Two weeks ago, we began a discussion about Joshua Ferris’s intelligent — and bleak — new book The Unnamed. Ferris tells the story of Tim Farnsworth, a successful lawyer whose life falls apart when he begins to suffer from a peculiar and unnamed malady: he cannot stop walking.
I claimed the primary plot of The Unnamed suggests that language, and the names that it provides or fails to provide, affects the way people think, sometimes with grave consequences. Quite a bit of evidence from linguistics research supports the same contention, as Guy Deutscher argued in his recent New York Times article “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?”
But Ferris’s novel offers several more threads for analysis. Lurking below the primary plot, we see suggestions that language does not exert such a powerful force after all. And this offers an opportunity to examine some of the linguistics research which claims that language does not shape how we think.
The limits of names
While Tim suffers from an unnamed malady, his family members struggle with some equally serious but far more common problems. These problems have names: his wife Jane suffers from alcoholism and his daughter Becka is overweight. These problems have solutions: Jane checks into a rehab center and Becka exercises religiously. But the outcomes differ: Jane stops drinking, but Becka remains overweight throughout adulthood. A named malady might differ from an unnamed one, but this does not guarantee a cure.
Ferris uses cancer to develop a similar point in more detail. Tim cannot admit to his colleagues that he has been absent from work because of a compulsion to walk. So he lies and tells them that Jane has been struggling with cancer. The word “cancer” carries tremendous power in the book, excusing Tim from his erratic behavior without further elaboration. Tim uses it unreflectively despite the fact that his own father died of cancer when he was a child.
But Tim’s other oddities do not suggest a man with a sick wife. He wears a backpack and snowboots at all times, for example, in case the compulsion to walk arises. Tim’s colleagues have trained in the law, so they should see that the available evidence (backpack, snowboots) does not support the claim (wife with cancer). In a somewhat comic role reversal, however, it is not Tim’s colleagues but a client who questions him. “And what kind of cancer is it?” the client probes. Tim skirts the issue.
As the client’s question suggests, “cancer” by itself functions as merely a cover term. To understand cancer, an illness whose character varies enormously from one case to the next, we require information that the name alone does not provide, such as its location in the body, its origin (inherited or environmental), and its progression in time. So while the English language provides a word for uncontrolled cell growth, we cannot map it directly onto a concept without further knowledge.
Later in the novel, Jane develops cancer for real. When Becka delivers the news to her father by telephone, confusion ensues.
“I don’t know what that means.”
“You don’t know what cancer means?”
“No, of course I know. I’ve just lost track.”
This confusion stems from the vague nature of the word “cancer”, but also from Tim’s previous lies to his colleagues. He used the word even when it did not correspond to reality. As a result, the connection between the name and the concept has severed, and he can no longer use the name to think about the concept.
Interestingly, just as Tim skirts the issue, so does the novel. Ferris never reveals what type of cancer Jane suffers from, even though we follow her through initial diagnosis, treatment, remission, and ultimately death. We are forced to wonder if the novel has something to hide from its readers, just as Tim hid the truth from his colleagues.
Limits of names in linguistics research
Ferris portrays the negative consequences of a disconnection between name and concept. But some linguistics researchers have demonstrated positive consequences, too, arguing that people can successfully conceptualize something even when it lacks a name.
Consider color names. In a 1969 study, Brent Berlin and Paul Kay analyzed the color names of twenty languages and found that, despite differences among the languages, all of them organized color names around a set of six focal colors corresponding to English “black”, “white”, “red”, “yellow”, “green”, and “blue”. This finding implies that speakers of the different languages use the same mental concepts for colors, despite naming them differently.
Eleanor Rosch pursued this idea experimentally in a 1972 study. She presented colors to speakers of different languages and asked them to name, remember, and recognize them. Speakers performed these tasks better for the focal colors than for non-focal colors, again despite differences among the languages. On the basis of these results, Rosch suggested that it is the physiology of human vision, not the arbitrary names provided by a language, which most profoundly influences our thinking about color.
Not everyone agrees. Debi Roberson and colleagues have reported results very different from Rosch’s and argued that color categorization, far from being a universal cognitive skill, exhibits the effects of language and culture quite profoundly.
Similar issues arise in research on spatial terms. As Deutscher pointed out in his article on language and thought, English speakers use words such as “left” and “right,” which name an object’s spatial location relative to a particular viewpoint (“the ball is to the left of the tree”). But speakers of other languages use words like “north” and “south,” which name a location in absolute terms (“the ball is north of the tree”), something that English speakers do only on a geographic scale.
In a 2002 study, Peggy Li and Lila Gleitman reported that English-speaking subjects could readily employ either relative coding or absolute coding, depending upon which landmarks appeared salient in a conceptual task. This suggests that language is actually not the primary factor influencing our thought about spatial perspective.
Again, not everyone agrees. In a series of studies, Stephen Levinson and colleagues reported many differences between speakers of relative and absolute languages on conceptual tasks involving space. For example, Levinson transported people to novel locations and asked them to point to other locations at varying distances. Speakers of absolute languages performed this task well, but speakers of relative languages did not.
Ferris does not attempt to resolve these issues in The Unnamed. Nor does he explicitly compare the advantages and disadvantages of opposing viewpoints. Instead, he offers several narratives, each of which highlights a different struggle with names. The cruelest aspects of Tim’s suffering come from its unnamedness. But Jane’s disease is no less cruel, despite the words we have to describe it. The artistry of the novel lies in the way that Ferris braids these narratives together, alternately drawing our attention to both the meatiness and the emptiness of names.
Ferris, Joshua. 2010. The Unnamed. New York: Reagan Arthur Books.
Heider, Eleanor Rosch. 1972. Universals in color naming and memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology 93(1): 10-20.
Kay, Paul. 1997. Color categorization. In Robert A. Wilson & Frank C. Keil (eds.) The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences.
Kay, Paul & Terry Regier. 2006. Language, thought, and color: Recent developments. TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences 10(2).
Levinson, Stephen. 2003. Language and mind: Let’s get the issues straight! In Dedre Gentner and Susan Goldin-Meadow (eds.) Language in Mind: Advances in the Study of Language and Thought. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. pp 25-46.
Li, Peggy & Lila Gleitman. 2002. Turning the tables: language and spatial reasoning. Cognition 83(3): 265-294.
Regier, Terry, Paul Kay, & Naveen Khertapal. 2009. Color naming and the shape of color space. Language 85(4): 884-892.