The importance of language structures

Recently I’ve been amusing myself by trying to understand other languages better, through the Duolingo app. Refreshing French, to conversational level; learning Spanish, and now some Dutch. I understand that if you want to learn a language fast, it’s best to concentrate on the grammar more than vocabulary. It got me thinking about the way that language works, and how our world view is defined by how and what we speak.

The Indo-European languages have a bias towards nouns; and as such are good at defining categories. So Aristotelian thinking is grounded in taxonomies, lists of definitions, a direct expression of noun-based ancient Greek language.  Verbs, however, are the engine room of a language – and imply  transitions, movement from one state into another. This also implies time shifts, in the form of tenses. Compared to French, English is unusual in its use of tenses, in that much depends on the viewpoint of the speaker.

Present Simple
Past Simple
Future Simple
will kiss
Present Perfect
has/have kissed
Past Perfect
had kissed
Future Perfect
will have kissed
Present Continuous(Progressive)
is/am/are kissing
Past Continuous (Progressive)
was kissing
Future Continuous (Progressive)
will be kissing
Present Perfect Continuous (Progressive)
has/have been kissing
Past Perfect Continuous (Progressive)
had been kissing
Future Perfect Continuous (Progressive)
will have been kissing


The American physicist David Bohm made the observation:

“Dialogue is really aimed at going into the whole thought process and changing the way the thought process occurs collectively. We haven’t really paid much attention to thought as a process. We have ENGAGED in thoughts, but we have only paid attention to the content, not to the process. Why does thought require attention? Everything requires attention, really. If we ran machines without paying attention to them, they would break down. Our thought, too, is a process, and it requires attention, otherwise it’s going to go wrong.”
“The Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis has been stated …. that a connection exists between language and world-view, or between perception and language.”  Bohm did note, however, that our (Indo-European) languages tend to be highly noun-oriented and well suited to discussions of concepts and categories. By contrast, quantum theory demands a more process-oriented approach, a verb-based language perhaps that emphasizes flow, movement and constant transformation”

There is quite some literature on how Native American languages are more verb based, and how that changes perception. For example:

From the Native American point of view, the word “god” as a noun is a grammatically induced hallucination, like the dummy “it” in “it is raining.” The closest Lakhota equivalent is tanka wakan [thaka waka] (sometimes reversed in sacred speech), which is an adjectival-verbal construction. This phrase has routinely been mistranslated as the “Great Mystery” but is better glossed as “the Great Mysteriousing.” Such mistranslation is not trivial as it obscures the deep differences between a verb-based and noun-based worldview.

Apparently, nuclear physicists were surprised when Iroquois-speakers were able to understand the processes of particle physics without issues. For them, the distinction between a wave and particle (both noun-definitions) was less distinct when reduced to their function (verb based).

The subject of cognitive realms in language is the basis for a TED talk by Lera Boroditsky:

In an age of ‘alternative realities’, we might be well to reflect on truth as a process rather than a noun. Truth is some thing that is done. And something which needs to be guarded as a treasure.

See also:

When nature and society are seen through the lens of dialectics and systems thinking    Robert Biel, The Ecologist, 26th March 2018

“Capitalism casts nature as a resource which is to be exploited, squeezed and discarded. This is in part because of a linear, reductive understanding of the world. But there is an alternative. Dialectical, systems thinking views nature and society through the lens of complexity, contradiction and phase transitions”

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