linguistic relativity, creativity, & the human condition

I’ve mentioned before that humans are perpetual creators… the act oozes out on its own, without even needing input from us. That may lead us to the next question: what then does creating look like when we are intentional about it?

I pulled out my journal and brainstormed about the ways in which we speak about events, and how our words go on to shape so much of our longer-standing interpretations, memories, and beliefs.

A page from my journal as a way to visualize word manipulation and choice.

I had a feeling of being uplifted after doing this mini-exercise. When we use the English language at least, we tend to speak in dualities (e.g. either you do this or you do that, “It’s my way or the highway!”). But when you consider that the power to create lies in your own influence over the words you choose, you may find it’s much easier to come up with a third option, even a fourth, a fifth, for whatever roadblock you were facing, whatever original interpretation of events was keeping you stuck. In relation, I loved that Frank Herbert (the American science-fiction writer, author of widely-read Dune and the Dune saga) once said: “Whether a thought is spoken or not, it is a real thing and has powers of reality.”

Charles Simic’s work “Return to a place lit by a glass of milk,” a poem I was introduced to during a poetry workshop led by the incredibly cool and insightful Natalie Diaz (please read more about her here: linked), gave me goosebumps, for how he constructed language in a way that made it possible for a glass of milk to light a kitchen room! An image I’d never had in my head before was created through a unique and artistic manipulation of words.

The train of thought I was on led me to its next stop: considering how much we are empowered, but also in other ways limited, by the specific vocabulary and grammar rules of the predominant language we rely on. Then, I thought, that idea sounded a lot like the essay that had been sitting in my folder for a few weeks… Science and Linguistics by Benjamin Lee Whorf (yes, the Sapir-Whorf guy). This is a fantastic essay, and I don’t say that lightly. I say this because the way you follow along with each factoid and idea presented, and the way they are built up to support an almost epiphany-level-like realization, that flips the table on the way you’ve always seen things, is just exciting.

What Whorf shares is that the original theory or understanding of the way we think (the act of thinking specifically) may have looked something like this (or at least it’s how it looked in my head):

A personal depiction of Whorf’s description of old accepted ways of thinking about language, thinking, and reaching truths.

This theory of thought rests on the idea that humans have all the basics they need to take in, describe, and then reach big Truths about reality. Yet, he declares, “natural logic contains [the following fallacy]… it does not see that the phenomena of a language are to its own speakers largely of a background character and so are outside the critical consciousness and control of the speaker” (Whorf). He describes that in order to really be able to know something, you must be just a little bit larger in relation to it. You have to be standing a bit farther back, your eye better attuned, to distinguish between this and that.

But how – when we can only describe the world within the confines of our own language – can we understand in full the Truths of those who see what we see, yet use verbs where we use nouns, or use timeless descriptors for concepts we consider significant only because they are related in some way to time! How can we know, even, that speakers of other languages are perceiving and reaching truths that may be far beyond our own reach, when we are so engrossed in the ways in which we specifically grammatically categorize words, the ways we place them in time, the ways we think about them? How would we know any different, until we accepted that our base is not as wide as we may think, that there is far more to Truth than we could ever even hope to grasp, forget about understanding!

I’ll include a small example of the above concepts in the following quote about the word “love” in Chinese. Here, I highly encourage you also to read Whorf’s original essay with me! I will link it below.

“‘Love’, this English word: like other English words it has tense. ‘Loved’ or ‘will love’ or ‘have loved’. All these specific tenses mean Love is time-limited thing. Not infinite. It only exist in particular period of time. In Chinese, Love is ‘爱’ (ai). It has no tense. No past and future. Love in Chinese means a being, a situation, a circumstance. Love is existence, holding past and future. If our love existed in Chinese tense, then it will last for ever. It will be infinite.” — Xiaolu Guo, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

Whorf recognizes that there are of course connecting threads, which unify humanity in a number of ways. For example, we do all rely on some kind of logic to add meaning to the words we pick. Yet the state of our conditioning to this world (the languages we learn), and the truths that become accessible to us because of them, vary, and not insignificantly. A depiction of Whorf’s revelations may therefore look something like this:

A personal depiction of what Whorf may call a new way of looking at the same old thing.

Within the image, I’ve mentioned the idea of “each human’s conditioning.” This has been inspired by Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, which I will get more into perhaps in another blog post, because the implications are exciting and deserving of their own space for the tangents they provide.


To the existential head-scratching and nail-biting that has the potential to follow learning of life-altering news, and being posed with questions that force us to rethink, Whorf provided a beautiful note in response… “The sense of precarious dependence of all we know upon linguistic tools which themselves are largely unknown need [not] be discouraging to science but should, rather, foster that humility which accompanies the true scientific spirit, and thus forbid that arrogance of the mind which hinders real scientific curiosity and detachment” (Whorf).

All of this thinking and writing only underscores for me that there is so much more to creating than I could ever contain within a simple blog post. I loved Maria Popova’s reflections of other thinkers’ works and words here: Octavia Butler on Creative Drive, the World-Building Power of Our Desires, and How We Become Who We Are (linked). I want to read more works like this and Whorf’s essay. I want to rethink my reliance on interpreting ourselves in relation to others using the concepts of time and simultaneity which Einstein presented (and which I elaborated on in the blog piece “on relativity”). I can’t wait to hold whatever thoughts I have next up to new frames and new lights! Access to more viewfinders is truly a beautiful and humbling thing!


Link to Whorf’s original essay here: linked

My annotations on the essay, so we can read together! linked

Charles Simic’s beautiful poem below… Support his works here: linked.

Late at night our hands stop working. / They lie open with tracks of animals / Journeying across the fresh snow. / They need no one. Solitude surrounds them.

As they come closer, as they touch, / It is like two small streams / Which upon entering a wide river / Feel the pull of the distant sea.

The sea is a room far back in time / Lit by the headlights of a passing car. / A glass of milk glows on the table. / Only you can reach it for me now.
Charles Simic, Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk

thank you for reading,

hina

3/21/21

Published by Hina Iqbal

I am a student studying medicine who enjoys sharing thoughts and reflections on the things I pick up around me!

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