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Oh I think I'm going to get it in my eye and don't get what I want to do. I mean we didn't mean before I expose what I'm going to do way really in my house. I ask that student what he felt he did when he thought it's interesting irony that he says he draws a picture of what he plans to do but much more interesting John is where he said he drew it in his heart. Where our minds meet a series of explorations in human communication conducted by professors John Prine Donald Nelson of the Department of English Western Michigan University where minds meet is produced and recorded by W-M UK under a grant from the National Association of educational broadcasters. In a shrinking world where minds meet in words or not at all man speech is his most decisive act. These discussions explore this world of speech they topic for today is remote controls assumptions and language. Here are professors frind and Nelson.
This is John Fry and this is Arnold Nelson. That student we first heard John was from Uganda in Africa which explains the slight accent Iranians may have noticed. And it also explains what you were interested in me. The fact that he saw his thoughts pictured in his heart what we would see them in our heads. Although he's far from his native land his culture and his native language still exert a strong influence over him. Well this is universally true of course John the culture anyone grows up in. It's a profound influence on what he believes and how he acts. Our language is one of the most important aspects of our culture and it too exerts a permanent influence no matter how far we may travel our culture continues to control us. One of the reasons this control is as powerful as it is irony is because we're largely unconscious of it. I topic today is assumptions and we will be focusing especially on those assumptions that we derive from our culture that is from our native environment in all its complexity by an assumption we mean something that we take for granted something that
appears so natural to us that we simply don't question it may be an idea a way of acting or a manner of communicating. But in any case if it's an assumption we've gained from our culture we hardly ever talk about it in words because it's so deeply ingrained in us. How would you describe the relationship between our assumptions and our speech. Well I think the simplest way to look at it is to say that our communication rests upon our assumptions. That is I words make sense to someone else only because they complete a message that's already partly known. There must always be a certain degree of unspoken agreement between two people and this unspoken agreement results from a number of assumptions that we have in common. Right. Communication is like an iceberg. Words are above the surface but the vast quantity of the unspoken lies under the surface. And the more assumptions we share with a person then the more easily we can communicate with him. The fewer words we need to use yes and communication often breaks down when we hold different assumptions.
How can a person discover someone else's assumptions if he doesn't state them. Well there are indirect methods of discovering them. For instance we asked some students to explain a proverb that they had never heard before. Now in this situation the meaning they saw in the proverb resulted from the meaning that they put into it a reflection of their assumptions. Here is such a proverb. You never see an empty bag stand up. And here is what one student read into it. Let me do something I should like. You just get what I want to show. You got to. Do something with your life. It's good for everybody else. He's saying that the empty bag is an empty life you should thin your life with good actions. Yes he's an American student and his answer is typically American. Oh here's another. The empty bag would represent my mind. And the things in the bag represent the things I want to put in my mind. I mean now which. And without knowledge I think this means you wouldn't be able to stand up
in this world true to to be able to talk with people intelligently and to get a good shot which would require knowledge. So this is what it really would mean to me. Her answer has a slightly different emphasis. Knowledge should fill the bag. Her mind that's what's needed to stand up in the world. Yes and other American students rank similar changes on the theme. But here is a response that none of them gave. This comes from a Venezuelan student you never see people. You never see an illiterate people go ahead in life. Here's something that the American college student take so for granted that it never occurs to him. But in Venezuela when this student was growing up over half the population was unable to read or write. I think we can see why he feels the bag with a different value.
But you're not John that it's an intangible value. And I'd venture to say that 90 percent of our listeners have also interpreted this proverb in a similar way. That is they're assuming that it means that in order to live a full life to stand up in this world we must be filled with wisdom knowledge moral virtue religious conviction and the like. Well against such interpretations this next one from an African student comes as a shock. You know what I mean. Let's take an example string. I think the shock is even greater when we discovered that the original meaning of the proverb is very close to this. It's a Jamaican expression which means to the Jamaican You cannot expect work from a man unless you feed him.
We can see from this how having enough to eat is taken rather for granted by Americans. Perhaps in Uganda having enough food isn't taken so much for granted. Here again I think we can see that remote controls of a culture operating. Yes. And it isn't only through proverbs that we can discover a person's basic assumptions though I mean almost any sample of his language can be revealing if we know what to look for. Yes people indirectly reveal their assumptions by the words they choose and the words they don't use. One method we've used is to have people just finish some sentences. Yes we've often given the first part of a statement to a student and ask him to finish it as he sees fit. Here's an example of a student giving an unusually full response. With that education you will probably get it. Show your education. Take a course. And then. Everybody.
Did you notice in everything he says there is an implicit acceptance of the value of getting ahead fast. Yes this is an American student and he takes for granted the American value of getting ahead. But I noticed several other assumptions buried in that boy's speech. All of them reflecting his American culture. The words used majority necessary for everybody. Both of these terms indirectly point to something besides education. Just a philosophy of government. Not surprisingly a democratic one. Yes even the term well-rounded suggests that because it's only in a democratic society where widely varying types of people hold power that well-rounded is of any importance in a society less specialized that it would replace it. Different cultures of course do value different things. In fact one of the best ways to discover our own assumptions is to confront a person from a foreign culture. For the foreigner frequently sees clearly some of our beliefs that were unconscious out. Well I ask the Venezuelan student that we heard directly whether he noticed any American beliefs that he found surprising. When he first encountered them he answered unhesitatingly.
Oh man. Do you really think. I think we can readily understand how against his background the Americans trust in his government would seem almost childishly naive which perhaps it is. Although you and I can account for the attitude that we share with other Americans were hardly able to be objective about it. Everyone tends to be blind to his own most basic beliefs. Well John the best example I know of illustrating this blindness. One has to his own assumptions occurred when you were interviewing a Chinese student. You asked him just what you asked the Venezuelan but his answer was singled out such a fundamental American attitude that you were genuinely dumbfounded. You had no idea what he could possibly mean. Of all the things that you've noticed about Americans can you go. What's the most surprising thing about Americans
belief like American people. Yeah. Well since you've been here. Has anything surprised you that you recall which my tree about their belief. One can do whatever they want to do you think is right don't. You. OK could you go on a little bit longer. OK. OK. What do you want to do. March just a little bit. I can remember how taken aback I was. If something's right and you're able to do it and you
want to do it why would anybody not do it who is kind of feeling though why not. What other way is there this feeling of the natural ness of certain feelings and behavior is characteristic of our deepest cultural assumptions. But even more important John is their own language plays in forming our assumptions actually patterning our thinking in such a way that we can honestly be said that we think our language dictates we must. Yes the influence of language has over our habits of thought is a profound one. Benjamin who are from other linguists has pointed this out in studying American Indian languages. He has discovered that the very grammar of the language patterns the thinking of the speaker a long line is quite different from those characteristic of European languages. And again John these habits of thought or unconscious habits. Right. The speaker isn't aware that what appears logical to him seems logical because his logic stems from his language. But we don't have to go to American Indian languages to see this phenomenon the slang of college students shows a somewhat similar interplay between thought and language.
Grades are important to the student and his special vocabulary of slang makes many assumptions for him about making grades or getting grades. There's a difference between making it and getting it. And often a student will say that his teacher gave him an A. Each of these phrases suggest a different process by which the grade is awarded. Perhaps you should say receive the student never says that I was interested in one student's use of the verb pull. In this regard she used the term naturally as many students do but only for a certain letter grades. Here is what she said. I want to see me because that's really you. What is true. Not all college students make this distinction however. Some say just as naturally that
they want another meaning of pool seems dominant that of pulling a number out of a hat at a lottery. Well John even that strange expression I tubed it is by no means universal on our campus. The slang one uses depends upon the group he belongs to. And of course boys use slang that girls often don't understand. They don't always know when they are there. One girl had heard the expression I had to bet but didn't know what it meant. Here's what she said. I've heard it but I think yeah. I never asked what it was. Yes they have worried that we've never heard of it. We we would think we're maybe vulgar and we're scared to ask about it. In her group girls didn't use that expression. Well I suppose I knew that we could say that this girl's clique is like a miniature culture and exert similar control still John. It's in those larger units the culture is united by a common language that we see there really profound control that words exercise over thought I'd like not to examine one such
language and culture in more detail in the language spoken in South Africa by the Afrikaner language called Afrikaans. It's a form of Dutch spoken by the white South African whose ancestors came from Holland in the 16th century. Yes he calls himself an Afrikaner which in his language means an African. Well we interviewed one of our colleagues Dr. Edward Callan who has done special study of this subject. He's recently written a book Albert John literally on the South African race problem. Now he's lived in South Africa and he studied Afrikaans at the University of Johannesburg and consequently has gained considerable knowledge of the language and thinking of the Afrikaner. But the most fascinating information he gave us was that the language Afrikaans may have built characteristics that make it difficult if not impossible to express. Liberal views about race problems. Yes as everyone knows South Africa has been the scene of racial conflict between the white Afrikaner nationalist and the black native Africa. What isn't well-known is the way in
which the Afrikaners language so restricts liberal thinking on that subject of race. That as a person fluent in both English and Afrikaans has pointed out liberal views expressed in English tend to move their liberal tome when translated into Afrikaans. This is such an astonishing aspect of the language that we ask Dr. Killen to describe some of the details that cause this. He began by pointing out that a term still in common usage for what we call in English the African and the black native of Africa is an old but now derogatory one Kaffir a term taken from the Arabic meaning unbeliever. Yes the Afrikaner can't call the native African and African for that's the term implying applies to himself. Another term used in official government publications is hardly satisfactory either. The word Bantu. That's a linguistic label actually designating our language division rather than a people. So Afrikaans really lacks a satisfactory word for the African. Here's how it put it and it is considered very highly derogatory term
by Africans. I can recall for example listening to high school classes in Africa and clearly from the textbooks being used. The opening sentences of the kind we all know from French the pen of my aunt as in the guy can set simple sentences about the man working in the fields and it would be if my memory is that they would speak up or catch out working in the field. Therefore the there is a kind of split personality about this thing on the part of an Afrikaner. What is he going to speak about when he is speaking of the natives. The term Kafir then aside from its original meaning of unbeliever carries with it the further unpleasant connotation of a worker in the fields and stamps the African with a lower status. And I need this meaning is communicated regardless of the speaker's intention no matter how liberally might strive to be the language restrict his expression. He suffers as Ed said from a
split personality at a later point Ed remarks that the Afrikaner faces this difficulty in his daily conversations constantly. I think that in conversation especially that I see among farmers workers and so on. That is to say like farming. Because that one wouldn't invariably find the term cover apply. And in it in the intonation of the use of that word there is an element of a rejection. It is not considered a term of good use even by the user. Naga language is not initially responsible for the state of affairs of language after all reflects the beliefs of its speakers. That's true irony. The vocabulary here is the symptom of something else and it not only recognizes this but goes to some length to point out what is the underlying cause of the deficiency in terminology. The reason why. Terminology to describe the African is so difficult in Africa and here's the
listeria type the image of the African in the mind of the Afrikaner. Now I feel quite clear about this. I recently read a statement made at the Council of Churches in South Africa by a representative of the Dutch Reform Church far African So to say the Dutch Reform Church has itself separated to churches for quite interest for not quite. And one would assume that this speaker would be speaking on behalf of Africans since he was representing the Africans. Churches he is subject matter was the end of the contribution that Africans could make the Bantu could make to race relations and very surprisingly his whole speech turned on quite a harsh criticism about the main theme was that they are irresponsible and he suggested that they should cultivate responsibility. He gave examples of what he considered a responsibility
he said for example that Africans. Are no fun to live if they talk loudly in the streets. They gather on street corners and laugh and talk loudly and this gives a bad impression to the five people who are welcome that they imitate European meaning that they wear European clothes. They're losing something of their origin now. Way of life in so doing and so on. But the image that he presented there of the African was apparently the image of the earthbound Cochise partly the image of a no easy from person to get this man the churchmen an Afrikaner and what one would expect to represent the African point of view. It could not help but speak from this image that is so deeply carved in his mind.
Well back of the words then stands an image of the native African which causes the Afrikaners because he does know the language to become one of us. Yes but equally important is the fact that the language once its taken shape reinforces this image. The effect is circular. The image of the African is partially formed after all from expressions like the Kaffir is working in the fields. It's difficult with such an image of the African to imagine an African leader. But it's nearly impossible when as Ed points out the language you speak has no world leader which can refer to an African what he thinks of the average farmer for example thinks of the of the African You can think of only as if we're in the fleet now. Very interesting point here is this treatment the speaker spoke of African leaders and really there is no African word for an African leader that I have encountered. They do use the term but they invariably put the word still call for. Oh this is quite incredible and they
almost immediately and they're educators so but in English we refer to as an African leader and then who would represent his people is referred to almost by all African speakers as they so call African. And it is assumed that he is an agitator that he is a he is an African. That is to say he is not following the good old tribal ways but he is some kind of phony. Europeans. Know that. The African leader then encounters if he tries to gain recognition from the Afrikaner a double hurdle he has to overcome an image carved in the mind of the Afrikaner. Another one in his words. But even this doesn't fully describe the problem. It isn't just single words that cause the difficulty any language is an organic structure. The words grammar and idioms that make it up all interlock and support each other in Afrikaans recently two new terms of appeared both of which reflect an image of the African
and both of which gain and lend support to the concept of race that is ingrained in the language. There are no words quite like them in English. They used two terms not very widely that I don't think were used at all. Mike before 1948 these two terms are a yes or OK meaning one's own kind. The Muslim group is described but it is a common enough to hate ness because they sort of take this equality of persons and actually quite the opposite their kind. So either one is sort of one's own kind. One is an Afrikaner speaking Afrikaans carrying the nationalist ideas of an Afrikaner. All one is one is something else and there is no. No mixing are nothing in common. They're not language. Again given the whole situation into two groups one of the Yeah Yeah I don't think you can quite do this in English you see we have no word that is
quite equivalent of one sort to one another no word in the vocabulary of the Afrikaner sounds the same tendency to reflect in its connotation a derogatory image of the African and points out that even though it's applied to the white nationalist Dan describes a good quality It carries the implication that the native Africans are a people who must be watched as another quality Incidentally that was spoken up to Afrikaners craft which I cannot quite a translation into English but I'm capable of deep or ready for it. A man who is ready for the day. How. Did you know that it was in the attic. This isn't the Afrikaner part of the image was that one is defeat and there is always a necessity for. Suddenly being
ready. I think this analysis shows the many subtle ways in which the language we speak can affect our thinking. I'd like to play one final comment of his though the one in which he tries to express the meaning of apartheid. That's the word that expresses the official policy of South African government. The policy that would separate the races. Right but it isn't completely translatable because it's so linked to the rest of the language. There's an assumption of a quality for instance in the height ending characteristic of Africa but not of English when it speaks of race. Here's how it tried to distinguish it from segregation. Well again you see partly that the part of speech part of course this idea of all of that. It says here part data sort of related to words like the way you're sort to. Write one on Sark. Now segregation is a sort of object a word one could stand outside something and say one has segregated things that males from females.
Now in in Africa I don't think you would use the term apartheid to to describe a separation of males and females. It's purely in the context of race and it assumes a a race that is a yes or no. To begin with that has this this quality of one ness about it and the view that it is almost. Standing our heart. Out on one's own level in other words segregation in a sense implies that one almost forcibly separates Group B in a way from keep them separate I think apart type assumes that group B works separated from. B. As Ed said apartheid assumes a certain attitude. Segregation assumes another language we speak make certain assumptions which we as speakers can't help but accept we have no choice. Until we encounter another
language and become aware and sometimes painfully of the rigid control our words have had over us and even then we aren't magically freed from the control of our language. Even when we learn a second language our native tongue frequently continues to control our thoughts. In contrast to Afrikaans and its assumptions I'd like to turn now to an African language and note one of the controls it exercises over its speakers. The Ugandan student we listened to before he speaks English as a second language. But when we asked him about his thinking he admitted that his native language held sway. Here's what he said. I was saying I mean my own language. I studied. We had asked him earlier to tell us how we thought and he told us that he sometimes thought in pictures and sometimes in words that is both visually and aurally depending upon the situation. But the most impressive thing was the location of his thoughts in his heart.
I think I'm drawing a picture of it in my picture of what I want to do. I mean we didn't mean before I expose what I'm going to do about it and draw a picture of it in my house but already thinking about something which I can see them I read you know it is my own voice. But when I'm thinking about something which somebody has done it to me Your voice will pick up fast and you know what you mean my meaning within myself. He's explaining himself there but something is lost in translation. When we questioned him further about this he told us that in his language Luganda the heart is central. Well John I think these remarks of his demise what we've tried to express about assumptions today the feelings we acquire from our language often resist any change that the intellect tries to impose. I don't think we can do any better than two clones with his words.
That was again a direct translation from my language. You see when we are talking about talks we seem to think that thoughts come from the heart rather than from the brain. So that when you keep a secret you keep it within your heart so that when you have got somebody you love everything within your wee David how does this send out of life and the source of every brain. We don't we don't go it brings. We have been listening to where our minds meet in a discussion of human communication by professors John brined and Arnold Nelson where minds meet is produced and recorded by W. M. U.K. under a grant from the National Association of educational broadcasters This is the end of the Radio Network.
Where minds meet
Assumptions in language
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Western Michigan University
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University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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Remote Controls: Assumptions in Language
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Discussions explore world of speech, conducted by Professors John Freund and Arnold Nelson of Western Michigan University
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Social Issues
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Host: Freund, John
Host: Nelson, Arnold
Producing Organization: Western Michigan University
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Identifier: 63-4-9 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
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Duration: 00:29:13
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Chicago: “Where minds meet; Assumptions in language,” 1963-02-07, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed December 4, 2023,
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