Thursday, November 24, 2016

Arrival & Linguistic Relativity

The movie "Arrival" explores a concept I've loved since my first trip to Europe as a young man; Linguistic Relativity. Immediately the new world I dropped into felt different in ways I couldn't explain. Sure things were "different." Architecture, the "age" of cities, city layout, transportation, food, etc. But, I was convinced there was something else going on. The underlying human interactions were just "different." Something inside me told me it was related to the language being used to communicate.

There's a name for what I was feeling; "linguistic relatively" explores how our mind's fundamental experience and wiring is rooted in the language we know. This explains why fluently multi-lingual humans are just "different" than the rest of us. It explains how musicians are just "different" than the rest of us.

"Arrival" goes so far as to suggest that language can change our relationship with time itself. Such a cool idea!

I've been fortunate enough to spend time in a handful of Asian language rooted countries, as well as Latin based countries. The Asian languages (all rooted in ancient Chinese in one way or another), and therefore people/societies, are the most fascinating. When you talk to someone who primarily speaks/reads an Asian language, in-country, and ask them to translate something, you can see their brains trying to come up with an explanation and translation. Something that feels like it should be "easy," often just isn't. Sure, some nouns are easy: "car." But, much of the time the surrounding environment and context literally changes the words you'd use verbally or in writing. This experience doesn't hold as well if you're interacting with someone with Asian language roots in a non-Asian based society. For example, I've of course interacted with many of Asians here in the U.S., and you generally don't get a taste of this translation challenge unless you delve into it with them. I believe the reason for this is that they're outside of their native context, and their minds are working in overdrive to map to the "other" language (English in my case). Operationally they're trying their best to conform to the "other" language.

Some of my favorite interactions and music come from non-English native speakers who map their "other" language headspace into English. The mappings are often deeply impactful and non-conformist to how I, as an American-English speaker, hear/speak; often they're deeply profound. They can articulate things in ways the "other" native language speaker simply has never considered. Bjork comes to mind.

"She uses English like a weapon."

No comments: