What words are

Once again, after recent readings I am forced to modify my thoughts. I’ve talked before about the monoculture of the mind that is brought about by speaking only a single, native language. My reasoning was that language forms the boundaries of thought, thus those with only a single tongue to their name are impoverished—there is a definite limit to the thoughts they can think, one decided by the properties of and culture attached to their native speech.

It turns out this is an old perception. Reading In the Land of Invented Languages brought it to my awareness that I am not the first to think that language limits thought (people have been thinking this for centuries), and definitely not the first to select a way to expand those limits. The book details many attempts to add clarity and precision to a language—and thus thought. Which, by the way, is the opposite of the approach I champion—know more languages.

However, I still suspect being able to read, write and speak multiple languages does yield a significant boost, if not to the content, at least to the subtlety of a person’s thought. But I have revised the reason why. Upon reflection, I think exposure to non-native language changes your relationships to words more than it changes the substance of your thought.

For example, growing up I knew—and still know—a lot of Dutch and French people, both old and young. So, from an early age I’ve been aware, on some level, that words are fingers pointing at the moon, things that indicate something else. Contrast that to how I imagine I would think about words if I had only ever met English people and had no contact with other languages in written or spoken form. I imagine the words I use would feel more concrete, have more heft, feel more substantial, and also have a certain sense of inviolability about them.

What does this matter? Well. First up, I have to revoke my rather brash statement that those who speak only one language suffer from a sort of mental impoverishment. And second? I must state my new position: I now think it is possible to speak only one language whilst avoiding a monoculture of the mind. But this can only happen when the individual perceives the real purpose of words, which is something like ambiguous tools of communication which allow us to transmit an imperfect sense of meaning.