- Tyler Andor
- Published on
Martin Heidegger called language the house of being. It's an inspiring metaphor, and captures the spirit of the 20th century philosophical and linguistic movements that called attention to language as either, or both, the cause of and/or the solution to conceptual problems.
Perhaps the next most famous remark on language comes from Ludwig Wittgenstein: "the limits of my language are the limits of my world."
Equally influential apart from philosophy was the work of linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf and anthropologist Edward Sapir. Inaugurated by Whorf's paper "Science and Linguistics"1, their work postulated that a culture's language limits what it is possible for a person of that culture to think and believe. This came to be known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
John McWhorter has well described some of the ways in which recent linguistic research challenges any strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.2
For anyone who has spent much thought on the matter, though, there continues to be a sense of interrelation between language, thought, and being.
I recently listened to an interview with one of the world's relatively small number of hyperpolyglots. Vaughn Smith, in a conversation with Tyler Cowen, painted this picture from his experience:
Language is a key to someone's culture, to someone's world. Even if you do not happen to be in that person's country at that time. It's very sacred, and it's very private for some people. [...] When you get into learning the language, you start to think in a different way. You realize every language works differently, it makes people think differently...there's a soul to the language. It's like you're starting to become this new, miniature other person/version of yourself when you use that language. It comes with the native speaker's sense of home, sense of belonging, sense of identity. Language is identity for many people. ...you're going into a different world.
It strikes me that how we understand the relationship between language and being might do well to take some input from thoughtful human experience, rather than looking to the often isolated and insulated perspective of academic study as sole guiding light. At least this kind of phenomenological approach, to wrap it in a bit of academic jargon, captures something that hyper-specialized approaches are almost sure to miss.