Language in the Brain #1

Language is to speak, right?

First things first, ask anyone what they think language is for and the answer will probably be: “well it’s there so we can speak, exchange our thoughts and have arguments.” They are right. Language is there so we can communicate. Humans have (perhaps sadly) not evolved the ability to communicate telepathically (sadly, because at the moment I am writing this on the train on my way to an interview in Reading, I’d rather the two women behind me had their saucy conversation about their husbands silently). Back to language use; the only way I can order a nice cup of chocolate mocha from my local coffee shop is by using language (spoken, writer or signed). I put together a bunch of sounds and there it happens (almost by magic) the barista executes my request (well, I still have to pay but that is another matter). Other times, I’ll use the same sort of sounds to describe how I feel, how glad I am to see my friend in the street etc. More, I can bunch up all those sounds and I might get into a heated argument. While we could spend ages listing communicative situations, we will stop here for now.

So far so good, as I have illustrated it so far, language is definitely here to speak… Of if you prefer:

Language is a system for the externalisation and internalisation of our thoughts.

But consider the moment I go to Italy (I have never been so this is wishful thinking) using the set sounds I used earlier to get a mocha will probably lead to a much more frustrating outcome (even thought we’re in Italy and by my stereotypes all they do is drink coffee, right?) where I simply might not get my coffee. No need to spell it even more we all know it, at the expense of great effort, languages differ. The sounds are different, the way those sounds are organised is different and so on. No specific organisation seems to make more sense than another. Why should the adjective come before the noun (blue car) in English but after the noun in French (voiture bleue)? While one might argue that within those specific languages there are structural constraints, comparing these two languages no order seems better than the other, and indeed it does not really matter; the same meaning is conveyed that the car is blue equally perfectly in both languages. This sort of “mess” linguists like to call it “arbitrariness”. Which means that at some point a “choice” was made (although no one really said explicitly: “from now on we shall put ze adjective before ze noun” but rather that this happened through evolution of language –much like gene selection) and it turns out that it has been preserved. Yet this arbitrary mess make total sense to us when we know “the code”. Ah! Now that I mention “the code” it may be time to add a bit more to our working definition of language. Indeed, you have to be in on the secret to understand it.

So here it is:

Language is a social and conventional system for the externalisation and internalisation of our thoughts.

Language is social because it applies to a certain group of the population, and conventional because it follows a sort of agreement that it is how the system works. In a way it’s a bit like being let in a special club, where you comply to its practices and with it comes its secrets etc. All of a sudden this almost disembodied “code” become more vivid. And indeed it is if we consider what hearing the following succession of sounds k – ᴧ – p – ə (cuppa) triggers. The first thing those sounds might trigger could be the representation of a prototypical cup –maybe even your favourite one (you know the one with the multicoloured stripes?)– but does it stop there? Probably not. Indeed, the simple utterance of this word will soon bring a lot more to your mind, further than the cup, it might trigger the feeling that you want some coffee (or tea if you’re not a coffee drinker), maybe you can even taste it, but it goes further. It might then bring up a feeling of comfort, maybe after a day of work or on a break from a stressful day, or evoke catching up or gossiping with a friend (I wonder who would be into that kind of thing…). Suddenly through the use of language, this coded system for the externalisation of thoughts becomes a very powerful and far reaching tool, that does not just allow us to communicate but that seems to have the capacity to trigger all sorts of mental states in one’s brain. Indeed, words can hurt, make you giggle, comfort you, convince you and so on. It is important, at this point, to take stock and come to terms with the fact that language does have this rather intimate relationship with thoughts or mental states. And in that sense language in its use may be much more than an externalisation/internalisation device.

Could we therefore see language more like a tool that, given its intimate link with mental states and representations, may add onto such representations? We might therefore want to consider what kind of an impact language might have on those representations.

However, this is where I will end this blog entry so as to get some first reactions or get you wanting more. ‘Till then introspect!

Leave a Reply