On Language and Its Rules: Why context matters

After having recognized the fact that a language is susceptible to the influence of environment, one can also safely claim that language is exercised within a certain context. It is inevitable that a person will use words, which would have different meanings, or rather a different shade of the same meaning, depending upon the context. For example, two people may use the word pain with a different connotation. One may mean pain caused due to a paper cut while other may be talking about the agony caused due to bullet. Here, the actual meaning of the word is understood by placing it in a certain framework.  In his much revered book, Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll (1871) quintessentially encapsulates my argument. He writes, “‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less,’” (Carroll, 1871).

Moreover, by standardizing language or by allowing one word to mean only one thing, one bars individuality from entering the realm of language. People would speak like monotonic robots and the flair or lilt that makes languages unique would be lost forever.          

Recent research has shown that language influences thought. A psychologist at the Stanford University, Lera Boroditsky, has conducted several experiments to determine whether language influences our thinking pattern.  In one such experiment Boroditsky and Gaby (2010) investigated how language determines the way people think about time. Her team gave two different language groups—an English-speaking group and a Kuuk Thaayorre-speaking group (belonging to Pormpuraaw, an aboriginal community in Australia)—a set of cards showing some kind of temporal progression (e.g., pictures of a crocodile growing, a banana being eaten). The participants were asked to arrange the shuffled cards in correct temporal order.  Each person was tested in two separate settings, each time facing a different cardinal direction. The English speakers arranged the cards from left to right, but the Kuuk Thaayyore-speaking people arranged the cards from east to west. When they faced north, their cards went from right to left but when they faced south, their cards went from left to right. The Kuuk Thaayore-speaking people used spatial representation to construct their representation of time. Boroditsky, Fuhrman, and McCormick (2011) also found that Mandarin speakers talk about time in a vertical context (e.g., the next month is the down month, while last month was the “up month”) and the English speakers talk about time in a horizontal spatial context (e.g., the best is ahead of us while the worst is behind us). Furthermore, when English speakers are taught to talk about time in a Mandarin manner, their cognitive performance on several tasks resembles that of Mandarin speakers (Borodistsky, 2009). We can glean that language is used differently across contexts and affects thoughts.  In his essay “Is Google Making Us Stupid”, Nicholas Carr (2008) mentions how Friedrich Nietzsche’s writing changed because he moved from pen and paper to typewriter due to his failing vision. “His terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic” (Carr, 2008, para. 11). Someone reading Nietzsche’s latter works has to take his failing vision and typewriter into account. This further proves that language is very sensitive to context.

Since language is the basic tool of communication, it becomes an intrinsic part of a person. When my father was trying to teach me Greek, he told me that in order to comprehend the value or significance of a language, one has to learn to live with that language, for, a person is born in a language, loves in that language, marries in that language and, ultimately, dies with that language. This makes language a very intimate aspect of the person and commands respect or at least acknowledgement of language.

Prachi Bhuptani