Language Relativity – Real and Virtual

12 юли, 2012 | Публикувано в: Articles | Автор: Сергей Герджиков
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Serghey Gherdjikov

Language Relativity – Real and Virtual

Department of Philosophy

Sofia University

This article is a result of a project, financed by Sofia University, 2009.




1. There is no “language as such”. There are linguistic phenomena and languages and they do not have non-relative essence. Linguistic phenomena do not constitute a “natural kind”.


2. Natural language outlines the world in a virtual way. We, the members of a language community, are at home when we use our language – in the world that is described as to be clear for all of us. Those states of affairs are not things as such but named things on which our shared life is built.

These named things are not necessarily the same across different language communities. In some communities “chair, door, and window” will be absent, in others there will be no understanding of “love”. For some “knowledge and ignorance” will not be an opposition. Yet for things such as white and black, pain and pleasure, malady and health, life and death there probably wouldn’t be misunderstandings and they will be present in all language communities.


“The Universal Language”

3. Language – “an instrument of thought”. The attitude according to which thinking and language are together, that they have the same form, that we speak what we think, and that language is but a manageable device via which we express our thoughts, is rooted in the West. For Plato and Aristotle, for Augustine and Thomas, for Spinoza and Descartes, for Kant and Hegel, for Husserl and Heidegger, for Frege and for the young Wittgenstein language is not separated from thought and thoughts relate to words in an absolutely genuine way.  This view is not only a philosophy but also a disposition of the mind. It what the massive form “logos” consists in.

Speech and thought are already past each other in simple silence or emotional exclamation. Thoughts and words do not coincide as far as thoughts are spontaneous and talking is controlled in order to say to someone something and not something else. When we lie we think one thing and say another. When we think up what we are about to say thoughts are being transfigured in communication form. When we try to express unusual experience or а dream we directly understand that language is not an obedient expression of thoughts and perceptions.

In major spheres of our lives we think without words: with images, abstract forms, notions, memories, expectations, positions. And we often speak without thinking: we express sensations, emotions, feelings, relations.


4.  “Language is universal”. In the West an enduring conception has been developed (and it persists even now), according to which language is universal and that “language” and “logic” are the same for all people.

The border of our language is not visible and thusly our very language is not visible as unique, different, relative.

Contemporary linguists continue to stress out the entity “the language”. “Observations about specific linguistic constructions have shaped our understanding of both particular languages and the nature of language itself” (Goldberg 2003, 219). This view is not an extravagant one; rather, it is a tradition of investigation that can be attached to the generative stream of contemporary linguistics which springs from the works of Noam Chomsky (see, for example, Chomsky 1957).

The spontaneous unawareness of local language is projected in the belief that this is the language as such, and all the other languages are parallel to our own, thusly expressing the same objects. This belief follows the path of cultural universalism the roots of which we find in Aristotle and Plato.


5.  “There is only one grammar”. “Grammatical categories” have been created they have been contaminated with “ontological categories”.

At the end of the XVIII century we find the moment in which classical universalism has been overcome and thus the modern linguistic science has begun.

And what are the roots of this universalism?


6. The scholastic grammar of XIII century. Catholic scholastics stick to Aristotle in his belief that language is a tool of knowledge and from here follows their attention towards “meaning” (significatio). They see science as a quest for universal and invariable truths and grammar in particular – as an application of universal logical truths; that is – as a completely speculative science. It is precisely here that we find the metaphysical notion that “the word expresses the nature of the signified object”. “The essence of grammar is uniform for all languages although grammar can accidentally vary across different languages in separate moments” (R. Beackon, 12141294).


7. The Greek root. Dionysus from Thrace (in the end of II century BC) introduced the contemporary grammatical categories adverb, participle, pronoun and preposition, inheriting from the Stoics noun, verb, conjunction and article. The words of the Greek language were described in the classes case, gender, tense, voice, mood.

Already Plato and later on Aristotle distinguished between the meaning of names, verbs, and adjectives, of course, standing on the semantics of the words, but first and foremost – on their functions in the sentence, associated with logic: subject – what is being talked about, and predicate – what is being told about it.

The Stoics from the Megarian school make the first distinction between “what signifies” and “what is signified”. The Stoics differentiate: noun, verb, conjunction and article.


8.  “The universal grammar” is the grammar of Indo-European languages. Pājini, (520–460 BC), systematized the grammar of Sanskrit. With an astonishing accuracy he formulated over 3959 rules on morphology in his work Ashtadhyayi (“nine chapters”), one of the fundamental texts in the Vedic tradition. Today this is defined as the first work in the field of descriptive and generative linguistics. Together with his predecessors (Nirukta, Nighantu, Pratishakyas) Panini was the founder of the very history of linguistics.

Indian grammatologists of old distinguished in Sanskrit names and verbs and their definitions of name and verb strongly resemble the ones that Plato mad: the name is a subject, the verb is a predicate. (Besides name and verb, Indian scientists differentiated two additional parts of speech: preposition and particles).

We see now that centuries before the Stoics concepts for fundamental parts of speech were created in India: name and verb, and respectively, as parts of sentence: subject and predicate. Sanskrit, Greek and the rest of Indo-European languages have the same basic categories.

In ancient China, on the other side, where the first known to this moment written records date from XIII-XI c. BC, treatises on grammar are not found. And for Chinese, we can’t find explicit grammar categories like noun and verb, subject and predicate.

Language Relativity

9. The world does not speak, speech does not act. The world does not speak – we speak about it. Correct and meaningful talking relates to the world in order to deliver part of our experience to other speakers.

Speech does not act in a sensory-real way but rather – in a virtual one, as an act of defining and deciding in a virtual situation that is shared among the speakers. Speech without understanding is but a sound stream. Speech between people is a virtual exchange. In this sense speech does not act just as the world does not speak. Speech can unlock streams of energy but it does not have strength itself. It is clear that this point can be elegantly defined along the lines of the pair virtual–real.


10. Unawareness about the relativity of “language”. Already from the time of Saussure language is related to the mental as a cognitive structure. The original function of speaking however is not „cognition” but communication and within it concrete, contextually sensible knowledge is formulated.

We are not aware of that yet even a simple phrase such as “My name is Peter” does not stand before a phenomenon but rather is a message to another person. Where in space and time are “my”, “name”, and “Peter” located? Indeed, these are details of a cognitive mind structure but the latter is meaningful only together with others: “I-you”, “name-verb”, and “Peter-John”. We think this in order to be differentiated from the others. We say that in order for the other to come to know it.

We erroneously believe that what is said simply reflects what is seen: “There is a glass of water on the table”. But where do we see things such as “on”, “there is”, “glass”, and “water”? Seeing a glass of water on the table and not speaking about it is seeing without “glass-of-water-on-the table”. This shows the distillation of perception from language.


11. Linguistic reality? There is no phenomenon or entity “language” in our mind – there is memory for language and there is speech thinking. Real language cannot be the silent thinking in words. Real words are vocal signs that are being sent to the others.

Our words are modulated sounds. If we strip a word from its frequency characteristics, it will sound like a lump of sound waves. Practically, words are not different from noise. “Word” is a virtual form that comes alive via understanding.


12. Every phrase brings virtuality in the world in which we live. It is open and bound up with the entire enormous context of the language and the culture of a particular human community.

“You are daughter of the old leader!” – the translation of a phrase from a Chinese movie. The phrase can be written in Chinese in the following way: 你是女儿的老, and sounds as follows: Nǐ shì nüér de lao lǐngdǎo where “ni” is “you”, “nüér” is “daughter”, “lao” is old, “lǐngdǎo” is leader. This is a communicative situation within the framework of a culture that is alien to us. What is the reality of this sentence? “You” “are” “daughter” “of” “the” “old” “leader” – none of these words had a referent in a purely perceptive aspect. All of these words are elements of a thought-up reality.

Only the place of these words in the statement imparts to them syntactic function.


13. Definition. Virtual (signifying) relativity: definiteness of signs towards other signs.

As far as definition is a relation, different relations lead to different definitions. Nonrelation is non-determinacy. Non-relative is non-defined (Gherdjikov 2008, 52)

Definition. Real relatedness/relativity: definiteness of moments in a life process, meaningfulness.  Real relativity of sign forms: meaningfulness of sign forms as moments of human life process (op. cit., 48).

Real relativity. Virtual presence of language together with thought in the world is possible only as far as there is world that is being lived. That is, the “language community” is but a small part of the “perceptive community”, of the community of the species Homo Sapiens.


14. Word does not stay for but rather virtually defines its referent. This important definition is attained in the framework of the definition real-virtual. The definition of the sign as a substitute for the object, a definition accepted in semiotics and linguistics, is inaccurate. The sign can only substitute another sign. In chess we can easily substitute the pawn with a piece of wood by virtue of the condition (which is also accepted by our opponent) that it is “a pawn”. Here one sign is being substituted by another, stands instead of it. But to define the very sign by saying that it “stands instead of the object” is misleading. The words “two hundred Euros” cannot stand instead of the goods that can be bought with a hundred Euros.

Signs do not substitute things – they are virtual correlates of things that are included in the system in order for us to be able to project organization among and with them.


15. Language – “objective knowledge”? A classical prejudice associated with language states that it reflects or expresses the objectively a state of affairs and objective entities in the world. A strong example of this belief we find in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. This is a crude substitution of the natural situation of communication in collective action with the artificial situation of “knowledge” – a mistake that the late Wittgenstein corrects (Philosophical Investigations).

“Base” talking in the form “subject–predicate–object” is not linguistically universal. In the sentence “I will stalk the deer from the left” “I” is a subject (agent), “will stalk” – action (predicate), “the deer” – object (direct object), “the left” – an adverbial phrase. This differentiation does not signify universal entities such as subject, action, object, attribute. Where are these entities in the Bulgarian sentence “Rains”? In the Chinese sentence “My notebook red” the predicate is “notebook red” and there is no verb at all.


16. Language works exclusively in a relative way. Philosophy and science in XX century gain relativity in different forms and in a variety of concepts. In humanitarian investigations these are “context”, “interpretation”, “frame of interpretation”. Such are also the analytical concepts “language network” and “conceptual frame”.

Language spontaneously joins in perceiving and thus it already carries interpretation. There is no way that such interpretation can be carried out on purely individual level – it springs out from collective coexistence. For example, the perceived rose is an interpretation of a sensory form, and “flower” is an interpretation of “rose” – these two sets of interpretations are social conventions.

Indeed in different languages the lexical and the grammatical structure of an expression of particular perception can vary. These grammatical categories in their synthesis (syntax) arrange a description of the world. Categorial oppositions do not reflect the world. Neither do ordinary words. But as a totality or in its root form language expresses world.

Language does not say why man-and-his-world are as such. Language does not voice a fundamental quality of the world as it cannot operate non-relatively.


17. Words are non-paralel to their sensory referents yet the former are inseverable from the latter. Words do not divide the real world in objects; there is no way that the word “apple” can affect a phenomenon as round-green-solid-sour. Yet it is according to our decision that the word “apple” points to and associates in the mind with the seen, touched and tasted form. As soon as the word is associated with this form the very form is somehow fixed as a particular form. What is perceived by the senses is co-determined by the word to a level at which it is no longer sensory but rather a type of “information” which the brain processes along with the word.

The seen form does not touch its smell and the mental form does not touch the seen, the heard, and the tactile form (there is a partial mix in the modalities – synesthesia which however is not important here). And yet our brain mixes words with sensory influx to a degree on which these are no longer severable: apple becomes word-form. Thus brain connects hand, bow and arrow when we shoot although bow and arrow never become parts of the body.

This difference is extremely important for understanding language and knowledge. It is a difference between life and artifact, real and virtual. It inherits metaphysical oppositions such as “material–ideal”, “bodily–spiritual”, “nature–culture” that are inaccurately hypostasized to the rank of ontological absolutes. Language phenomena are virtual but they are situated in the real life process, defining and organizing human common life. Virtual-real are but interrelated concepts and not ontological entities.


18. Words are involved in the world. Words subconsciously “involve themselves” in the world as they separate different groups with names of things and processes in the stream of various qualia. We cannot or barely can distinguish the word for something from the very thing despite the incommensurability of speech and sense. Referring creates a definition: thing-process, sign-tool with meaning and purpose. Borders and along them definitions between phenomena are ultimately drawn by language.

Experiment with “window”. Let us try to find the border between the word and the thing “window”. As far as the word fixates the thing “window” there is no such border. Of course, saying “window” does not entail appearance of one yet the appearance of the window in our world is inextricably bound to its definition as “window”, i.e. as a transparent form on the wall of the abode through which we see outside and the sunlight pervades inside. The window is an artifact brought forth into the world by sensory forms along with its purpose and meaning. People who don’t make windows, do not live in houses with windows, and have never seen one cannot possibly know all this, and when they see a window for the first time they do not know what lies before their eyes.

Experiment with “language”. Is the grimace of the chimpanzee directed to another chimpanzee a language? This is a question about the limit of “language” (“what is language?”) but it is not answerable in a non-linguistic way. On the linguistic situation of the word “language” – etiology, anthropology, linguistics – depends whether we will define the grimace in question as language. There is no such entity as “language” on which we can rely outside of speaking about “language”.


19. The opposition languageworld is unreal. There is no language external to the world and no world independent of the ones who speak the language. All of this does not take place outside of the understanding of relativity, virtuality, and reality.

Firstly, the distinction language-world is arbitrary and does not recognize the world together with language but rather implies two different realities.

Secondly, the world is life and it has the form of synthesis (re-synthesis) of the living human form.

The world we speak in is not an objective reality against the language and against ourselves but rather a communicative life in a language community of human individuals. This reveals the understanding of real relativity.


20.  “Reference is undetermined” – Quine. Reference is necessary for meaningful speech. Without referent – form in the world – the word is empty. Yet reference is undetermined (Quine). In what outerwordy world “daughter” has a referent? And what about “justice”? Of course, these words also have sensory referents yet they are more complex. “Daughter” is one’s own child, given birth by its mother and fertilized by its father. If “justice” is related to actions such as “the leader divides the food among the family members according to their labor” we see that the word is normal. “Tree” is a word for a spatial form in nature, categorized in thought along with “grass” and “bush”.

Reference at first level as “word-phenomenon” is not defined in the way we imagine it to be. Wilard Quine has dedicated extensive research to this problem. I add only that the indeterminacy in question is indeterminacy of relating between different aspects of reality, different sets – “real” and “virtual”. The very word somehow is involved in the referent and this is “impurity”. In the mental aspect the word goes together with the image. What then can be said about words that are at higher language levels?

It is not possible to convey linguistically the very reference, just as we aren’t able to convey linguistically sight and hearing. The insurmountable barrier is the form of the world, of the lived human world. In it things are as they are yet no one knows why. Similarly it is unknown why there is separate sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste. Neither can we explain why there are five senses and why they are these five. Even less are we capable of understanding senses different from these.


21. The virtual sign defines the real phenomenon. When we say “tree” we do not refer purely to a spatial form but we also define “something” along with “another thing” (“tree” along with “bush”).

This virtual defining creates what Quine calls “ontological relativity”, “incognoscibility of the referent” and “impossibility of radical translation”. It is because natural language gets contaminated with individual perceptions of community members.

The referent does not exist separately from other referents. “The thing” is not external to other “things”.


22. Linguistic communication has living human form. The “indeterminacy of the referent” (Quine) results from critical approach towards “language–world” as two sets of structures of the two elements “sign–object”. It is a problem of linguistic description and not of live communication. In live communication there is no language against world but rather inclusion of communication in the life of the communicators as a living moment. Here the referent is also defined in what is called “context”. “The context” – it is a situation, condition of life, life process. This is recognized by Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations as a “form of life”, “language game” and by Quine as “linguistic behavior”.

Vocal and writing acts are models of collective life processes. In them the motion of resynthesis of social structures, institutions and spiritual forms is defined. In the community there are fundamental vocal and written texts: ceremonial phrases, ritual written signs, prayers, instructions on agriculture, on hunting and animal husbandry; orders, rules for administrative life, legal proceedings, property certification and so on.


23. Natural language conveys world (living) forms. The forms of natural language are formed by local mentality and world organization according to fixed ways of survival in the environment.

Speech synthesizes virtually the outline of a real solution to a problem, and a problem is a barrier on the path of life. For example, we see a sign: “à 18 km to Studena dam”.

With written speech the avalanche of “contexts” and “interpretations” begins.


24. Speaking is bodily-mental and is irreducible in this aspect. Practically speech expresses not bare thoughts but everything that we call “human meaning”: name of a person, call, telling, help, domination, organizing activities, creative work…


25. Unawareness about local grammar. A guest “becomes aware” of the unrealized local grammar. She is compelled to do so as it is a problem when she tries to learn the particular language behind the grammar. What she becomes aware of as grammatically correct or incorrect for the native people is natural and unnatural, acceptable or unacceptable in speech.

People from the tribe can know about people from other tribes with other languages and they can even know such foreign languages. We do not realize that the grammar arranges life and what’s more – in a way that does not characterize other communities.

Almost a hundred percent of us, western people, are not aware of the local character of “thing”, “cause”, “arising”, “existence”, “ceasing”. So are we not aware of local categories such as “God”, “nature”, “culture”, “Self”, “personality”, “good”, “evil”, etc. For us these categories are common to all mankind and represent ontological entities. Yet such categories are absent from the language and the thought of the better part of non-western people.


26. Language skills are not knowledge about language. A child does not learn a concept of walking but learns to walk. It elaborates habits for bodily dynamics. It does not know how to walk, it knows to walk. We do not know how to hit the basketball ring with the ball yet we can do it.

Kids do not learn grammar and are not aware of general rules. However, they acquire habits for sticking to the forms of expression. They comprehend the form and memorize it instead of learning the abstract concept behind it.

Natural language is spontaneously adopted as network for defining concepts.


27. Relative linguistics. It is important to compare relative linguistics with relative mechanics in their relation to their classical counterparts. Similarly to classical mechanics classical linguistics and philosophy do not realize relativity and crudely generalize western grammar and philosophy as universal for all humanity.



This text is a fragment from my Philosophy of Relativity, published in Bulgarian (Extremepress, 2008) (an abstract of Chapter 8).