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Language and Reality

 Thought and language are strictly connected,  and they deeply influence each other. As Wilhelm von Humbdolt[1] wrote, language is the basic condition of all intellective activities, it is «the formative organ of thought»[2].

Language forges our life, memories, associations, mental maps. It is the force de intercorse[3], the condition which allows us to learn new languages and to get to know different people and different ways of interpreting reality. Hence, the interest in writing  about the boundless linguistic universe, cluttered with enigmas and splendors.

Studying a population’s language,  not only means investigating the culture and the way of thinking of a limited portion of people, but it means understanding the human race’s nature from a broad perspective, exploring its less manifest aspects.

Understanding human beings means understanding the language, and vice versa. The diversity of languages is not a diversity of signs and sounds but a diversity of views of the world[4]. Each language, indeed, in some measure arranges the world in its own way, becoming the mediator between reality and our view of reality.[5]

Snow, for instance, is not the same to everyone. Or rather, it does not have a single meaning. Franz Boas[6], one of the founders of
anthropology in the United States, got interested in the matter of how individuals living in the far north, surrounded by ice and snow, perceived the world differently.

He noticed that in Inuktitut[7], the language spoken by the Esquimos, the snow is called in various ways. As Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf wrote:

We have the same word for falling snow, snow on the ground, snow hard packed like ice, slushy snow, wind-driven snow. To an Eskimo, this al-inclusive word would be almost unthinkable…[8]

This means that when a population lives in the Northern latitude, mainly surrounded by permanent ice and snow, it will inevitably perceive as important the distinction between certain entities which for other populations are nothing more than different types of the same thing: snow.

As Antonio Gramsci  wrote, language is to be understood as an element of culture, constituting an integral conception of the world.[1] In English, the term wood can refer either to the material, to the forest,or to the firewood; something similar happens in French: bois (wood), just like in English, means three manifestations of the same ‘essence’. Whereas the equivalent Italian term can be translated in three ways: legno, legna, and bosco.

Inversely, for an Italian speaker, the substance composing his own body and the food canned in jelly are the same thing: carne; whereas for an English or French speaker, they are two different things: the eatable meat, viande, and chair, flesh. It would be peculiar, as well as macabre, if you were asked for a canned flesh instead of a canned meat.

Therefore, in relativistic terms, language is the reflection of the perception of a certain reality and, inversely, language itself influences the way we know the world.[9].

 

SOURCES:

[1] Potsdam 1767 – Tegel, Berlin, 1835.

[2] http://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/wilhelm-von-humboldt_(Dizionario-di-filosofia)/

[3] Ferdinand de Saussure

[4] Trabant, Juergen. “How relativistic are Humboldts ‘Weltansichten’?” 2000

[5] Edoardo Lombardi Vallauri, La linguistica. In pratica.

[6] 1858.

[7] http://www.omniglot.com/writing/inuktitut.htm

[8] Whorf, Bejamin Lee. 1949. “Science an Linguistics” Reprinted in Carroll 1956

[9] «Hypothesis Saphir-Whorf»

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