Keys to Wisdom Keys

Keys. You may have some jingling in your pocket or handbag. Take them out. Look at them. Describe them. Collins dictionary remarks that they are metal instruments that, when rotated, open locks. But there is more to them than that.

In a recent survey, one group used the adjectives "little", "lovely","magic", and "intricate" to describe them while another chose "awkward","worn", "jagged", and "serrated".

This cleverly designed study, reported in this week's New Scientist, attempted to prove scientifically what poets have always known. Language matters. The first group of describers were Spaniards, who see keys as feminine; the second were Germans, for whom they are masculine. The words they used were identified by "gender-blind" English speakers as gender-linked.

The situation was reversed in the case of bridges, for Germans “fragile”,”beautiful”, and “elegant”; for Spaniards “big”, “dangerous”, and”sturdy”. The next step for Lera Boroditsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is to investigate if bridge design actually differs in the two countries or if it is simply a matter of perception.

Until now, the science of language has emphasised its universality. All humans are hard-wired for language. It doesn’t matter, the argument has been, whether you identify the colour of blood as red or rouge, you bleed when cut. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Moving from language to language is, therefore, a simple matter of translation.

Just as psychologists believe they have proved that humans across the world identify the same female faces as “beautiful”, decoding characteristics such as youth and symmetry which promise reproductive
health, language scientists thought they had proved the universality of thought. Words were just labels for things we all understood.

But reality, it now appears, is much more complex. Because, if the universal pattern were really universal, then the model with the ring of confidence from the Colgate toothpaste ad would be the most desirable
woman in the world. Of course, she’s not.

It’s the same with the universal ideas described by language. Boroditsky and her colleague, Dan Slobin of the University of California, are chipping away at the orthodoxy with studies designed to reveal the
interaction of thoughts and language. They believe that from infancy our entry into the world of thought is governed by the language we hear around us and that, although we may see colours and other aspects of the physical world in the same way, our understanding of love, life, and time can be hugely different. For Mandarin speakers time is vertical, not horizontal as it is for English speakers. Ask a monolingual Mandarin speaker to point into the future and he will point down, not along like a satellite in orbit, as we would. How influential is that distinction in his making sense of the world? We don’t know.

What we know is that half of the world’s 6,000 languages are in danger of extinction. Does this elimination of diversity matter? Are these languages simply no longer useful in the modern world? After all, if you want to get a job in Nairobi or Alicante or Edinburgh, what you need to speak is English, not some antiquated tongue which hardly anyone understands.

Perhaps it does matter. At home, Gaels have long told us that the soul of Gaeldom and the wisdom of our forebears are held within their language and literature as a sailing ship contains its timbers and its sails. They believe that the poetry of the ancients can only be understood and appreciated in the tongue in which they were written. To translate them is to create something different. The meaning of the original can only be glimpsed in translation, not fully apprehended.Those trying to protect the language of Scots have described a pithy, couthy sense of being that is embedded in it.

This concept is perhaps hard to understand for monolingual English speakers for several reasons. One, because they are monolingual and therefore have a limited understanding of linguistic difference. Two,
because English itself, in becoming universal, has done away with the particular. English exists in many forms, from journalese to business English; the broken English which globetrotting polyglots often use to each other; the English of the internet and computers; American, Australian, and Indian English; but most of these are comprehensible to most of us.

A succinct and lucid language, it is undeniably a useful tool, but its global status makes it relatively value-free. It can also be bland. The flowering of the Elizabethan age, when 10,000 new words appeared, has
gone. Subcultures such as rap music throw up their own words, often expressing an alienated rage. Scrabble fiends and crossword fanatics will plunder a new Oxford dictionary, published this week, of weird and wonderful words – such as erinaceous for hedgehog-like – but most of us use a fairly limited vocabulary.

There is a victory in the fact that science now appreciates the poetry of language, languages can be keys to other, magic lands, keys to chests of wisdom, to hearts, and minds. To be monolingual is to inhabit only one room of the house of knowledge.

The Scottish Herald
4th Dec 2002