Wednesday, October 22, 2014

What sets us apart - Words, Sentences and Language & Nova Scotian Traffic

During yesterday's Philosophy session Scott  had what I thought was a throw away anecdote about one of his students and the recognition by this student of  a question not being so easy (I paraphrase of course and of course one could offer a Freudian analysis too).
A ''Tree'  describes both the  unique and the universal 

Well I'm not sure that Scott's words during the course are often not thought about and certainly the theme of the session, taken from a chapter of Thomas Nagel's book What Does It All Mean add (perhaps) greater weight to the story.

The chapter we were looking at was The Meaning of Words and (of course) I feel more concerned with language after the time thinking about it than I did before.

The example Nagel focuses on to bring some of the issues out is Tobacco and how it can be used by us to distil a discussion around world consumption meaning all the Tobacco now and in the future without us seeing how tha language is permitting such a discussion to take place.

What's a Black Taxi in South Africa - well Scott provided another anecdote from a friend who had visited South Africa when he mentioned getting a Black Taxi while he (the friend)  was there it had a different connotation than that used in London (where it means a  heavily regulated form of transport).

Well that raises even more questions, my feeling was that South Africans speak a different English but if we unpick this then do people in Manchester speak a different English and do the under 30's speak a different English (and so on) - of course the answer is yes so is my definition tha same as yours - does it have 'Truth' that is able to survive 'discovery'?

 So in terms of Philosophy it may seem worthy of note  that the real interest in language is more or less (sorry for the lack of precision) a 20th century phenomenon.

 If you need to know more look at John Locke (Human Understanding), the Wittgenstein/Russell areas of devbate and the American Donald Davidson.

Other works around the Theory Of Language  are illumination - I tend to favour a sort of Darwinian view of why we favour language  but this does not answer a lot of the questions that language poses such as do we have an inherent ability for languages - how does a child learn the use?

For me when I worked outside the UK particularly at Euronews in a multi lingual community in France I was interested to hear people speak about how they dreamt in French (when they had mastered to some extent the language) - I also recall that Wolfgang Spindler, a German journalist was impressively capable of discussing non material concepts and ideas without seeming to struggle for the 'bon mot'.

A perspective which most of us take (perhaps without undue observation) is to avoid 'looking under the bonnet' while language is doing the job we set it, like a game of football which proceeds best when it is unimpeded by the appearance of the referee and the rules - but in both the case of language and Football  the mechanisms and precedents are complex and textured.

A couple of observations:

Language used to be less unified and different tribes a few miles apart had discernibly different languages - gloablisation has changed this.

Language is of course living and adapting - look at how text and abbreviations move from the marginal to the mainstream.

Things are not necessarily unchangeable.


It's over 7 years since we visited Canada, it's an enormous country with vast open spaces and exciting cosmopolitan cities, it's a country of contrasts and a 'new' country when compared with the European nations I'm more familiar with.

What I am reminded of at this time from our visit was how  Nova Scotia was similar in some respect to Scotland (did this name make it attractive to Scottish natives who then recreated Scotland there?)
Drivers in Halifax (Canada) behave differently

And the big point in Halifax (The state capital of  Nova Scotia) somewhat unnervingly traffic gave way to pedestrians -so my point is that things (like language) can alter and change and it can be for the better.
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