The Magic of Music

The oldest musical instruments to have been found, flutes made from bird bone and mammoth ivory, are more than 42,000 years old; and it has been argued that, by fostering social cohesion, music—from the Greek, ‘the art of the muses’— could have helped our species outcompete the Neanderthals. Remember that next time you stand to the national anthem.

In the Bible, David played on his harp to make King Saul feel better: ‘And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took an harp, and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him’ (1 Samuel 16:23 KJV).

The oral works ascribed to Homer would not have survived if they had not been set to music and sung. By his song, the lyric poet Thaletas brought civic harmony to Sparta, and is even credited with ending the plague in that city. The Pythagoreans recited poetry, sang hymns to Apollo (the god of music), and played on the lyre to cure illnesses of body and soul. In the Republic, Plato says that the education of the guardians should consist of gymnastic for the body and music for the soul, and that, once set, the curriculum should not be changed: ‘…when modes of music change, of the State always change with them.’ Aristotle concludes the Politics with, of all things, a discussion of music:

Since then music is a pleasure, and virtue consists in rejoicing and loving and hating aright, there is clearly nothing which we are so much concerned to acquire and to cultivate as the power of forming right judgments, and of taking delight in good dispositions and noble actions. Rhythm and melody supply imitations of anger and gentleness, and also of courage and temperance, and of all the qualities contrary to these, and of the other qualities of character, which hardly fall short of the actual affections…

In the 10th century, the Islamic thinker Al-Farabi wrote a treatise, Meanings of the Intellect, in which he discussed music therapy. Modern music therapy took form in the aftermath of World War II, when staff in veteran hospitals noticed that music could benefit their patients in ways that standard treatments could not, and started hiring musicians. In 1959, American composer and pianist Paul Nordoff and British special education teacher Clive Robbins developed a form of collaborative music-making to engage vulnerable and isolated children, helping them to develop in the cognitive, behavioural, and social domains. Today, Nordoff Robbins is the largest music therapy charity in the U.K.

Modern music therapy aims, by the use of music, to improve health or functional outcomes. It typically involves regular meetings with a qualified music therapist and various combinations of music-related activities. In ‘active therapy’ the individual and therapist make music using an instrument or the voice; in ‘passive therapy’ the individual listens to music in a reflective mode. You don’t have to be musical to take part. And, of course, you don’t have to take part to engage with music.

Does music therapy work? And if so, how? There is mounting evidence that music boosts levels of dopamine, a feel-good chemical messenger in the brain. Dopamine is linked to motivation and reward, and released in response to activities such eating and making love. Many people use music to power through a workout. Beyond distracting from discomfort, music triggers the release of opioid hormones that relieve physical and psychological pain. Forget the workout, just dance to the music. Dancing is the best exercise because it involves movement in all directions and engages the mind on multiple levels. Music also boosts the immune system, notably by increasing antibodies and decreasing stress hormones, which can depress the immune system. Techno and heavy metal aside, music lowers heart rate and blood pressure, and even reduces recovery time following a heart episode or surgery.

From the psychological perspective, music therapy alleviates symptoms of anxiety and depression and improves social and occupational functioning. Aside from the biological benefits such as increased dopamine and decreased stress hormones, music can help us to recognize, express, and process complex or painful emotions. It elevates these emotions and gives them a sense of beauty and meaning. We hear a human voice and feel understood. As Taylor Swift put it, “People haven’t always been there for me but music always has.”

I don’t think that music has to sound uplifting to be uplifting, so long as it helps us to work with our feelings. In the Poetics, Aristotle compared the purifying or cleansing effects of tragedy on the mind of the spectator to the effect of a cathartic on the body, and called this purging of the emotions catharsis.

The benefit of music extends beyond depression and anxiety to psychosis, autism, and dementia. In dementia, music can help with cognitive deficits, agitation, and social functioning. It helps to encode memories, and can in turn evoke vivid memories. In acquired brain injury, it can assist with the recovery of motor skills, and, through song, lend a voice to people who have lost the faculty of speech. At the other end of life, music played during pregnancy has been linked, in the newborn, to better motor and cognitive skills, faster development of language, and so on.

I remember as a teenager, lying in the blackness of the night and listening to Beethoven on my portable CD player. It completely transformed the makeup of my mind.

10 songs for the blues

  1. The Verve, Bittersweet Symphony
  2. Soul Asylum, Runaway Train
  3. Disturbed, The Sound of Silence
  4. Abba, Chiquitita 
  5. Rolling Stones, Paint it Black
  6. Royksopp, I Had This Thing
  7. Eurythmics, Here Comes the Rain Again
  8. Beethoven, Violin Concerto
  9. Bruce Springsteen, Human Touch
  10. The Verve, Lucky Man

If a song has been helpful to you, please share it in the comments section.

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Are You Too Cynical?

The history, psychology, and philosophy of cynicism

Diogenes looking for a human being

Cynics often come across as contemptuous, irritating, and dispiriting. But they are the first to suffer from their cynicism. They can miss out on the things, such as friendship or love, that make a life worth living. They tend to hold back from the public sphere, leading to a reduced social and economic contribution and relative poverty and isolation—which, along with their pessimism, can predispose them to depression and other ills. Their cynicism seems self-fulfilling: by always assuming the worst about everyone, they tend to bring it out, and not least, perhaps, in themselves.

Diogenes the Cynic

But cynicism also has brighter sides. To understand these, it helps to take a look at the long and distinguished history of cynicism. The first Cynic appears to have been the Athenian philosopher Antisthenes (445-365 BCE), who had been an ardent disciple of Socrates. Then came Diogenes, the paradigm of the Cynic, who took the simple life of Socrates to such an extreme that Plato called him “a Socrates gone mad.”

The people of Athens abused Diogenes, calling him a dog and spitting in his face. But in this he took pride rather than offense. He held that human beings had much to learn from the simplicity and artlessness of dogs, which, unlike human beings, had not “complicated every simple gift of the gods.” The terms cynic and cynical derive from the Greek kynikos, which is the adjective of kyon, or ‘dog’.

Diogenes placed reason and nature firmly above custom and convention, which he held to be incompatible with happiness. It is natural for human beings to act in accord with reason, and reason dictates that human beings should live in accord with nature. Rather than giving up their time and efforts in the pursuit of wealth, renown, and other worthless things, people should have the courage to live like animals or gods, revelling in life’s pleasures without bond or fear.

The stories surrounding Diogenes, though embellished, or because embellished, help to convey his spirit. Diogenes wore a simple cloak which he doubled up in winter, begged for food, and sheltered in a tub. He made it his mission to challenge custom and convention, those “false coins of morality.” Upon being challenged for masturbating in the marketplace, he mused, “If only it were so easy to soothe hunger by rubbing an empty belly.” He strolled about in broad daylight brandishing a lamp. When people gathered around him, as they inevitably did, he would say, “I am just looking for a human being.” His fame spread far beyond Athens. One day, Alexander the Great came to meet him. When Alexander asked whether he could do anything for him, he replied, “Yes, stand out of my sunlight.”

History of Cynicism and Related Schools

Diogenes was followed by Crates of Thebes, who renounced a large fortune to live the Cynical life of poverty. Crates married Hipparchia of Maroneia, who, uniquely, adopted male clothes and lived on equal terms with her husband. By the first century, Cynics could be found throughout the cities of the Roman Empire. Cynicism vied with Stoicism, a broader philosophical system that emphasized self-control, fortitude, and clear thinking, and that, in the second century, could count the emperor Marcus Aurelius among its adherents. Zeno of Citium (334-262 BCE), the founder of Stoicism, had been a pupil of Crates, and Cynicism came to be seen as an idealized form of Stoicism.

Other philosophical schools that took off around the time of Alexander include Skepticism and Epicureanism. Like the fifth century BCE sophists to whom he opposed himself, Socrates had skeptical tendencies, claiming that he knew little or nothing, and cultivating a state of non-knowledge, or aporia. Pyrrho of Elis travelled with Alexander into India, where he encountered the gymnosophists, or “naked wise men.” Pyrrho denied that knowledge is possible and urged suspension of judgement, with the aim of exchanging the twin evils of anxiety and dogmatism for mental tranquillity, or ataraxia. The most important source on Pyrrhonism is Sextus Empiricus, who wrote in the late second century or thereabouts. In the 16th century, the translation of the complete works of Sextus Empiricus into Latin led to a resurgence of skepticism, and the work of René Descartes—”I think therefore I am,”and so on—can be read as a response to a skeptical crisis. But David Hume, who lived some hundred years later, remained unmoved by Descartes, writing that “philosophy would render us entirely Pyrrhonian, were not Nature too strong for it.”

Like Antisthenes and Diogenes, Epicurus of Samos dedicated himself to attaining happiness through the exercise of reason: reason teaches that pleasure is good and pain bad, and that pleasure and pain are the ultimate measures of good and bad. This has often been misconstrued as a call for rampant hedonism, but actually involves a kind of hedonic calculus to determine which things, over time, are likely to result in the most pleasure or least pain. Epicurus explicitly warned against overindulgence, because overindulgence so often leads to pain; and, rather than pleasure per se, emphasized the avoidance of pain, the elimination of desire, and mental tranquillity (ataraxia). “If thou wilt make a man happy” said Epicurus “add not unto his riches but take away from his desires.”

I think that their shared emphasis on ataraxia makes the four Hellenistic schools of Cynicism, Stoicism, Skepticism, and Epicureanism more related than different.

Cynicism endured into the fifth century. In City of God (426 CE), St Augustine says that “even today we still see Cynic philosophers.” Although Augustine scorned Cynic shamelessness, Cynicism and especially Cynic poverty exerted an important influence on early Christian asceticism, and thereby on later monasticism. In the early first century, when it was more popular, it may even have influenced the teachings of Jesus.

Cynicism Today

“Cynicism” acquired its modern meaning in the course of the 18th and early 19th centuries, stripping Ancient Cynicism of most of its tenets and retaining only the Cynic propensity to puncture people’s pretensions.

Today, cynicism refers to doubt or disbelief in the professed motives, sincerity, and goodness of others, and, by extension, in social and ethical norms and values. This attitude is often accompanied by mistrust, scorn, and pessimism about others and humanity as a whole.

Cynicism is often confused with irony, which is saying the opposite of what is meant, often for levity, emphasis, or concision; and with sarcasm, which is saying the opposite of what is meant to mock or convey anger or contempt. Sarcasm can involve cynicism if it punctures the pretensions of its target, especially when the target has not been given the benefit of doubt. Adding to the confusion, irony can also refer to an outcome that is clearly and emphatically contrary to the one that would normally have been expected.

Antonyms, or opposites, of cynicism include trust, faith, credulity, and naivete, which refers to lack of experience or understanding, often accompanied by starry-eyed optimism or idealism. In Voltaire’s Candide, the naïve Candide befriends a cynical scholar named Martin:

“You’re a bitter man,” said Candide.

“That’s because I’ve lived,” said Martin.

The Psychology of Cynicism

The line between cynicism and accurate observation can be very fine, and it is easy and often expedient to dismiss truthfulness as cynicism. Few grownups in our society are entirely devoid of cynicism. Cynicism exists on a spectrum, and it might be argued that most cynics, cynical though they may be, are not nearly cynical enough. As Terry Pratchett wrote of the fictional Vimes:

If there was anything that depressed him more than his own cynicism, it was that quite often it still wasn’t as cynical as real life.

Cynics often take pride and pleasure in their cynicism, including perhaps in the uneasy mix of discomfort and laughter that it can provoke in others. They may seek out the company of other cynics to “let rip” and test the limits of their cynicism. Popular satirical publications and programs such as the Onion and Daily Show have a strong cynical streak. Beyond the humor, cynicism, like broader satire, holds up a mirror to society, just as Diogenes held up a lamp to the Athenians, inviting people to question their beliefs, values, and priorities, and pointing them towards a more authentic and fulfilling way of living.

This all fits with the theory that cynics are nothing but disappointed idealists. On this reading, cynics are people who began life with unrealistically high standards and expectations. Rather than adjusting or compromising, or quietly withdrawing like the hermit, they went to war with the world, deploying their cynicism as both weapon and shield. Sometimes their cynicism is partial rather than global, circumscribed to those areas, such as love or politics, which have led to the greatest disillusionment.

Cynicism may be understood as a defensive posture: By always assuming the worst of everyone and everything, we cannot be hurt or disappointed—while also making ourselves feel smug and superior. Under her apparently thick skin, the cynic may be much more delicate and sensitive than is commonly imagined.

At the same time, cynicism can be a kind of pragmatism, ensuring that all angles have been covered and all eventualities foreseen. The nature of the cynicism reveals itself in its temperature or flavor: scornful and gratuitous cynicism is more likely to be an ego defense, whereas calm and happy cynicism, however actually cynical, is more likely to be a form of efficiency—not to mention comedy.

Cynicism can also be understood in terms of projection. The ego defence of projection involves the attribution of one’s unacceptable thoughts or feelings to others—and is the basis of playground retorts such as “mirror, mirror” and “what you say is what you are.” By projecting uncomfortable thoughts and feelings onto others, a person is able not only to distance himself from those thoughts and feelings, but also, in many cases, to play them out vicariously and even to use them in the service of his ego. But there is a caveat. While projection is most certainly an ego defense, to dig deep into our shared humanity to read the minds of others is, of course, a kind of wisdom—so long as we are not also deceiving ourselves in the process.

Conclusion

So are you too cynical?

Probably yes, if your cynicism is primarily a psychological defense, and hindering more than helping you.

Probably no, if your cynicism is measured and adaptive, and more of a thought through philosophical attitude that aims at joy, efficiency, and peace of mind.

The Philosophy of Truth

Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. —Thoreau

Truth tends to lead to successful action. In that much, truth has instrumental value. But truth also has intrinsic value. Given the choice between a life of limitless pleasure as a brain in a vat and a genuine human life along with all its pain and suffering, most people opt for the latter.

In Plato’s Cratylus, Socrates says that aletheia(Greek, ‘truth’) is a compression of the phrase ‘a wandering that is divine’. Since Plato, many thinkers have spoken of truth and God in the same breath. According to John the Apostle, Jesus said to the Jews: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

When truth isn’t truth

Today, God may be dying, but what about truth? Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, claimed that “Truth isn’t truth”, while Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s counsellor, presented the public with what she called “alternative facts”. Over in the U.K. in the run-up to the Brexit referendum, Michael Gove, then Lord Chancellor, opined that people “have had enough of experts”.

One way to understand truth is simply to look at its opposites, namely, lies and bullshit. The liar must track the truth in order to conceal it. In contrast, the bullshitter has no regard or sensitivity for the truth, or even for what his or her audience believes.

Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

—Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit

Fake news

Following his defeat at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, Mark Antony heard the rumour that Cleopatra had committed suicide, and consequently stabbed himself in the abdomen—only to discover that Cleopatra herself had been responsible for spreading the rumour. He later died in her arms.

“Fake news” may be as old as humanity, but in our internet age it has spread like a disease, swinging elections, fomenting social unrest, undermining institutions, and diverting political energy from health, education, and good government. Initially, “fake news” referred to false news with large scale popular traction, although Donald Trump seems to have extended the usage to include any news that does not serve him.

Those who are alarmed, or who feel they are in a minority, can take comfort in the words of Søren Kierkegaard:

Truth always rests with the minority, and the minority is always stronger than the majority, because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion — and who, therefore, in the next instant (when it is evident that the minority is the stronger) assume its opinion… while truth again reverts to a new minority.

—Søren Kierkegaard, Diary

The correspondence theory of truth

Truth is a property not so much of thoughts and ideas but more properly of beliefs and assertions. But to believe or assert something is not enough to make it true, or else the claim that ‘to believe something makes it true’ would be just as true as the claim that ‘to believe something does not make it true’.

For centuries, philosophers have agreed that thought or language is true if it corresponds to an independent reality. For Aristotle, “to say that what is is, and what is not is not, is true”. For Avicenna, truth is “what corresponds in the mind to what is outside it”. And for Aquinas, truth is “the adequation of things and the intellect” (adaequatio rei et intellectus).

Unfortunately, but perhaps also fortunately, the mind does not perceive reality as it is, but only as it can, filtering, distorting, and interpreting it. In modern times, it has been argued that truth is largely constructed by social and cultural processes, to say nothing of individual desires and dispositions. Michel Foucault famously spoke, not of truth or truths, but of “regimes of truth”. Categories and constructs regarding, for example, race and sexuality may not reflect biological let alone metaphysical realities.

The coherence theory of truth

A thing is more likely to be true if it fits comfortably into a large and coherent system of beliefs. It remains that the system could be a giant fiction, entirely divorced from reality, but this becomes increasingly unlikely as we investigate, curate, and add to its components—assuming, and it is quite an assumption, that we are operating in good faith, with truth as our aim. So conceived, truth is not a property, or merely a property, but an attitude, a way of being in the world.

‘Truth’ is not a feature of correct propositions which are asserted of an ‘object’ by a human ‘subject’ and then are ‘valid’ somewhere, in what sphere we know not. Rather, truth is disclosure of beings through which an openness essentially unfolds. All human comportment and bearing are exposed in its open region.

—Martin Heidegger, On the Essence of Truth

The pragmatic theory of truth

All the better if we can actually do something useful with our system and its components. If truth leads to successful action, then successful action is an indicator of truth. Clearly, we could not have sent a rocket to the moon if our maths had been wide off the mark. For William James, the truth is “only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as the right is only the expedient in the way of our behaving”.

If something works, it may well be true; if it doesn’t, it most probably isn’t. But what if something works for me but not for you? Is that thing then true for me but not for you? For Nietzsche, who makes himself the natural friend of two-penny tyrants, truth is power, and power truth: “The falseness of a judgement is not necessarily an objection to a judgement… The question is to what extent it is life-advancing, life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps even species-breeding…”

Short-term or long-term?

Deflationary theories of truth

That a thing fits into a system, or leads to successful action, may suggest that it is true, but does not tell us much about what truth actually is. It has been argued that to say that X is true is merely to say that X, and therefore that truth is an empty predicate. Truth is not a real property of things, but a feature of language used to emphasize, agree, or hypothesize, or for stylistic reasons. For example, it can be used to explicate the Catholic dogma of papal infallibility: “Everything that the pope says is true.” But this is merely shorthand for saying that if the Pope says A, then A; and if he says B, then B…

For some thinkers, something can only be true or false if it is open to verification, at least in theory if not also in practice. The truth of something lies at the end of our inquiry into that thing. But as our inquiry can have no end, the truth of something can never be more than our best opinion of that thing. If best opinion is all that we can have or hope for, then best opinion is as good as truth, and truth is a redundant concept. But best opinion is only best because, at least on average, it is closest to the truth, which, as well as instrumental value, has deep intrinsic value.

Some practical advice

A reader once emailed to ask, “How can I know when I am lying to myself?”

And I replied,

By its very nature self-deception is hard to distinguish from the truth—whether our internal, emotional truth or the external truth. One has to develop and trust one’s instinct: what does it feel like to react in the way that I’m reacting? Does it feel calm, considered, and nuanced, or shallow and knee-jerk? Does it take the welfare of others into account, or is it all about me? Am I satisfied with, even proud of, my self-conquering effort, or does it make me feel small, angry, or anxious?

Self-deception doesn’t ‘add up’ in the grand scheme of things and can easily be brought down by even superficial questioning. As with a jigsaw, try to look at the bigger picture of your life and see how the thought or reaction might fit in. Did you react from a position of strength or vulnerability? What would the person you most respect think? What would Socrates think? Talk to other people and gather their opinions. If they disagree with you, does that make you feel angry, upset, or defensive? The coherence of your reaction can speak volumes about the nature of your motives.

Finally, truth is constructive and adaptive, while lies are destructive and self-defeating. So how useful is a self-deceptive thought or reaction going to be for you?  Are you just covering up an irrational fear, or helping to create a solid foundation for the future? Are you empowering yourself to fulfil your highest potential, or depriving yourself of opportunities for growth and creating further problems down the line? Is the cycle simply going to repeat itself, or will the truth, at last, make you free?

How Does the Language You Speak Influence the Way You Think?

african boy

Silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation. —Rumi

The ostensible purpose of language is to transmit thoughts from one mind to another. Language represents thought, but does it also determine thought?

Wittgenstein famously said that “the limits of my language stand for the limits of my world.” Taken at face value, that seems too strong a claim. There are over 7,000 languages in the world—with, by some estimates, one dying out each and every week. The number of basic colour terms varies quite considerably from one language to another. Dani, spoken in New Guinea, and Bassa, spoken in Liberia and Sierra Leone, each have no more than two colour terms, one for dark/cool colours and the other for light/warm colours. But, obviously, speakers of Dani and Bassa are able to perceive, and think about, more than two colours.

More subtly, there is no English equivalent for the German word Sehnsucht, which refers to the dissatisfaction with an imperfect reality paired with the yearning for an ideal that comes to seem more real than the reality itself. But despite lacking the word, Walt Whitman could clearly conjure the concept and emotion: Is it a dream? Nay, but the lack of it the dream, And, failing it, life’s lore and wealth a dream, And all the world a dream.

The English language has a word for children who have lost their parents (orphan), and a word for spouses who have lost their spouse (widow or widower), but no word for parents who have lost a child. This may mean that parents who have lost a child are less likely to enter our minds, but not that they cannot enter our minds, or that we cannot conceive of them. We often think about or remember things that cannot be put into words, such as the smell and taste of a mango, the dawn chorus of the birds, or the contours of a lover’s face. Animals and pre-linguistic babies must surely have thoughts, even if they have no language.

Time heaved a gentle sigh as the wind swept through the willows. Communication does not require language, and many animals communicate effectively by other modes. However, language is closely associated with symbolism, and so with emotionalism and conceptual thought and creativity. These unique assets make us by far the most adaptable of all animals, and enable us to engage in highly abstract pursuits such as art, science, and philosophy that define us as human beings.

Imagine what it would be like to live without language—not without the ability to speak, but without an actual language. Given the choice, would you rather lose the faculty for sight or the faculty for language? This is probably the first time that you are faced with this question—the faculty for language is so fundamental to the human condition that, unlike the faculty for sight, we take it completely for granted. “Monkeys,” quipped Kenneth Grahame, “very sensibly refrain from speech, lest they should be set to earn their livings.”

If language does not determine thought, how, if at all, does it interact with thought? Or, to put it another way, how does the language you speak influence the way you think? Russian, Greek, and many other languages have two words for blue, one for lighter shades, the other for darker shades—goluboy and siniy in Russian, and ghalazio and ble in Greek. A study found that, compared to English speakers, Russian speakers were quicker to discriminate between shades of goluboy and siniy, but not shades of goluboy or shades of siniy. Conversely, another study found that Greek speakers who had lived for a long time in the U.K. see ghalazio and ble as more similar than Greek speakers living in Greece. By creating categories, language can enhance cognition.

In contrast to modern Greek, Ancient Greek, in common with many ancient languages, has no specific word for blue, leaving Homer to speak about “the wine-dark sea.” But the Ancient Greeks did have several words for ‘love’, including philia, eros, storge, and agape, each one referring to a different type or concept of love. This means that they could speak more precisely about love, but does it also mean that they could think more precisely about love, and, as a result, have more fulfilled love lives? Or perhaps the Greeks had more words for love because they had more fulfilled love lives in the first place, or, more prosaically, because their culture and society placed more emphasis on the different bonds that can exist between people, and on the various duties and expectations that attend, or attended, to those bonds.

Philosophers and academics sometimes make up words to help them talk and think about an issue. In the Phaedrus, Plato coined the word psychagogia, the art of leading souls, to characterize rhetoric—another word that he invented. Every field of human endeavour inevitably evolves its own specialized jargon. There seems to be an important relationship between language and thinking: I often speak—and write, as I am doing now—to define or refine my thinking on a particular topic, and language is the scaffolding by which I arrive at my more subtle or syncretic thoughts.

While we’re talking dead languages, it may come as a surprise that Latin has no direct translations for yes and no. Instead, one either echoes the verb in the question (in affirmative or negative) or expresses one’s feelings about the truth value of the proposition with adverbs such as certe, fortasse, nimirum, plane, vero, etiam, sane, minime…This may have led to more nuanced thinking, as well as greater interpersonal engagement, though it must have been a nightmare for teens.

Much of the particularity of a language is extra-lexical, built into the syntax and grammar of the language and virtually invisible to native speakers. English, for example, restricts the use of the present perfect tense (“has been,” “has read”) to subjects who are still alive, marking a sharp grammatical divide between the living and the dead, and, by extension, between life and death. But of course, as an English speaker, you already knew that, at least unconsciously.

Here’s another, more substantial, example: When describing accidental events, English speakers tend to emphasize the agent (“I fired the gun”) more than, say, speakers of Spanish or Japanese, who prefer to omit the agent (“the gun went off”). One study found that, as a result, English speakers are more likely to remember the agents of accidental events—and, presumably, to attach blame.

In English, verbs express tense, that is, time relative to the moment of speaking. In Turkish, they also express the source of the information (evidentiality)—whether the information is direct, acquired through sense perception; or indirect, acquired by testimony or inference. In Russian, they include information about completion, with (to simplify) the perfective aspect used for completed actions and the imperfective aspect for ongoing or habitual actions. Spanish, on the other hand, emphasizes modes of being, with two verbs for “to be”—ser, to indicate permanent or lasting attributes, and estar, to indicate temporary states and locations. Like many languages, Spanish has more than one mode of second-person address: for intimates and social inferiors, and usted for strangers and social superiors, equivalent to tu and vous in French, and tu and lei in Italian. There used to be a similar distinction in English, with thou used to express intimacy, familiarity, or downright rudeness—but because it is archaic, many people now think of it as more formal than “you.” It stands to reason that, compared to English speakers, Turkish speakers have to pay more attention to evidentiality, Russian speakers to completion, and Spanish speakers to modes of being and social relations.

In many languages, nouns are divided into masculine and feminine. In German, there is a third, neutral class of nouns. In Dyirbal, an Aboriginal language, there are four noun classes, including one for women, water, fire, violence, and exceptional animals—or, as George Lakoff put it, “women, fire, and dangerous things.” Researchers asked speakers of German and Spanish to describe objects with opposite gender assignments in these two languages, and found that their descriptions conformed to gender stereotypes—even when the testing took place in English. For example, German speakers described bridges (feminine in German, die Brücke) as beautiful, elegant, fragile, peaceful, pretty, and slender, whereas Spanish speakers described bridges (masculine in Spanish, el puente) as big, dangerous, long, strong, sturdy, and towering.

Another study looking at the artistic personification of abstract concepts such as love, justice, or time found that, in 78% of cases, the gender of the concept in the artist’s language predicted the gender of the personification, and that this pattern held even for uncommon allegories such as geometry, necessity, and silence. Compared to a French or Spanish artist, a German artist is far more likely to paint death (der Tod, la mort, la muerte) or victory (der Sieg, la victoire, la victoria) as a man—though all artists, or European artists, tend to paint death in skeletal form. Grammar, it seems, can directly and radically influence thought, perception, and action.

It is often said that, by de-emphasizing them, language perpetuates biases against women. For example, many writers in English still use “mankind” to talk about humankind, and “he” for “he or she.” Similarly, many languages use masculine plural pronouns to refer to groups of people with at least one man. If 100 women turn up with a baby in a pram, and that baby happens to be male, French grammar dictates the use of the masculine plural ils: ils sont arrivés, “they have arrived.” Language changes as mores change, and sometimes politicians, pressure groups, and others attempt to change the language to change the mores—but, on the whole, language serves to preserve the status quo, to crystallize the order and culture that it reflects.

Language is also made up of all sorts of metaphors. In English and Swedish, people tend to speak of time in terms of distance: “I won’t be long”; “Let’s look at the weather for the week ahead”; “his drinking caught up with him.” But in Spanish or Greek, people tend to speak of time in terms of size or volume—for example, in Spanish, hacemos una pequeña pausa (“let’s have a small break”) rather than corta pausa (“short break”). More generally, mucho tiempo (“much time”) is preferred to largo tiempo (“long time”), and, in Greek, poli ora to makry kroniko diastima. And guess what? According to a recent study of fully bilingual Spanish-Swedish speakers, the language used to estimate the duration of events alters the speaker’s perception of the relative passage of time.

But all in all, and with perhaps a couple of exceptions, European languages do not differ dramatically from one another. To talk about space, speakers of Kuuk Thaayorre, an Aboriginal language, use 16 words for absolute cardinal directions instead of relative references such as “right in front of you,” “to the right,” and “over there.” As a result, even children are always aware of the exact direction in which they are facing. When asked to arrange a sequence of picture cards in temporal order, English speakers arrange the cards from left to right, whereas Hebrew speakers tend to arrange them from right to left. But speakers of Kuuk Thaayorre consistently arrange them from east to west, which is left to right if they are facing south, and right to left if they are facing north. Thinking differently about space, they think differently about time as well.

Language may not determine thought, but it focuses our perception and attention on particular aspects of reality, structures and enhances our cognitive processes, and even, to some extent, regulates our social relationships. Our language reflects and at the same time shapes our thoughts and, ultimately, our culture, which in turn shapes our thoughts and language. There is no equivalent in English of the Portuguese word saudade, which refers to the love and longing for someone or something that has been lost and may never be regained. The rise of saudade coincided with the decline of Portugal and the yen for its imperial heyday, a yen so strong as to have written itself into the national anthem: Levantai hoje de novo o splendour de Portugal (“Let us once again lift up the splendour of Portugal”). The three strands of language, thought, and culture, though individual, are so tightly woven that they cannot be prised apart.

It has been said that when an old man dies, a library burns to the ground. But when a language dies, it is a whole world that comes to an end.

See my related post, Beyond Words: The Benefits of Being Bilingual

New Audiobook on the Emotions

Heaven and Hell Audiobook

Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions has just come out on Audible!

So now you can take it in the car, gym, kitchen, or wherever…

The book is narrated by the very talented Alexander Doddy, who also did Growing from Depression.

For more info, follow this link (UK) or this link (US).

 

Beyond Words: The Benefits of Being Bilingual

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It may come as a surprise to many people in the U.S. and U.K. that speaking more than one language is the norm rather than the exception. In prehistoric times, most people belonged to small linguistic communities, and spoke several languages to trade with, and marry into, neighbouring communities. Still today, remaining populations of hunter-gatherers are almost all multilingual. Papua New Guinea, a country smaller than Spain, still counts some 850 languages, or about one language per 10,000 inhabitants. In countries such as India, Malaysia, and South Africa, most people are bilingual or better. Even in the world at large, polyglots outnumber monoglots. And with the advent of the Internet, contact with foreign languages has become increasingly frequent, even for the most linguistically isolated of monoglots.

Queen Elizabeth I of England could speak at least ten languages: English, French, Spanish, Italian, Flemish, Latin, Welsh, Cornish, Scottish, and Irish. According to the Venetian ambassador, she possessed these languages “so thoroughly that each appeared to be her native tongue”. No wonder she didn’t want to get married.

To speak a language competently implies knowledge of the culture associated with the language. Multilingualism is closely linked to multiculturalism, and, historically, both came under attack with the rise of the nation state. In the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, the British Prime Minister Theresa May stated: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere”—as though that were somehow bad or abnormal. Human beings are far older than any country. Still today, some people believe that teaching a child more than one language can impair the child’s linguistic and cognitive development. But what’s the evidence?

According to several studies, people who study a language do significantly better on standardized tests. Language management calls upon executive functions such as attention control, cognitive inhibition, and working memory; and there is mounting evidence that bi- and multi-lingual people are better at analysing their surroundings, multitasking, and problem solving. They also have a larger working memory, including for tasks that do not involve language. In terms of brain structure, they have more grey matter (and associated activity) in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, a locus for language control and broader executive function. Superior executive function is, in turn, a strong predictor of academic success.

According to one recent study, when faced with moral dilemmas, people who think through a problem in a foreign language make much more rational (or ‘utilitarian’) decisions, perhaps because certain words lose some of their emotional impact, or because the problem is seen from a different cultural perspective, or processed through different neural channels. So if you have a second language, you can use it, like a friend, to check yourself.

The cognitive benefits of bi- and multilingualism yield important health dividends. An examination of hospital records in Toronto uncovered that bilingual patients were diagnosed with dementia on average three to four years later than their monolingual counterparts, despite being of a similar educational and occupational status. A more recent study in Northern Italy looking at patients at the same stage of Alzheimer’s Disease revealed that the bilingual patients were on average five years older, and that they had stronger connections between the brain areas involved in executive function. Similarly, research into 600 stroke survivors in India found that the bilingual patients had a much better outcome: specifically, 40.5% of the bilingual patients had normal cognition compared to just 19.6% of the monolingual ones.

And then there are the economic benefits. A U.S. study found that high-level bilingualism is associated with extra earnings of about $3,000 a year, even after controlling for factors such as educational attainment and parental socio-economic status. According to The Economist, for an American graduate, a second language could be worth—on a conservative estimate—up to $128,000 over 40 years. Of course, the overall economic impact of multilingualism is much greater than the sum of the higher earnings of multilingual speakers. A report from the University of Geneva estimates that Switzerland’s multilingual heritage contributes about $50 billion a year to the Swiss economy, or as much as 10% of GDP. Conversely, research for the U.K. government cautions that a lack of language skills could be costing the British economy around $48 billion a year, or 3.5% of GDP, in lost output.

Being bilingual may have important cognitive and economic benefits, but it is often the personal, social, and cultural benefits that multilingual people are keen to emphasize. Many bilingual people feel that the way they are, and the way they see the world—and even the way they laugh and love—changes according to the language they are speaking. In the 1960s, Susan Ervin-Tripp asked Japanese-English bilingual women to finish sentences in each language, and found that the women came up with very different endings depending on whether they were speaking English or Japanese. For example, they completed “Real friends should…” with “…help each other” in Japanese, but “…be frank” in English. “What do you want to eat?” “Who’s your favourite poet?” Ask a question in one language, and you get one answer; ask the same question in another language, and you get another one. “To have another language” said Charlemagne, “is to have another soul.”

Translation dictionaries seem to assume that languages are made up of corresponding words, but even when that is more or less the case, the equivalencies have different connotations. Compared to “I like you” in English, “Je t’aime” in French is a far more serious proposition. Owing to a certain je ne sais quoi, some things are more readily expressed in one language than another. By code switching, multilingual speakers can increase their range of expression, and perhaps even their range of thought. “The limits of my language” said Ludwig Wittgenstein, “are the limits of my world.” Certain languages are better suited to certain purposes, for example, English is great for science and technology, French is better for cooking and seducing, and Latin is best for praying and formal rites of passage. Multilingual people are free to pick and choose, maybe along the lines of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor: “I speak in Latin to God, Italian to Women, French to Men, and German to my Horse.” (He didn’t get on with the German lords, and preferred to live in Spain, where he happened to be the King.)

The more languages you learn, the easier it becomes to learn languages. But learning a language also strengthens your first language. For instance, one study found that Spanish immersion significantly improved children’s native English vocabulary. More broadly, learning a language casts light upon your first language and language in general, increasing your appreciation of language and ability to communicate. “You speak English beautifully,” wrote Robert Aickman in The Wine-Dark Sea, “which means you can’t be English.”

Just before writing this article, I asked my amazing Facebook and Twitter people the following question: “If you are bi- or multi-lingual, what do you most value about that fact?”

And here are some of their responses:

  • The freedom to access different cultures plus the possibility to read many authors in original version!
  • Being fluent in a couple of other languages has given me insight into other ways of seeing the world. That helps empathy, and openness.
  • I appreciate the cognitive advantages being multilingual has offered. Also the connections with culture, history, and the knowledge acquired.
  • Language is knowledge. Always useful to be a little less ignorant.
  • It feels as if I can switch into two different modes and think from different perspectives.
  • Being more tolerant—new language = new culture, new and different perspectives/access to more information.
  • That I can talk wine with twice as many ppl.
  • It gives me patience and understanding for those who want to articulate, but have difficulty conveying what they really mean.
  • The fact that I can fully understand and communicate in another language (Afrikaans) makes me feel good.
  • It gave me an understanding that ‘thoughts’ don’t come into my head in a language at all. Thoughts come as ‘ideas’. Only when I have to verbalize my ideas, I have to use a language.
  • I’m bilingual in India. There’s nothing special about it here. Know a ton of people who are trilingual. In India, multilingualism starts becoming impressive if the language count’s above like five or something.
  • Obviously, being able to speak about people in elevators without them knowing what’s said. 😉
  • Having a variety of options when cussing.

Every language has its own rules and conventions, its own sounds and rhythms, its own beauty and poetry, its own outlook and philosophy.

Every language is another way of being human, another way of being alive.

Summer Promotion!

Currently ‘author in focus’ at Blackwell’s Oxford

3 for 2 in the shop, and big discounts in their online store

#SummerReading

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