Language and thought in “The Unnamed”

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.

Coast to coast

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.

Saying everything it isn't: A bakery in Philadelphia

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.

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5 Responses to Language and thought in “The Unnamed”

  1. Vicki says:

    A “markedly” different argument — yes, I love it. Keep em comin.

  2. Tam says:

    I haven’t read the book (and I’ve only read half of the NYT article), but it sounds to me like Farnsworth’s malady was a compulsive behavior, like a form of OCD. But I wonder, was it really the lack of a name for his disorder that was so detrimental, or was it that his problem was something uncommon and difficult for people to relate to, and so people (and doctors) didn’t know the best way to think about it and treat it?

    • annepycha says:

      Good question. Maybe the answer comes down to the fact that it’s doctors and lawyers we’re talking about here (Tim is a lawyer). They rely very heavily on words — for diagnoses, argumentation, and so on. In the book, when doctors and lawyers don’t have the right words, they fall apart — for example, Tim doesn’t even try to explain to any of his co-workers what is going on, and so fails to relate to them. But another person might have overcome this problem with relatively little difficulty, and made people understand the situation, even without a name.

  3. sonyala says:

    How fun! I love the Phily window as reference, and look forward to reading more.

  4. alimum says:

    Is there a difference between a name and a diagnosis? A name is a name, but I feel like diagnosis is something more. Because it would be simple to call Tim’s affliction a type of addiction or a form of obsessive compulsive disorder, but that is unsatisfying because it is not a diagnosis, so it goes beyond simple language into the realm of “has it been observed and documented and how many others have had this?” At what point do words fail? And, of course, the language you speak affects the way you think, but when discussing illness, does one learn a new language in discussing the ins and outs of illness and wellness? So is Tim’s problem a failure of his spoken language or a failure of the medical language or a cultural failure (because certain diseases are acknowledged in some cultures and not others)?

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