Language as a way of seeing

A conversation in my Intercultural Communication class on Tuesday inspired me to think about language in a different way.

There is a fantastic paper by Charles Goodwin called Professional Vision that shows how people train each other into ways of seeing. The example he uses is an anthropological investigation of soil, and he shows how the new anthropologist is trained by the more experienced anthropologist to notice and describe gradations in the color or quality of the soil. These gradations have a specific meaning within their investigation, and being able to describe them is an important tool of the study.

Language provides two important functions that I want to focus on today. The one we think of most often is the tool function. Language gives us a way to communicate what we see. But it is much less often that we think about language as a way of seeing.

I’ve talked about our constant stimulation before on this blog. We are constantly exposed to more sensory data than we could ever process. Language provides a lens through which to see the world in front of us. Languages have inherent sets of coding structures to apply to the world.

There is another function of language that corpus and computational linguistics really highlights, and that’s habituation. We may have the tools within a language to describe something in any number of ways, but very few of these ways are actually used with any frequency. We learn in corpus linguistics that language is never random. In many ways, in fact, language follows a zipfian distribution, with a high concentration of high frequency words or expressions, and each after the most frequent exponentially less frequent.The language itself may be large, but the language we use is much smaller.

This is an important element to consider in the conceptualization of translation. One person who reviewed the original Russian translation of our Global Survey of Physicists complained that if they did not know English, they would not have understood the Russian. The more I learn about language, the more I understand how that could be possible. Language is not just grammatical, it is habitual, and it holds a way of seeing the world.

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