (Flecken, et al., 2014) and Chen (Could your language affect your ability to save money?, 2012) can tell us is that our language does at least have some impact on the way in which we perceive the world. There is some extent to which our language shapes our thoughts.

However, not enough evidence exists yet for us to conclusively say this. We need more studies along these lines investigating the connection between language and abstract thought. We also need to conclude that it is indeed true that non-human animals are incapable of abstract thought. I stand with Chen, von Stutterheim, Fleckon, and I disagree with Pinker and the schools of Nativism and Linguistic Determinism. ‘I do not think that I think in the way that he [Pinker] thinks I think. (Cole, 1998).

References

Aydede, M., 2015. The Language of Thought Hypothesis. [Online]
Available at: http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2015/entries/language-thought/
[Accessed 30 August 2016].

Boas, F., 1911. Introduction to the Handbook of North American Indians. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin.

Cole, D., 1998. I Don’t Think So: PInker on the Thinker. [Online]
Available at: http://www.d.umn.edu/~dcole/pinker.htm
[Accessed 15 October 2016].

Corballis, M.C., 2014. The recursive mind: The origins of human language, thought, and civilization. Princeton University Press. Vancouver

Could your language affect your ability to save money?. 2012. [Film] Directed by Kieth Chen. Edinburgh: TED.

Flecken, M., von Stutterheim, C. & Carrol, M., 2014. Grammatical aspect infuences motion event perception: fidings from a cross- linguistic nonverbal. Language and Cognition, 6(1), pp. 45-78.

Kay, P. and Kempton, W., 1984. What is the Sapir‐Whorf hypothesis?. American anthropologist, 86(1), pp.65-79.

Long, M.H., 1990. Maturational constraints on language development. Studies in second language acquisition, 12(03), pp.251-285.

Pinker, S., 1994. Mentalese. In: The Language Instinct. s.l.:Harper Perenial Modern Classic, pp. 55-82.

Pinker, S., 2004. The Language Instinct. s.l.:Harper Perennial Modern Classic.

Pullmum, G. K., 1989. The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory, Volume 7, pp. 275-281.

The Science of Dank Memes. 2016. [Film] Directed by SciShow. s.l.: YouTube.

Whorf, B. L., 1940. Science and Linguistics. Technology Review (MIT), 42(6), pp. 229-231, 247-248.

That which Distorts our Eye

A catch-up post to get back on track: Eyes

I HAVE TIME!!

It’s incredible. I haven’t felt like I actually have enough spare time to do things like this. I’ve been frantically procrastinating and trying to catch up. But at last, I can take a breath and not worry about the immediate repercussions.

Eyes. They are really an incredible thing. Loved by poets and artists alike. Eyes and what allow us to perceive the world and it is our past experience that distorts what we pay attention to. Indeed, our eyes display no bias towards good or bad. Not instinctively anyway. What we focus on is shaped by what we have experienced. Now, I’m not saying that those who have experienced joy will see joy or visa versa. It’s not that simple. One can experience a great amount of happiness in their life but feel that it was not satisfactory, they then search for little bits of sadness. They focus their eyes on what will make the sad. A friend of mine has been through a great deal of pain and suffered through more than I think she should have. Despite not having one herself, she is one of the most mothering and nurturing people I know. People like her have received a great amount of pain but chose to focus, and work towards the good.

Our eyes are fascinating things. So complex confusing, yet, completely understandable if one takes the time to research how they developed. As this is meant to be day three for my thirty day writing challenge, I shall delay no more and get right down to it.

Prompt number three is: Your first kiss and your first love. If separate, discuss separately.

Continue reading “That which Distorts our Eye”

Riding my Demons

A Daily Response to the Daily Post’s Daily Prompt: Moonshots

So I am one of those people who will not do anything if I have not got the motivation for it. Sometimes the motivation comes to me in a spur of joy and other times it comes in the form of maintaining adherence to my moral code – in other words, it’s motivated by obligation. But lately, I haven’t had any of that motivation. I haven’t felt that excitement that I used to feel while writing. I no longer feel that sense of joy when I devour the knowledge kindly imparted by others. Whenever I have the motivation to do something, anxiety kills it. And when I don’t have that motivation, I no longer care that I don’t.

I was looking at the moon on my way home yesterday, just enjoying its serene beauty. I remembered the day when I wished that I would follow Armstrong and Aldrin onto the moon. I remembered what I used to feel like. When anxiety and depression hadn’t slam-dunked my dreams into an eldritch ocean of despair. I want those days back. I want those days back. I started to slip further down the slope that I have been dragged down for the past few weeks, and I remembered what I wanted. I wanted emotion. I wanted passion. I wanted anger and I wanted rage. I wanted the burning desire to achieve my goals. I wanted to feel the pain and suffering that urged me to rejoice in those calm  moments. I wanted peace, I wanted tranquillity. What I wanted, was to feel human again.I know I have spoken about this point several

I know I have spoken about this point several times before but this is really all I want. I had someone say that they hate me and that they can never forgive me for what I did. I was caught in a situation that I could lie to get out of, but then my lie would not have been believed. Or I could have told the truth and hurt not just the person whom my words were directed at but also the one who I was trying to keep afloat. My moral code does not forbid lies and deceit. It acknowledges the blissful state that is ignorant and only if one expresses a great enough desire to know the truth of the situation does deceiving them become bad. I believe in freedom. Well, the illusion of it. I believe that we should all be able to live our lives how we choose to so long as that choice does not harm others. I don’t care if you want to agree with this or not, but I would be interested in finding out your reasons for why or why not. I want to feel truly human emotion, yet all I have at the moment is my undesirable reason.

First and foremost, I want to feel human again. In order to do that, there are a few things that I feel I need first. This post is dedicated to that list. Of what I want in order to feel human again. This post is dedicated to the people like me. Those who can no longer fight their demons. Our lives may be short, but that just means that we can concentrate our greatness.  Continue reading “Riding my Demons”

Thanks Dearie

A Two-in-One Response to the Daily Post’s Daily Prompt: Complicated

Today’s prompt of complicated, I am merging with my ’30 day Writing Challenge’ day two: Your earliest memory.

I have spoken of memories before on my site here. Those who know me on a personal level will know that I have a shocking memory for ordinary things and an amazing trigger memory for academic and irrelevant aspects. The first memory that I can remember, well, question is, was it even mine?

The notion of memory is such a strange one because it is not solid. We know this because we forget. We forget, and we misremember. Ever had it the case that you are recalling a memory with a friend only to realise that you placed the wrong friend in that memory?

This could have been for a number of reasons. Maybe you really wanted that person to be there or there was someone there that reminded you of them. You might have even told the memory before to someone and intentionally placed said friend into the memory to make them look better/worse, and then in your present retelling of it, you now genuinely believe that lie that you told. Memory is malleable. Memory is not hard set. My earliest memory that I can think of comes to what I can remember was happening in my dreams when I lived in my old house.

I would constantly fall off the bed onto the concrete floor and I wouldn’t wake up at all. My parents would charge around the house brandishing a rolling pin to see who was breaking in. Nope. Just my slumbering self, tumbling onto  the floor. I suspect that this is because of the kind of dreams I used to have. I would constantly dream that my soul left my body and floated around the house. Wandering through the passageways and snacking on whatever leftovers were in the fridge. The dream itself was peaceful but there was one aspect of it that utterly terrified me. There was an archway in that house that I would have to pass through if I wanted to leave my room. If I remember this correctly then it was every third time that I passed through that arch that I would become locked in place. It was as if I would get trapped in a stasis field and not be able to move myself.

I suspect that this was the cause for my not waking up when I hit the ground. I cannot remember what the exact correlation between dream and fall was, but I feel as if there was a link and as I have nothing else to go on. I shall accept that as potential truth until I can recall more about the situation.

I also used to be rather chubbe. Needless to say I was quite a heavy sleeper.

People can Reach Me

30 Day writing Challenge. Day One: Five Problems with Social Media

Top of my list, as yu have probably guessed already, it’s that with social media, people can Reach me.

I like my seclusion. I like my privacy. I like being able to share my life with those that I chose and nobody else. I think that the ‘reach’ of social media is a great thing for businesses but that it is too easily abused by the largest businesses who pay to bolster their viewings.

Issue number two would be the fact that it is so easy to communicate. Don’t get me wrong, I think this is one of the greatest aspects of social media. Especially for folks like me who have been hit with a case of the panicology. We anxiety prone people adore social media for lightening the burden of conversations for us. But even we need to admit, it would be really great if we could speak like we do over texts.

Furthermore, and this is another hate-love situation, the ability to completely ignore what one has said and continuing with other conversations until one has the mental strength to face the one who we would rather avoid. I am terrible at confrontation and the fact that social media breaks down this barrier into digestible chunks for me is greatly appreciated.(and when I speak of social media I am mainly speaking of social messaging networks) What I think it is wise to dislike about this is the fact that it makes it that much harder for us to confront someone in person. I have to do that in a couple of days from now and I am already feeling the spiders crawling around my gut, just waiting for the moment when they can launch out of me.

  1. The fact that I am always reachable
  2. How easy it is to communicate
  3. The way business can overpower you
  4. The lack of necessity in a timely response
  5. and last, the obvious one, the loss of meaning over text. And the loss of facial expressions overall.

None of the issues that I have with social media are issues that I would remove. Although I think that these things are issues, I think that they are a greater boon than bane.