Thursday, February 21

How Language Shapes Thought

"Lastly, how do we think about causality and responsibility? All events that happen around us are quite complicated and require us to construe them. Often when you see something, like an apple falls off a table, it seems, "well, that's a really simple physical event. I should just have a simple way of thinking about it." But actually, we bring a huge amount of knowledge to be able to understand the event, and languages give us lots of tools for interpreting what went on.

When Dick Cheney went hunting with Harry Whittington and had an accident, and accidentally shot Whittington in the face, that was an event that took a split second. It was a really simple physical event, but there are many, many different ways that we could describe it. When the European Herald had to write about it, they wrote "Cheney Bangs Lawyer." Whittington was a lawyer, and so that gives the sense of "Oh, Cheney went out hunting for lawyers, and he got one." Of course, more prosaically we could just say, "Cheney shot Whittington." Or, take Cheney out of it a little bit, so we could say, "Whittington got shot by Cheney." We could take Cheney out of it altogether, and just say "Whittington got shot." We could say something similar to what Texas newspapers said at the time, which was, "Whittington got peppered pretty good."

Listen to what Cheney actually said. He was giving an interview in which he took full responsibility for the event, and he said, "Ultimately I'm the guy who pulled the trigger that fired the round that hit Harry." Think about how many events there are in that statement. "I'm the guy that pulled the trigger that fired the round that hit Harry." This is a split second event but he's just broken it up into all these different steps. That makes him so far removed from the eventual outcome. Bush actually did one better. Bush said, "He heard a bird flush, and he turned and pulled the trigger, and saw his friend get wounded." Now "saw his friend," that's one sentence in which Cheney transforms from agent to mere witness by the end of the sentence. It is a masterful exculpation.

These examples give you a sense of how many different ways we can frame and construe events in language. What's important is that different languages encourage different ways of framing and construing these events. In English, in fact, the kind of language that Cheney used and Bush used, we find it suspicious, this kind of linguistic wiggling. It sounds like you're trying to get out of something. It sounds evasive. It's the kind of thing that kids say and politicians say when they're trying to get out of something. In English we prefer direct causative statements. Like "He broke the vase."

But in other languages, when something is an accident, when something wasn't intentional, you wouldn't use a phrase like "He broke the vase" or "He lost the book." You would say something more like, "the vase broke" or "the book lost itself to him." Something more indirect. Something where the person involved isn't an agent. English is quite strange in that it doesn't distinguish very strongly between intentional events and accidental events. We're supposed to talk about both of them in the same way, to take responsibility for even accidental events. In some languages you can't say things like "I broke my arm" unless you're crazy and you went out trying to actually break your arm, and so you broke it."


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