The purpose of language is to reveal the contents of our minds, says Julie Sedivy. It’s a simple and profound insight. We are social animals and language is what springs us from our isolated selves and connects us with others.
Sedivy has taught linguistics and psychology at Brown University and the University of Calgary. She specializes in psycholinguistics, the psychology of language, notably the psychological pressures that give birth to language and comprehension.
More recently Sedivy has been writing about language in her own life. She was born in Czechoslovakia, spent time as a kid in Austria and Italy, and came of age in Canada. She speaks Czech, French, and English, and gets by in Spanish, Italian, and German.
In “The Strange Persistence of First Languages,” featured again this week in Nautilus (it first appeared in 2015), Sedivy explores how revisiting her first language, Czech, brought her closer to her late father and revived memories of her own past. In another Nautilus essay, “Why Doesn’t Ancient Fiction Talk About Feelings?” Sedivy burrows into the evolution of literature and how its shift to the interior life of the mind has reflected the expanding complexities of society.
In this interview, from her home in Calgary, Sedivy explains how language enraptures and deceives. Our discussion ranges from evolution to Trump to what makes good fiction and bad writing. Throughout, Sedivy’s insights resonate.
How did language shape human evolution?
That’s entering a very speculative domain, but we can have some insights into that by looking, for example, at populations that exist now that maybe don’t have access to language. For instance, many deaf people around the world are still raised in environments where they’re not really given access to a language because their senses don’t allow them to take in the ambient language around them. Unless they’re put together with other speakers who use a signed modality of language, they might spend most, or even all, of their lives without access to language.
There are some interesting studies that look at what happens when you take someone like this and add the experience of language. There’s a very interesting study by Jennie Pyers and Annie Senghas that looked at Nicaraguan sign language signers as a result of their exposure to language.
Language is the medium with which we communicate with ourselves.
The purpose of language is largely to share the contents of our minds with other people. We often directly refer to contents of minds by using verbs like, “I think,” “he knows,” “she believes,” “she’s pretending.” These kinds of verbs signal something about what’s in other people’s minds.
It turns out that exposure to language, and in particular to language that expresses the idea of peering into other people’s minds, seems to actually hone our ability to read minds, even in non-verbal domains. For example, we become better at deciphering people’s complicated emotions based on their facial expressions.
Aren’t we winging it when we “read” another’s mind?
Yes, and to some extent we’re always winging it because we’re operating from our own senses and our own perspectives; and to a large extent we often have to suppress that information when we try to project ourselves into the mind of another person. There’s this complicated shifting out of your own body and out of your own mind that needs to happen, and that turns out to be sometimes quite difficult.
At the same time, I think we have extremely sophisticated abilities to have some good hypotheses about the contents of people’s minds, even on the basis of very, very indirect information. One way we know this is by looking at the gap between the meaning that’s communicated directly by language and the meaning that we have to infer from what the language gives us. This gap is absolutely pervasive through all of language. We don’t ever go around fully specifying everything that’s in our mind. We take shortcuts because we assume that the person we’re talking to will be able to reconstruct a lot of that.
Here’s a very simple example. If I introduce you to someone as my biological mother, immediately you’re thinking, “Oh. Oh, you have someone who gave birth to you and that person is distinct perhaps from the person who raised you.” I haven’t told you any of that. In fact, most people could truthfully describe their female parent by saying “my biological mother.” But you have added a layer of meaning by virtue of your sensitivity to the fact that most of the time people strip away the details that this is the person who gave birth to you. If I am going to the trouble of giving you that detail, there must be some reason for it, and immediately you start generating hypotheses about the likely reason for that. We do this kind of thing all the time, and much of the time very, very successfully.
How does language help us understand ourselves?
Language is the medium with which we communicate with ourselves, in a sense. It’s the medium that we use to structure our own thoughts, to create our own narratives, to put order into impressions. I imagine just as labeling an object for a baby causes them to pay attention to certain aspects and then to its relationships to other objects, that doing that within ourselves in our own internal monologue might have the effect of creating certain categories within ourselves, allowing us to come to certain conclusions. I think we probably spend more time talking to ourselves than we do to anybody else, and I suspect that a huge amount of shaping our thinking comes from this process.
When does language fail us?
Language fails us in the ways that it’s a very indirect mapping of the world around us. It strips information away, so it’s a great simplifier. You take a very simple concept like an apple and by applying a certain word to it, a symbolic word, we now have turned it into a schema. And that takes away a lot of sensory detail. Sometimes as writers, for example, people really struggle to recreate to put some of that sensory detail back in.
I think the biggest way that language might fail us is in the way that it under-specifies reality. You can see that playing out in communication between people. There are gaps between the meaning that language is able to provide and what it is that we’re trying to jam into language when we try to express ourselves. Some of that meaning gets lost, and on many occasions the person that we’re communicating with isn’t picking up on all of what we’re intending to jam into the language that we use.
Samuel Beckett has called language a veil. Know what he means?
Yes. Yes, absolutely. In a sense, it is a mediator. A very, very simple example of this, is—someone asked me just the other day, “Why is it that words for animal sounds are different in different languages?” Pigs might oink in English, but they make a different sound in another language. The answer to that is we’re basically trying to recreate this auditory stimulus by using the tools that language gives us, which are vowels and consonants. Pigs don’t oink, they don’t make sounds in vowels and consonants—but that’s what language gives us.
We’re trying to take this complex sound and pack it into a string of vowels and consonants, and that’s going to be largely constrained by the particular language we speak, because different languages have different solutions for how they string vowels and consonants together.
Read More: Language Both Enraptures and Deceives Us