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LANGUAGE, CULTURE AND THOUGHT. Авторский курс лекций


Авторский курс лекций

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Once the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, King of Spain and master of several European languages, professed to ‘speaking Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse’.

A nation’s language reflects its culture, psyche, and modes of thought. It is well known that the grammar of some languages is simply not logical enough to express complex ideas. German, for example, is an ideal vehicle for formulating the most precise philosophical profundities, as it is a particularly orderly language, which is why the Germans have such orderly, systematic minds. Due to its grammar order we always hear the goose-step (leisureliness, unhurriedness – неторопливый шаг) in their speech.

Some languages do not have a future tense, so their speakers naturally have no grasp of the future. English has a future tense, but English speakers can hold lengthy conversations about forthcoming events wholly in the present tense (next week I’m flying to…) without any detectable loosening in their grip on the concepts of futurity. The Babylonians would have been hard-pressed to understand Crime and Punishment (of Dostoevsky), because their language used one and the same word to describe both of these concepts.

We always remember, that no language – not even that of the most ‘primitive’ tribes – is inherently unsuitable for expressing the most complex ideas. Any shortcomings in a language’s ability to philosophize simply boil down to the lack of some specialized abstract vocabulary and perhaps a few syntactic constructions, but these can easily be borrowed, just as all European languages pinched their verbal philosophical toolkit from Latin, which in turn lifted it wholesale from Greek.

Philosophers of all persuasions and nationalities have lined up to proclaim that each language reflects the qualities of the nation that speaks it. In the 17th century, the Englishman Francis Bacon explained that one can infer ‘significant marks of the genius and manners of people and nations from their languages’. The Frenchman Etienne de Condillac a century later agreed that ‘everything confirms that each language expresses the character of the people who speak it’. His younger contemporary, the German Gottfried Herder, concurred that ‘the intellect and the character of every nation are stamped in its language’. Industrious nations, he said, ‘have an abundance of moods in their verbs, while more refined nations have a large amount of nouns that have been exalted to abstract notions’. He also added, that ‘the genius of a nation is nowhere better revealed than in the physiognomy of its speech’. The American Ralph Waldo Emerson summed it up in 1844: ‘We infer the spirit of the nation in great measure from the language, which is a sort of monument to which each forcible individual in a course of many hundred years has contributed a stone’.

The only problem with this impressive international unanimity is that it breaks down as soon as thinkers move on from the general principles to reflect on the particular qualities of particular languages, and about what these linguistic qualities can tell about the qualities of particular nations. In 1889 the seventeen-year-old Bertrand Russel, being at a crammer in London preparing for the scholarship entrance exam to Trinity College (Cambridge), responded with these pearls: ‘We may study the character of a people by the ideas which its language best expresses’. We naturally draw the inference from his words, that if the concept doesn’t have any form of expression in language, it means that this concept does not exist in the culture of this nation. The prominent philosopher of ancient times Cicero embarked on a lengthy sermon about the lack of a Greek equivalent for the Latin word ineptus (meaning impertinent, or tactless). For him, the absence of the word was a proof that the fault was so wide-spread among the Greeks that they didn’t even notice it. Centuries later Bertrand Russel argued this statement by saying that the Greeks had such impeccable manners that they simply did not need a word to describe a non-existent flaw.

For many centuries, many philosophers entertained the sentiment that languages are not equal: some languages are better, because they are more matured, better (mentally) cultivated and intelligent. One of the objective reasons of the immense popularity of the French language in the 18th century was the fact that this language was considered the paragon of logic and clarity. The French writer and philosopher Voltaire once noticed that the unique genius of the French language was its clearness and order. A whole century earlier, in the 17th century, the French grammarians had spent decades trying to understand why it was that the French possessed clarity beyond all other languages in the world and why French was endowed with such clarity and precision that simply translating into it had the effect of a real commentary. It was Louis Le Laboureur, who in 1669 discovered that the answer was simplicity itself. His painstaking grammatical researches revealed that, in contrast to speakers of other languages, ‘we French follow in all our utterances exactly the order of thought, which is the order of Nature’. The later thinker Antoine de Rivarol put it: ‘What is not clear may be English, Italian, Greek or Latin, but never French’.

Not all intellectuals of the world unite, however, in concurring with this analysis. Equally distinguished thinkers, mostly from outside France, have expressed different opinions. The Danish linguist Otto Jesperson believed that the English was superior to French in a whole range of attributes, including logic, for, as opposed to French, English is a ‘methodical, energetic, business-like and sober language, that does not care much to finery and elegance, but does care for logical consistency’. He also concluded: ‘As the language is, so also is the nation’.

Great minds have churned out even richer fare when advancing from the issue of how language reflects the character of its speakers to the grander question of how language influences the thought processes of its speakers. Benjamin Lee Whorf captivated the whole generation with the idea, that out habit of separating the world into objects (like ‘stone’) and actions (like ‘fall’) is not a true reflection of reality but merely a division thrust upon us by the grammar of European languages. According to Benjamin Lee Whorf, American Indian languages, which combine the verb and the object into one word, impose a ‘monistic view’ on the universe, so their speakers would simply not understand our distinction between objects and actions.

A generation later (in1975), George Steiner in his book After Babel resoned that the ‘conventions of forwardness in our syntax’, our ‘articulate futurity’, or, in other words, the existence of the future tense, is what gives us hope for the future, saves us from nihilism, even from mass suicide. He said ‘If our system of tenses was more fragile, we might not endure’.

More recently, one philosopher has revolutionized a new, pretty debatable and controversial, theory in understanding of Todor history by uncovering the real cause for Henry’s break with the Pope. The Anglican revolution, he established, was not a result of the king’s desperate wish for an heir, as previously assumed, nor was it a cynical ploy to siphon off the Church’s wealth and property. Rather, the birth of Anglican theology ensued inevitable from the exigencies of the English language: English grammar, being halfway between French and German, compelled English religious thought inexorably towards a position halfway between Catholicism (French) and Protestantism (German).

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