Ken Lyen's Home
Ken's Links
London Revisited 2000
Letter from London 2006
Singapore Musical Theatre
Making the Grade
Writing Musicals
Musicals from Movies
Fred Ebb
The Story of Chess
Mama Mia
Bad Vibrations
Chestnuts 2003
Chestnuts 2004
Chestnuts 2005
Incubating New Musicals
List of Musicals on Film
Is Musical Theatre Dead?
Is Classical Music Dead?
Is Poetry Dead?
Why Read Poetry?
New Words
Nothing's Wrong
Hippie Dictionary
Singlish Dictionary
Blog Dictionary
Best of the Best
English Spoke
Reading in Decline
Too Many Books
Magic of Reading
Pablo Neruda
Graphic Novels
Writers Bar
Lost For Words
Encyclopedia Wars
Library in Cyberspace
The Bridge
Growing A Film Industry
Great Levellers
Rote Rites and Rongs
Beautiful Minds
Create Talented Individuals?
Rise of the Creative Class
Perchance to Dream
Children's EQ
Gifted Education
Gifted Children
Mozart Effect
Confucius and Multiple Intelligences
Predicting Your Future
Mistyping Personality
Messy Homes
Does Age Matter?
Too Young for Philosophy?
Philosopher for Hire
Deconstructing Derrida
University Quotas
Ranking Universities
University Ranking Continued
The Future of Universities
If Thine Eye Offends Thee
If It Ain't Broke
New Exams for Old!
Too Many Test
The Sincerest Form of Flattery
Childhood Memories
Signs of Success
Follow Your Dreams
First Impressions
Handphone Etiquette
Handphones Silenced
Apple Of My i
Sex and the Media
The Greeks
Geographic Clangers
Domino Theory
Hello Kitty
Heels on Wheels
What a Racket!
Potty Training
Skip to the Loo
Corporal Punishment
Is Modern Art Rubbish?
Mona Lisa Grins
Sunday in the Park
Vision and Art
Spam Glorious Spam!
Humble Pie
Sour Grapes?
Murphy's Law Calculator
Perfect Search
False Logic
Noah's Ark
Who Discovered America?
Palaces of Dictators
Joys of Stress
Games Academics Play
Virtual Reality Treatmemt
Autistic Underconnectivity
Asperger Syndrome
Pay Attention!
Attention Deficit
Speech Delay
Almost Normal
Prozac Nation
Gilles de la Tourette
Singapore Medicine
Virtual Dissection
War Against Malaria
Into the Frying Pan
Back to Methuselah
Poetic Medicine
Far Eastern Economic Review
History of the Singapore Musical
My Research
Singapore Idle
Best Countries
Brain Drain
Greatest Happiness
Remaking Singapore
Singapore Nobel Prize
Singapore MRT Map
National Day
Caste System
Doctors' Fees
Leadership and Teambuilding
Doctor Do-Much
Play it Again, Doc
A Dose of Music
Prescription for the Heart
Multiple Personality
Fly By Night
Rape of Nanking
Iris Chang
Anne Frank
Angela's Ashes
The Notebook
Hollywood Insider
Fahrenheit 9/11 Pirates
The Front
The Barbarian Invasions
Les Choristes
The Return
Road Home
Farewell My Concubine
So You Want to be a Nurse
School House Rockz
Makan Place
e-mail me

Lost For Words


Lost For Words

by Kenneth Lyen

Can a concept exist without the words to describe it?

Would we have thought about gravity if Isaac Newton didn’t help identify it? Or how about the concept of "space-time" before Einstein defined it?

Without words, could we have been able to conceive of the following abstract ideas: "soul", "reason", "energy", "subconscious", "conscience", "remorse", "quark", "pi", "square root", "calculus", "absurd", "meaning", "endurance", etc?

Does language shape our views and influence our thoughts? This question was first posed by Benjamin Lee Whorf in the 1930s. The Whorfian Hypothesis, as it is sometimes referred to, claims that the particular language a person speaks, independent of the culture in which he resides, affects the way that he thinks, by determining the framework for his perceptions and thoughts. Whorf and his teacher Sapir argued further that a person's world view is largely determined by the vocabulary and syntax available in his language.

The extreme version of this hypothesis is that all thought is constrained by language. If the word does not exist, then that thought cannot be thought. Of course this is patently untrue. For example, we all experience difficulties in expressing ourselves. We know what we are thinking of, but we are stumped to find the word to express it. Hence we do not need words to think.

At the opposite extreme, to say that language has absolutely no influence on thought, is also false. For example, if a language organized colour names differently, it has been shown that a person’s discrimination of similar shades of colors can be influenced.

To explore this question further, Peter Gordon of Columbia University studied the Pirahn Indians. This tribe of hunter gatherers living on the banks of the Maici River in Brazil do not possess a vocabulary for numbers other than two words, one which stands for ‘one or two’, and the other meaning "many’. Members of this tribe are intelligent, but they have difficulty counting beyond 8 objects. Peter Gordon wrote, "They do not have the word for ‘number’, pronouns do not encode number (e.g., ‘he’ and ‘they’ are the same word), and most of the standard quantifiers like ‘more,’ ‘several,’ ‘all’, ‘each’ do not exist." Peter Gordon concluded that without having numbers, the Pirahn Indians were handicapped in their ability to conceive of mathematical calculations. This tribe could survive without this concept because their commerce was a form of barter, in which there was no exchange of money. Numbers did not exist as there was no need for them.

Numbers, symbols and words, act as convenient labels for concepts. They help clarify one’s thinking. For example, the 19th century physician Langdon Down discovered a subset of intellectually disabled who were later labelled as Down Syndrome individuals. This enabled better delineation of this group and allowed for further studies, such as their the genetic origins.

Words are like building blocks or stepping stones that allow us to advance concepts one step at a time. Armed with the concept of gravity, Isaac Newton took the next step and formulated the inverse square theory of gravity. Similarly, with Einstein’s concept of mass and energy, he could formulate the equation linking the two, which led to further discoveries.

One additional point of interest. Not only do the Pirahn Indians not count, but they also do not draw. Gordon wrote. "Producing simple straight lines was accomplished only with great effort and concentration, accompanied by heavy sighs and groans."

This leads us to the next issue, namely the written representation of words. Benjamin Lee Whorf was acutely aware of the role culture and society played on the development of concepts. Take two cultures, Western and Far Eastern. In the west, words are represented by an alphabet script, whereas in the Far East, words are represented mostly by pictograms. Does the representation of words in alphabet form versus pictograms lead to qualitatively different modes of thinking? Can it explain the differences between, say, Far Eastern philosophy from Western philosophy?

Trying to display abstract ideas in pictograph form is particularly challenging, because it is very tough converting pictures into abstract concepts. The Chinese do it quite cleverly. For example the word for endurance shows a knife directly above the heart, and the word for peace is a woman under the roof of a house.

Whether this pictographic representation of concepts can subconsciously lead to a different way of thinking and a different world view remains largely unexplored. Cross-cultural studies are therefore of immense interest, not only in understanding differences in thought processes, but also in unravelling other mysteries, such as dyslexia.