Thursday, June 6, 2013

Worldbuilding: Constructed languages and how we think

I'm not much one of one for doing the Constructed Languages work.  That may seem funny, given how much of a worldbuilding purist and completist I otherwise am, but while I can draw maps of finer and finer detail all day long, and craft cuisine for cultures that define them in numerous detail-- language construction lingers outside of my patience grasp. 

I do have a lot of respect for the people who can do that, because it is an undertaking, and hopefully doing it brings about good results for your worldbuilding.  I kind of wish I did have the patience and temperament for it, because I think I could use it to good effect.*

But I came across an article which should be intriguing for the nascent language-builder.  The underlying gist of it is the nature of a language influences the way native speakers think.  The most dramatic example used involves an Australian aboriginal language in which fixed, cardinal directions are key to the language.  Things are not "to the left" or "behind you", but always "to the northeast" or "in your southwest hand".  Even standard greetings are based on this.  So it becomes almost impossible to speak at all unless you know where north is. 

I imagine if that was your native tongue, you rarely get lost looking for that one store on the other side of town you never go to.

There's some other intriguing ideas over there, which are quite usable, even if, like me, you don't have the patience for the full-language build.  General concepts that can inform a culture.  For example, in Russian all the words in a sentence have to match the gender of the subject.  What if, say, you had a culture with a very rigid social structure?  Could the language reflect that?  Could a language demand that the sentence agrees with the caste or rank of the subject?  Or the caste and rank of who you are talking to?

I'm almost tempted-- almost, mind you-- to do some more detailed conlang work.  But I'm sure I'll get over that.

*- Currently I have a sense of the historical evolution of languages-- how they branch off over time-- but that's in name only (i.e. Ancient Kieran branches into Old High Kieran, Old Vernacular Kieran and Old Trade.  Old Trade then evolves into Middle Trade, which then branches into Waish Trade, Druth Trade and Acserian Trade, each of which absorbed elements from the old languages of their area) but actual words, structure, syntax?  Yeah, not doing that.  Not yet.

1 comment:

Daniel Fawcett said...

Well, there are languages where social rank is reflected in how people speak to each other (word choice, etc.). But, the great thing about language is that its use is (theoretically) infinite: just because your language tells you that you are supposed to speak to social superiors in a certain way doesn't mean you have to. You can always use another register. You just have to accept the social fallout from making that choice.

This is why the Sapir Whorf hypothesis is so problematic: it makes a lot of sense to say that language dictates how we think. And it certainly does INFLUENCE how we think. But it is always possible to think outside of language (despite the fact that we typically think in words).

That is, according to thinkers like Hofstadter, why analogy is so important to our cognitive powers. Sometimes, we need to think about an idea that we don't have words with which to express. So, we combine existing words and concepts, and, Bob's your uncle. You now have a concept formation that doesn't require you to know where "north" is.