September 16, 2005

I suggest a difference between understanding and empathy: understanding is knowledge of someone else's situation, attitudes, and likely behaviors; empathy is an agreement that those things are reasonable.
- Ruffled Puppy


The structure of a language manipulates thought. The cognitive structure through which one perceives and interprets the world is cored in and limited by the structure of the known language(s). We cannot understand the limitations placed upon us from within those limitations. A language is not limiting to those who speak only that language. After all, it holds within it every thought we have learned to express. There might be other thoughts or ways of thinking which the language is incapable of expressing, but, in the absence of context external to the limiting language, it is extremely unlikely that they will ever arise. As one adapts more and more completely into a new linguistic environment, the process of adaptation is frequently accompanied by loss of (forgetting) the previous language (in parallel with the manner in which children forget how to pronounce phonemes as they learn to speak their native tongues): transplanted children seeking to "fit in" are particularly vulnerable to such loss. (Those belonging to the dominant linguistic environment might not call it "vulnerability", however, but "adaptability", and are likely to value it more highly than retention of original cultural viewpoint/language.)

Multilingualism thus suggests a significantly different, perhaps more flexible cognitive structure from unilingualism; and those raised multilingually might also more readily acquire new languages (and thus possibly new perspectives?). In contrast, unilingualism would tend to "settle" into a single, fixed cognitive structure, the precise nature of which would vary with the language. Translation, then, would be not only translation of word, but also translation of word within cognitive context: which, depending upon the languages in question, may be very close approximations of each other or very different indeed. (How does one translate the idea of coercion into a language that has no such words?) The language literally becomes the framework within which the worldview is contained: with those who at some point acquire more languages than one perhaps more readily able to "see" perspectives other than their own.

Now I shift, to interpret "language" more loosely. We say, metaphorically, that a person "speaks the other's language" to express understanding. I am going to take that concept a bit more literally: a "language" (for this purpose) is any contextual symbology which allows one or two-way communication, call it the "understanding" of the quote. Where the degree of understanding is two-way, implicit, with minimal need for external contextualisation, that understanding approaches "empathy through 'reasonableness'": such reasonableness (and there is an implicit assumption here of common environment or approximation of common environment) being necessary to understand as external contextual ("objective") communicative cues grow fewer. The greater the degree of explicitness required to understand (communicate), the lower the degree of perceived reasonableness, and thus of empathy.

In effect, the less objectivisation is required for communication, the greater the degree of environmental ("linguistic") overlap, the greater the implicit reasonableness (owing to perceived overlap of environment), and thus the closer we come to the empathy asymptote.

Those who work within the field of ethnolinguistics are finding that there are consistent patterns of communication within English language social classes. Many of these are syntactic, with or without creole referents (those would be cored in the higher likelihood that those of lower social class are first or second generation immigrants, often from common origins within a common neighbourhood): but one pattern in particular struck me: those of the "working" class apparently tend to use fewer external "objective" environmental cues in speaking to others than those of higher social class.
Illustrative examples, 5-year-old children (Bernstein 1971)

Middle class:
Three boys are playing football and one boy kicks the ball and it goes through the window the ball breaks the window and the boys are looking at it and a man comes out and shouts at them because they've broken the window so they run away and then that lady looks out of her window and she tells the boys off.

Working class:
They're playing football and he kicks it and it goes through there it breaks the window and they're looking at it and he comes out and shouts at them because they've broken it so they run away and then she looks out and she tells them off.
There is no need, in the second case, to specify "they", "he", "she", "it". In effect, the style of language in the second case presupposes shared knowledge and experience ... shared understanding of reasonable assumptions. The language patterns in the first example do not rely on that similar shared basis but instead reference specific external communicative "objective" cues: "three boys", "a man" [not definite article but indefinite], "that woman", "the football". Mutual contextual understanding is not assumed.

I don't know whether this is a relatively recent language shift or has been in existence for some centuries. However, the scientific method, a relatively recent arrival which evolved jointly in industrialised England and the United States, encourages objectivisation as its predecessors had not; and one of the major principles of scientific management (late 1800's/early 1900's, neatly coinciding with the birth of the assembly line) is that nothing which cannot be measured objectively has value. Scientific management was conceived to promote industrial efficiency, which it does by focussing on process, replacing human subjective judgement with mechanised objectivity whenever possible, often by breaking down process and replacing knowledge- and skill-oriented learning by specific task-oriented training. (One end result is our by now familiar reification: delegating responsibility to object or process.) With the rise of the scientific method came also increasing objectivisation of any and all academic subjects regardless of their specific relevance to economic productivity ... and education has long been a class status marker.

Has "objectivisation" become a desirable class marker: perhaps through the changed focus of education? What are the implications for empathy?

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