Last week, The New York Times published an article on language and thought. In it, linguist Guy Deutscher considers the ways in which the language that we speak might shape the way that we think.
Deutscher’s article made me think of a novel that I read recently, which offers a literary avenue for pondering similar issues. Joshua Ferris’s The Unnamed tells the story of Tim Farnsworth, a Harvard-trained lawyer who suffers from a debilitating problem. He cannot stop walking.
Tim walks out of his comfortable suburban home in the middle of the night and out of his wood-paneled office in the middle of the workday. He exposes himself to extreme weather, misses meetings with colleagues and important clients, and drives his family mad with worry.
Tim consults myriad doctors to no avail. The situation worsens. He loses toes and then fingers to frostbite. He loses his partnership in a prestigious law firm. He loses everything – except, remarkably, the devotion of his wife Jane and daughter Becka – as he walks from the east coast to the west coast, and back again.
Why can’t Tim Farnsworth stop walking? The title of The Unnamed suggests a partial answer. Unlike people who drink too much (“alcoholics”) or eat too much (“overeaters”), people who walk too much do not have a name for their malady. Without a name, doctors cannot provide a diagnosis or a cure. Without a name, neighbors and colleagues cannot offer sympathy or understanding.
Ferris’s novel thus revisits the ancient but unresolved question that Deutscher addresses in his article, “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?” On one level, the novel offers a stark and simple answer: yes. Because the English language lacks a name for Tim’s malady, English speakers – including Tim himself – seem unable to fully conceptualize it.
We see an example of this when, after a long walk in freezing temperatures, Tim stumbles to the door of a house in a subdivision. He is aware that he must explain his malady in order to get help, but is unable to do so.
“He tried to think of what he might say. The right idea wasn’t coming. The words behind the idea were out of reach. He was at one remove from the person who knew how to form ideas and say words.”
Tim experiences no such difficulty in other domains of his life; in fact, his phenomenal success as a lawyer has undoubtedly depended upon his skills with ideas and words. Similarly, doctors who are otherwise quite competent cannot use language to describe Tim’s malady and therefore cannot conceptualize it. Instead of saying what it was, “they were saying everything it wasn’t”, with ultimately fatal consequences for Tim.
The English language does, by contrast, have a name for the problem of drinking too much. When Jane suffers from this, she checks into a rehab center. English also has a name for the problem of eating too much. When Becka suffers from this, she consults dietitians, joins a health club, and orders devices advertised on TV.
So while Tim’s unnamed malady leads to medical confusion and social and professional isolation, Jane’s alcoholism and Becka’s overeating meet with pre-packaged remedies and sympathy.
At the level of its primary plot, then, The Unnamed strongly suggests that language affects the way people think. This literary argument supports the experimental evidence summarized by Deutscher in The New York Times, which shows that speakers of languages with different grammatical genders, spatial terms, and color terms think differently about gender, space, and color.
At other levels, however, The Unnamed offers a markedly different argument, suggesting that language does not exert such a pervasive effect on thought after all. This argument will be the subject of my next post. In the meanwhile, I welcome comments.