Where minds meet; Assumptions in language
Oh I think I'm doing it I'm doing it big. What I want to do. I mean we didn't meet before I expose what I'm going to do a picture of it in my head. I ask the student what he felt he did when he thought. It's interesting 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 WMU K. 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. The topic for today is remote controls assumptions and language. Here are professors frind and Nelson.
This is John freind 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 any fact that he saw his thoughts pictured in his heart. Where we would see them in our heads always 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. Our 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. That means you're going to do something with your life. You just can't win to show. You've got to. Do something with your life. It's good for everybody else. I mean. 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 would represent the things I want to put in my mind. In this I mean now each. And without knowledge I think this means you wouldn't be able to stand up
in this world 2 2. 0 0 2 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. All her answer has a slightly different emphasis. Knowledge should fill the bag in 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. Very literary 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 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 I mean we did mean to. Let's take an example. Angry Man. You want to look strong. I did a show I mean it was flat. It doesn't give you any. 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 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 the 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 choose one method we've used just to have people just finish some sentences. Yes we've often given the first part of a statement to a student and asked him to finish it as he sees fit. Here's an example of a student giving an unusually full response. Look at education. You will probably go to hell. Show your education. It would be to take a well-rounded course. And then it would be not just in one field but already a field which is
necessary for 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. You suggest a philosophy of government and 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 various and more specialized value 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 on me 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. Do you believe. Oh man. Do you really think. That a government. 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 Don 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'd ask the Venezuelan but his answer 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 the American people. Yeah. Well since you've been here. Has anything surprised you that you recall which might say about their belief. One trait. I mean they can. Do whatever they want to do. Do you think thing is right don't. You. OK. Could you go on a little bit longer. OK. OK. How else would they do it. That's not what they want to do much just a little bit.
They want to get mad. I can remember how taken aback I was if something is right and you're able to do it and you want to do it. Why would anybody not do it who's 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 the role 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 our 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 in 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 an A and getting an ethical 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. Paul in this regard she used this term naturally as many students do but only for a certain letter grades. Here is what she said. I want to see me. Because it really works.
Reach out. To. Not all college students make this distinction however. Some say just as naturally that they pulled in what another meaning of pool seems dominant that of pulling a number out of a hat 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 talk to either one girl and heard the expression I too bit but didn't know what it meant. Here's what she said. I've heard it but I think yeah. I never asked what for. Yes they have worried. We've never heard that. We we would think well maybe Wagner and we're scared to ask about him. 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 controls. 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 Africa 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's 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 in 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 maid of 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 to 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. I can recall for example listening to high school classes and Africans and clearly from the textbook being used the in the sentences of the kind we all know from French the pen of my aunt is in the garden except simple sentences about a man working in the fields and it would get my memory is that they would speak of a contractor working in the field. Therefore these 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 last name
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 of say among farmers workers and so on. That is to say like Funimation. Because that one wouldn't invariably find the term cover apply. And in it in the intonation of the use of the word there is an element of rejection. It is not considered a term of good use even by the use of Naga language it was not initially responsible for the state of affairs in 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 Reformed Church for African So to say the Dutch Reform Church has itself separated churches were quite interested from non life 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 to put 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 have no one 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 white people who are welcome to. Imitate Europe here meaning that they wear European clothes and they're losing something of their originality. Need a way of life in so doing and so on. But the image that he presented there of the African was partly the image of the earthbound Cochise. Partly the image of I know you see something first. And you get this man the churchmen an Afrikaner and what
one would expect to represent the African point of view. I 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 Afrikaner to speak as he does in 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 word leader which can refer to an African. Why he thinks when the average farmer for example thinks of the of the African he can think up and only as IT worker in the field. Now a very interesting point here this is courage when the speaker spoke of African leaders
and really there is no Afrikaans word for an African leader that I have encountered. They do use the term but they invariably put the word still call. For. All of this this is quite incredible and they almost immediately and educators. So what in English we refer to as an African leader a man who would represent his people is referred to almost always by all African speakers as a so-called African leader and it is assumed that he is an agitator that he is or he is an African and that is to say he is not following the good old tribal ways. But he is some kind of phony European. 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 and 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's ingrained in the language. There are no words quite like them in English. They used two terms not very lightly that I don't think were used at all much before 1940. These two terms are a yes or OK meaning one kind the model I'm going to describe but it is a comedy you notice next because you sort of like this person. And actually quite the opposite of their kind. So I know one is a short cut 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 or nothing in common. Then the language again divides the whole the whole situation into two groups one or the other. Yeah they don't think you can quite do this in English you see we have no word that is quite frequent 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 Dunn 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 of to an Afrikaner is a craft which I cannot quite a translation into English but capable of deeds are ready for the Tsar. A man who is ready for the day. How
did you know that it was written in the Afrikaner. This isn't the Afrikaner part of the image was that one is a freak 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 reasons 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 Africans 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 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 me. Female It's purely in the context of race and it assumes in a race that is a yes or no. To begin with. That has this this quality of oneness about it and the view that it is almost standing our heart. Out on Monday on a level. It other words segregation in in a sense implies that one almost forcibly separates Group B in a way from the Keep them separate I think apart type assumes that group B were 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 know 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. 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. I'm going get picture of what I want to do. I mean we didn't me before I expose what I'm going to do about it and draw a picture of it in my house much about something which I consider my real you know. It is my own voice. But when I'm thinking about something which somebody else than your voice will that you kept asking if I 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 epitomizes 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 to close 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 us. We date because we send out of life and effort is the source of every brain. We don't we don't go it brings no hit. We have. You been listening to where our minds meet and the discussion of human communication by professors John Prine and Arnold Nelson where minds meat 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
- Producing Organization
- Western Michigan University
- Contributing Organization
- University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
- AAPB ID
- Episode Description
- Remote Controls: Assumptions in Language
- Series Description
- Discussions explore world of speech, conducted by Professors John Freund and Arnold Nelson of Western Michigan University
- Social Issues
- Media type
Host: Freund, John
Host: Nelson, Arnold
Producing Organization: Western Michigan University
- AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 63-4-9 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
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- MLA: “Where minds meet; Assumptions in language.” University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. October 5, 2023. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-sf2mbg8x>.
- APA: Where minds meet; Assumptions in language. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-sf2mbg8x