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Can a new language lead to better thinking?

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As a budding programmer, I regularly study and evaluate the efficiency of different programming languages. When I decide that a particular language is superior for a given purpose, I will make an effort to switch because I know that more efficient and better code is worth the cost of learning and switching to it. The evolution of programming languages has been to shift from working on the mechanical level to high-level languages designed to abstract from the machine level to accommodating human thought processes.

(This is because as processing power becomes cheaper, the functions performed by computers become more complex and the focus shifts from speed/size to productivity/reusability.)

Because I know that the design of a programming language greatly affects my ability to translate ideas into useful code, I wonder if a similar change in language could do wonders for my thinking. Robert A. Heinlein has a short story named “Gulf” in which the protagonists increase the effective speed of their thinking hundreds of times by adopting an optimized language. How realistic is this? Even if you still operated in a plain English speaking world, could a more efficient language improve your thinking?

The most important features of such a language would be:

A phonetic alphabet with visually and aurally efficient characters, and single characters for common words (a and the at to.) (For ex, see Shavian.)

Simplified, systematic, and precise vocabulary and grammar, in the style of an anti-newspeak or Interlingua.

Another question: aside from language, what factors affect the speed and efficiency of one’s thinking? Are context (knowledge base), intelligence, and rationality the only relevant factors?

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Because I know that the design of a programming language greatly affects my ability to translate ideas into useful code, I wonder if a similar change in language could do wonders for my thinking.  Robert A. Heinlein has a short story named “Gulf” in which the protagonists increase the effective speed of their thinking hundreds of times by adopting an optimized language.  How realistic is this? 

Not very. I was a penpal of Heinlein's, exchanging a dozen letters with him over six years, and some of his letters were about epistemology. He was into General Semantics, a crackpot bastard child of Logical Positivism and Pragmatism.

Even if you still operated in a plain English speaking world, could a more efficient language improve your thinking?
I don't see why or how.

Another question:  aside from language, what factors affect the speed and efficiency of one’s thinking?  Are context (knowledge base), intelligence, and rationality the only relevant factors?

Ed Locke has a tape on intelligence from AynRandBookstore.com you might find interesting. Some of the most important factors are biological differences, which we can't do too much about, and motivational differences, which are critical. Also, there are thinking skills that can be learned and practiced such as introspection, monitoring, self-editing, thinking in principles, essentializing and condensing, etc.

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English is the greatest language ever. No need to change it. (Of course, I'm speaking almost entirely out of my personal bias, since it's the language I am most fluent with :P )

Languages evolve over time, generally in response to changes in the ideas that people need to communicate. I really don't think that english is very inefficient. And, I think that it's already getting more and more effecient each day, as changes occur in the language. Common phrases get shortened into single words, long words that are used often get shortened, etc.

Isaac

http://isaac.beigetower.org

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Hey isaac, finally there is something I'm in complete agreement with you about! :D I have learned English as a second language, so I don't have your bias, and I do agree that it is the greatest language ever. I find it much easier to speak English than German, or even--no kidding--my mother tongue, Hungarian.

And yes, English is innately inventive and efficiency-oriented. Most of the new concepts formed these days are named in English, and other languages have difficulty catching up--partly because their structures are not so conducive to innovation, and partly because, although linguistically the innovation would be possible, their speakers are simply unwilling to take advantage of the possibility. (For example, the word "e-mail" could be very easily translated into Hungarian as "e-levél," where "levél" means "letter." For some reason though, people do not do this but either simply say "e-mail" or resort to all kinds of convoluted linguistic contraptions.)

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English is superior in many respects to Hebrew. But Hebrew is generally more economical. You can say what you want with less words, less letters, less everything.

I think the actual sounds you make are nonconsequential, and the basic grammar is amazingly alike in most languages. What CAN and SHOULD be optimized in all languages are definitions. If all languages and all people shared common definitions of concepts, the correct definitions, the different sounds and grammar would make absolutely no difference.

BTW - E-mail in Hebrew is supposed to be Doél, a short for Doar Electroni (Electronic Mail). Everybody simply say e-mail. However, Hebrew's innate mechanism for creating new words and verbs helps to keep it updated - even after 2,000 years of little use.

I have a question in this regard: I'm interested in English philology. I want to study the inner-structures, history, and mechanisms of the English language. Can anyone recommend a good book on the subject?

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I have a question in this regard: I'm interested in English philology. I want to study the inner-structures, history, and mechanisms of the English language. Can anyone recommend a good book on the subject?

I am not knowledgeable in this area so, aside from the Fowler book, I cannot give you first-hand references. However, knowledgeable people who I respect have all mentioned the following books on style and grammar.

Margaret Shertzer, The Elements of Grammar, Longman, 1996.

William Strunk Jr. et al., The Elements of Style, Pearson Higher Education, 2000.

H. W. Fowler, Modern English Usage, Oxford University Press, 1965.

For true philology though, which I think is more in-line with what you want, one rather comprehensive standard used in the field is:

T. McArthur, et al., The Oxford Companion to the English Language, Oxford University Press, 1992.

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I have a question in this regard: I'm interested in English philology. I want to study the inner-structures, history, and mechanisms of the English language. Can anyone recommend a good book on the subject?

My favorite popular book on philology, way back in the 1950's, was Mario Pei's classic and very readable The Story of Language. According to Amazon, he also wrote a book on the English language:

Story of the English Language

by Mario Andrew Pei

Availability: Usually ships within 1-2 business days

9 used & new from $4.85

Edition: Paperback

Publisher: Simon & Schuster; Revised edition (April 1978)

ASIN: 067120064X | All Editions

The story of the English language, December 25, 2001

Reviewer: Steve Snow from Great Bend, Kansas USA

"The Story of the English Language" Not only, tells the story of the language, but also examines the history of the people who developed it's use.

The book will not only satisfy anglophiles, but anyone intrested in linguistics in general.

Very readable... you will want to learn other languages! --

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Capforever,

Yes, that is amusing ;)

I have been in love with english as far back as I can remember. In high school, when I studied Latin, and learned more about the history of what happened on The Islands to make the language what it is, it became even more appealing.

English truly is a "bastard tongue" in many ways - it doesn't really fit into a category nicely. It was once almost purely Germanic, but two infusions of Latin made it closer to a Romance language in many ways than a Germanic. (First was in the first century AD, when Rome conquered about 2/3s of the English Isle, and the second was about a millium later, when the Normans conquered the Saxons, and of course all the trade and war with France throughout much of the middle ages, all of which led to a proliferation of Anglicized French terms.) Then, of course, even more recently, English came to America, where it collided with the native tongues, and where wave after wave of immigrants came to this nation, bringing their own influence. And, of course, since America is an economic mega-giant, in many situations people must either learn English or go bankrupt! English is also useful in corporate settings where none of the participants speak a common language. (What dialect should be used when the German, Italian, Dutch, and French VPs of a multi-national company all meet? Quite often, it's English.)

I was going to cite a few books, but y'all beat me to it. So here's a website that I find interesting:

http://www.yourdictionary.com/library/index.html

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Speaking of English,

I heard once years ago that "As American as Apple Pie" is actually a phoetic anglicization of a french phrase that was popular before the Revolution. Something about this thread got me thinking about that, and now I can't seem to dig up the reference, or remember what the french phrase was. Any ideas?

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ERANDOR;

You may want to check out "The Mother Tongue" which while not as structured as the books Betsy mentioned is certainly worth reading. (But not for a serious study, although its references are pretty well established) Its the type of book you might keep in the bathroom or bring to the beach. (Its got a whole chapter on the origins of curses and phrases etc but if I recall correctly it also goes into the roots of the language)

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I have a question in this regard: I'm interested in English philology. I want to study the inner-structures, history, and mechanisms of the English language. Can anyone recommend a good book on the subject?

A very detailed study of English, published in 1935, is George O. Curme's A Grammar of the English Language, in two volumes. Vol. 1: Parts of Speech & Accidence, 382 pages; Vol. 2: Syntax, 624 pages.

From the Preface to volume one:

The purpose of [this]treatise is to describe fully the parts of English speech and their changes of form to express thought.  The word 'form' does not mean today what it did in the Old English period.  It was then associated with the idea of a change of endings to express thought.  Most of the old endings have disappeared.  The old syntactical framework remains intact, but the grammatical forms, case and verbal endings, have been greatly reduced.  This was effected by employing simpler means of expression.  For instance, today we often express a change of thought, not by changing the endings, but by changing the position of the words: 'The hunter (subject) killed the bear' (object), but 'The bear (subject) killed the hunter' (object).  Thus position is an important modern English grammatical form.  Often, however, we now express our thought without the aid of a grammatical form: I go, you go, we go, they go.  The verb here does not express person or number.  We feel that the context makes our thought clear.  Thus context plays a role in our modern English.  In this volume the author has tried very hard to gather together and put into orderly shape everything known to him about English grammatical form or English lack of it.

Form now plays a much less important part in the language than in Old English, but it is playing a greater role than in early Modern English.  The simplification of our English, our most precious heritage, was carried a little too far in older English, and it was later found necessary to add more forms, and in the present interesting period of development still more are being created.  This will become evident from the study of the Parts of Speech and Accidence presented in this volume.  The loss of inflection in the adjective in Middle English made it impossible to make from adjectives distinctive pronominal forms, so that it became necessary to create a new grammatical form, namely, 'one,' to indicated the pronominal relation: 'every child,' but 'every one (in older English simply every) of the  children.' This construction first appeared in the thirteenth century, but it is in the modern period that it has done most of its growing.  Moreover, it is still growing.  In this book there is a good deal said of this 'one.' But the most marked feature in the growth of modern English forms is the amazing activity in the field of the verb, which is carefully described in Accidence.  Not only entirely new structures have been reared but new life has been injected into older creations that were living but feebly.  In the modern period the English people has shown its love of activity not only by establishing empires all over the world but also by creating new forms of the verb so that it can talk about the things that it is conceiving and doing.  And the marvel of it all is the simplicity of these new forms of expression.  In order that the reader might get a clear idea of the importance attached to form in the different periods of English, an outline of the Old English and Middle English inflections of nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and verbs has been given, also an insight into the reduced condition of adjectival and pronominal forms in early Modern English and their later gradual increase.

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I wonder if a similar change in language could do wonders for my thinking.

The most important change that might affect your thinking would be to have a closer relationship between words and concepts. Since language changes, words tend to refer to more than one thing and you have to figure out which thing somebody is referring to when they are talking (this may slow you down). This makes very little difference to your own thinking since you probably aren't confused about what sense of "file" you meant when you said "I can't find that new file", but it matters for understanding other people (and misunderstandings are a monumental waste of time).

Word ambiguity isn't something that you can effectively change, and even if you invent new words for the four senses of "file", in a year somebody will metaphorically mutilate some other word. I think that what you do with the language is more important. Speak literally, if your purpose is to communicate an idea (via non-fiction -- being non-literal is perfectly fine for art).

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One advance in efficiency for learning this language could come about by adding diacritical marks, at least for beginning readers books. These should be such as would make for perfect phonetic transparency, yet without dropping letters or their positions. Admittedly, this does nothing for those who've already mastered it. There are a lot of acronyms and shorthand terms being used, and these will surely increase, but they exclude ever larger portions of the readers, the more they can contribute to economy of expression. The pronouncability of an acronym, can be of such importance that it all but determines whether an otherwise worthy science program of research, gets funded or not. Is the mathematical economy of expression really suitable for language in general? New concepts can eliminate multi-word expressions.

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Can a new language lead to better thinking?       

Yeah.

Let's teach ebonics in schools so that we can understand the modern slang of select groups. :o

When we were in school (back in the '50's), it was drilled in us the proper usage and pronunciation of words.

It's only recent that it was questioned in America the values of communicating in English. Chalk this stupid idea to the multiculturalists and diversity crowd who now develop and enforce the curriculum in our public schools.

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The most important features of such a language would be:

A phonetic alphabet with visually and aurally efficient characters, and single characters for common words (a and the at to.)  (For ex, see Shavian.)

When in school back in the 50's we learned by phonics. There were scant few exceptions in the English language so phonics proved to be very effective.

Simplified, systematic, and precise vocabulary and grammar, in the style of an anti-newspeak or Interlingua.

The proper instruction of English emphasizes all of the above factors you mention.

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When in school back in the 50's we learned by phonics.  There were scant few exceptions in the English language so phonics proved to be very effective.

The proper instruction of English emphasizes all of the above factors you mention.

I think you're forgetting that grammar is boring and neo-postmodernist deconstructionist critical theory is oh so much more interesting (cough), so there aren't any teachers left who know this stuff. This actually got started 30+ years ago with stream of consciousness writing, when the multiculturo-diversitologists were still... hmmm, undergraduates, first learning to become multiculturo-diversitologists.

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My mother tongue being croatian and my learning english have led me to the same thinking as that of Greedy. I often find it much more difficult to express my thoughts in croatian than in english, or catch myself thinking in english rather than croatian. When I speak croatian, I often throw in a word or two of english just to skip describing the concept I'm uttering in croatian, because there's no simple word for it in croatian language. And if there is then it is archaic (which is why many new books that are translated sound like they've been written centuries ago when you read them in croatian).

For some reason I think faster in english. Maybe it is hard to understand this to a native english speaker, because english does seem like the simplest language in the world (despite the fact that words are pronounced differently than they are written). I learned a lot of it just by watching TV, while I was never so good at german, which is my second foreign language. I learned german a year longer than english and now I can't even say hello without focusing on what I'm going to say. I use english even when I don't know I use it. I even have dreams in english...

In conclusion, I'd agree with Greedy.

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I think you're forgetting that grammar is boring and neo-postmodernist deconstructionist critical theory is oh so much more interesting (cough), so there aren't any teachers left who know this stuff. This actually got started 30+ years ago with stream of consciousness writing, when the multiculturo-diversitologists were still... hmmm, undergraduates, first learning to become multiculturo-diversitologists.

In fact my previous two posts were self-explanatory.

I appreciate your elaborating on my content, though. Excellent points.

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I recall reading a while ago that chinese speakers are able to remember longer strings of numbers than ensligh speakers - 9 numbers as opposed to 7. The reason for this is usually attributed to the fact that numbers are much shorter words in chinese than in english.

On an intuitive level, this makes sense. Just try thinking about a given subject while expanding all of the normally used acronyms. So thinking something like ¨NASA is incompetent ATM and should be privatized ASAP¨ as ¨National Aeronautics and Space Administration is incompetent at the moment and should be privatized as soon as possible.¨ To take an extreme example, just imagine the average word had 50 charactrs - not only would you find it difficult to hold thoughts in your head, Id wager you would find it nearly impossible.

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My native tongue is hebrew and I also find myself often thinking in english, or at least portraying them better.

I am not sure if it is because the language is more efficient or simply because there is a more exposure to it.

Even though I talk hebrew most of the day, I read alot more in english, many of the TV shows I grew up on were in english, I spend alot of time on the computer, in english. Maybe the most important fact is that my most intellectual readings, especialy philosophy, were in english. Since I was exposed to it in a diferent way than way than hebrew, it had such an effect.

I also study italian and german, but I hardly use/read/hear them so it is not "fair" to say english is easier. Italian might be simpler, german probably isnt, the grammar is just too backwards to be simple.

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I doubt this. Do you have an authoritative reference?

Sure. I read it in The Number Sense by Stanislas Dehaene. I recall it had a few studies referenced there (I'd look it up, but I don't have the book handy at the moment.)

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Sure. I read it in The Number Sense by Stanislas Dehaene. I recall it had a few studies referenced there (I'd look it up, but I don't have the book handy at the moment.)

Well, Dehaene is certainly considered by most to be an authoritative reference in this field. I have read quite a few of his journal papers (and disagree with a lot), but I have never read this book. Our library has the book so I will look through it next time I go there, and then track down the study(ies) Dehaene references.

As I am sure you are aware, just because it appears in a book, or in a paper, does not necessarily make it true. :)

p.s. If you get to your copy of Dehaene's book before I respond, please post his references here or send them to me privately by email. It will save me having to hunt through his book just to locate the references. Thanks.

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