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Mind Your Language

A new piece of research seems to indicate that how we view our future selves depends on how the language we use constructs tenses around future activiites http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-21518574 A lot of linguists criticise this idea, saying that language doesn’t influence the way we think. Really? I am not a linguist, and may be leaning towards ultracrepidarianism here but, it doesn’t seem that farfetched to me.

In the research I’ve done, the use of language does seem to influence how well we can express things and so push our thoughts in a particular direction, and also indicate how our minds are working. I did an MScEcon in media studies (20 years ago now) and the dissertation was on how science and scientists were represented in the media, focusing mainly on the twin stereotypes of Faust and Frankenstein. For the empirical bit I looked at newspaper reports on the use of genetic manipulation in food. The arguments for and against were filling the newspapers back then. At least the arguments against were. My local MP was involved in a campaign against what he called Frankenstein farming. And it caught on. The arguments against GM were so much more forthright, easily communicated, and powerful, than those for because they could be expressed more succinctly and with more resonance. Because you only have to use the word Frankenstein and suddenly everyone knew where you were coming from.

We have good guy scientists in our popular culture, but on the whole they’re not mainly known for their science. A large proportion of the most wellknown superheroes are scientists, if you think about it, mainly because the guy who created them was into science. But that’s not what you think about. There are hero scientists. Sagan and Feynman are two of mine, but even though I studied the fields they researched in (I did a BSc in Physics with Astrophysics) it’s actually their roles as humanists and that expression of truthful spirituality that only atheists really get right, that I think about mostly when I think of them. So our language, I think, suffers from not having a catch-all signifier to stand for all the great stuff technology does for us, and probably our culture suffers as a result.

In the work I do now, I see the language students use as a very useful barometer for how well their sense of embodiment in a virtual world via their avatar is developing. The first hour or so, the avatar is referred to as “it”, then as “he” or “she”. It’s when their avatar becomes “I” that you really know that they’re in the right position to start learning in that environment. And that’s simply the one effect of language that I particularly look for. How many others are there all around us that we’re not attuned to, and miss?

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