The Gown is not the Body

Knowing another language means having a second soul
– Charlemagne (742-814 C.E.) –
“The limits of my language are the limits of my world. But within my language world my being is this world”.
– Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) –

As we all know, language has a double function: it is a communicative tool and it helps to define our world. But the relativistic linguistic school of last century hypothesized that language goes beyond these functions and theorized that thought is influenced by the language in which it is expressed. Or, in other words, that each language builds a mental universe in its own right.

One hundred years later, a group of linguists headed by Lara Boroditsky , has revived this hypothesis and reached the conclusion that to be able to speak a second language is more or less equivalent as having another self. If this were true, when speaking another language this cognitive process would not be a simple translation of our thoughts from our mother tongue but the result of an independent thought expressed by our own “second soul”.

Languages may or may not disguise thoughts, but can we infer from the outline of the gown the shape of the body? Since we are aware that two languages cannot be the same, does this imply that the person also thinks differently, according to the language she/he speaks? Or that a person who can speak two or more languages also can think in two or more different ways?

If this were true, it would be as if, depending on the gown you are wearing, tight or loose, the shape of your body would change. Perhaps, from the perspective of a faraway onlooker, but probably not to a careful observer or, in other words, once the garment has been taken off.

Neuro-linguists have tried to pursue this research hypothesis in three cognitive/linguistic areas: gender, colours and orientation.

The best we can say about the origin of words is that they came into existence by convention, arbitrarily, and agreed upon by its repeated use. Grammar, whether innate or acquired, is an imperfect set of rules that reflects the way thought is expressed. Is it possible that this set of rules affects the way our thoughts are thought? Let’s take the example of a 3-gender-language, German for instance, with its three genders: neuter, feminine and masculine. According to a group of neuro-linguists, when an English-born-speaker speaks German, she/he would associate a certain category of adjectives depending on the gender of the noun. For instance, since the word bridge (Die Brücke in German) is feminine, this speaker would associate to it feminine images (such as slim, fragile, bond, or grace). (It would be of further interest to explore what is feminine in German in its own right!). On another example, in Spanish, since ‘El Puente’ is of a masculine gender, it would bring to mind masculine images such as strong, robust, and solid even to German minds when they utter the word bridge in Spanish, shadowing the original feminine image of their mother tongue.

This is a more complex case. For one moment we have to exclude the influence of angle and intensity of light (depending on the latitude), eyesight and light perception and purely consider it from a linguistic point of view. In Korean, for instance, exist several standard expressions for white, some of them without exact equivalent in any other language. A bit like the several expressions Inuit people use to define snow according to their location, quality and age of the snow. Or again, in Japanese, the ‘go’ colour of traffic lights is called 青い (aoi, blue), as colours where divided between cold (blue/green) and warm (yellow/red) since ancient times.

We tend to forget that we are not very accurate either when in western languages we call ‘white wine’ the liquid of fermented grape, which is fundamentally of straw-yellow shade. Still, our use of words, however imperfect it may be, does not alter our perception of colours. Or are we unable to distinguish differences in hues just because of lack of words or our inappropriate use of adjectives?

The third cognitive category used in determining whether and by how much the language we speak influences our thought is orientation. The Guugu Yimithirr speak a language called Gangurru (from which Kangaroo), an Australian aboriginal community who does not define a position referring to themselves (as we do in western languages) but to a coordinate reference system (like North, South, East and West). In a symmetrical-specular experiment, when coordinates are your orientation tool kit, the East one time is on your right and one time is on your left, whereas when you describe a location having yourself as the point of reference, one time a given location is on our left and the next time also. Would these two different orientation systems really lead us to two different Weltanschauungen?

In its most extreme form, this hypothesis (a.k.a. Sapir-Whorf) is that the language you speak influences your thought, not only through the definition of things but also through syntax and phrase structure. Ad absurdum, this scholarly hypothesis could be the result of the language these linguists speak (sic). In other words, if this hypothesis were true, when we speak in German about gender, in Japanese about colours and in Gangurru about orientation, how to explain the fact that we remain fundamentally immune from the language biases predicted by linguists when speaking about gender, colours and orientation? (admittedly, most of us do not speak Gangurru).

The hard facts of science have shown that in the above three areas in which the influence of languages were tested, none yielded any conclusive result, even considering a fourth area, numbers. The best-known case is the Pirahã, a language spoken by a Brazilian tribe that contains only words for one and two. These people would be unable to reliably tell the difference between four and five objects placed in a row in the same configuration. However, in the words of Daniel Everett, one of the leading researchers on this language:

“A total lack of exact quantity language did not prevent the Pirahã from accurately performing a task which relied on the exact numerical equivalence of large sets. This evidence argues against the strong Sapir- Whorfian claim that language for number creates the concept of exact quantity”.

Another notable researcher on the nature of humans, Edward O. Wilson, has, in his works, convincingly proved that people speaking languages void of words for certain colours or numbers were nonetheless able to recognize and to match colour or exact quantities of objects.

Paul Ekmann, in his studies on facial expressions, was able to demonstrate the universality of human expressions, regardless of the language spoken, by showing 17 pictures with different facial expressions to people as diverse as Samoans, Caucasians and Africans, who invariably correctly identified which expression referred to which emotion, even when their native language lacked the appropriate words or strictly defining terms.

As the poet Samuel Johnson once observed, languages seems to be a mere convention or a dress of thoughts. And all of this academic quibble would have remained confined in some obscure university department if it had not been seriously picked up by some economists.

Economics, like linguistics, cannot be considered an exact science in the sense of being predictive, but rather defined as a descriptive discipline. Unlike mathematicians, chemists, and physicians, linguists (like economists) deal with a field which we all live within and use it daily, giving us a false sense of familiarity. So much so that we feel entitled to say something about it and little matters if our arguments are not sustained by evidence.

Like linguistics, economics lacks the possibility to verify theories against counterfactual evidence or, in Popperian terms, it is not falsifiable. They both share the common trait of non-replicability of the experiment (or only under very narrow circumstances, with little general validity) and bear the sin of the researcher influencing the one-time experiment, although techniques such as RNM give the illusion of producing objective and certain data.

Economists keep on making failures on predicting the next boom or bust, the next level of inflation or what will be the consequences of any given economic decision. Over time, we should have become humbler, less arrogant and have accepted the fact that economy does not, and probably will never, attain the status of science, at least in the same sense as hard sciences do. Axel Leonjufhwud, one of the few economists that exerted some healthy self-criticism, in one of his papers, “Life among the Econ” published in 1973, warned us from the ‘Modl’  (in original) and their uselessness ‘however well crafted’. He points out that when economists  want to prove what they are looking for, they bend reality to their purpose and interpret findings to their benefit.

Peter Medawar  in his “The limits of Science” explained that the most important weakness in forecasting is the reason why economics is and will remain a mere discipline. Unfortunately, most economists not only have not noticed it yet, but still maintain the hubris of explaining to others how the world runs and of making predictions about its future. Framed around equations, based on models, these papers written by the cast of the Econ are predominant and overwhelming in quantity, hardly in quality.

On those rare occasion when a scholar puts models to a fact-based-testing, and, as it often happens, the findings contradict the model’s predictions, the holy caste of the Econ frame and segregate the evidence into a new model hastily named ‘paradox’  (in the economic literature we have counted not less than 34 paradoxes contradicting theoretical models).

In every hard science the theoretical models proven to be either false or irrelevant are thrown in the dustbin and forgotten, but not in economics. It is as if Popper’s lesson had never been learnt and Newton’s laws were still used to study Quantum Physics. The mathematical-deductive-mechanistic line of thought adopted in economics has too often failed to provide tools to understand the economic reality and continues to mould the mindset of legions of students into abstract sophistry, mainly disconnected with reality (see “Econocracy” by Joe Earle, Cahal Moran and Zach Ward-Perkins).

The belief in econometric models is relentlessly pushing the economic world towards the abyss of risky speculative adventures. The destruction of wealth, environment, savings, and lives in the millions caused by the custodians of the accepted and unquestioned ‘economic truth’, is still firmly anchored on the three sacred pillars of: Individualism, Optimization and Equilibrium. None of them has ever taken shape in reality, in the predicted form.

The praiseworthy attempt to free economy from its own narrow and self-imposed bounds has led some notable scholars to look for other interpretative models. Behavioural researches have given us some important insights in the irrationality of human behaviour, such as Dan Ariel or Daniel Kahneman. Others as Georgescu-Rogen and René Passet have taken inspiration from Biology.
Following the seductive but unverifiable idea that the language you speak determines what you think, linguistic economists like Keith Chen have tried to explain our propensity to save by the use of a language model.

Following a distinction made Swedish linguist, Professor Östen Dahl in the year 2000, linguists make a distinction between futureless and futured language. The hypothesis is that if you speak a futureless language you tend to be a profligate person. If you speak  a futured language you would be a thrifty person. A futureless language is a language like Chinese, void of the future tense (at least in a western language sense); a futured language instead is a language which forms the future tense by auxiliaries and suffixes, like Slavic ones; or by inflections, as in neo-Latin languages. According to this interpretation, this would be a sufficient reason to explain the different propensities to save.

How would then a speaker of a futureless language convey the idea of ‘I will go’ or ‘I am going to go’? Let’s not be fooled. The body of the thoughts is still there, only the gown is different: ‘in one hour’, ‘tomorrow’, ‘in the future’, etc. are all expression used by futureless languages to indicate the future. Only the set of rules of these languages works differently from western grammar rules. (Besides, Chinese does have auxiliaries to indicate something imminent or very likely: 要yao, want; 会 hui, will; or, in the written language, particles to mark the future tense即ji, 将jiang).

We have already shown how the effect of a language on our thoughts is difficult to demonstrate, even without considering the impossibility in determining the line of division between futureless and futured among the currently 7000 spoken. But even accepting for the sake of the discussion that a distinction between futureless and futured languages could be made, how would this hypothesis withstand reality?

Here below two charts taken from one of the studies on the hypothesized language-saving connection:

Above, the saving rates for 35 countries, from Luxembourg with more than 40% to Greece with just 10% of the GDP.

If we look at the data over a span of 25 years (1985-2010), UK and Italy have a gap of more than 8% points. Despite this difference in saving rates, not only both languages are futured (in the sense expressed previously) but they are also linguistically very near. According to the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of language (p. 375, 1980 ed.), they have an inter-lingual distance based on pronunciation, spelling, orthography, grammar and vocabulary which is the closest (in religious terms is similar to the proximity between the Anglican and the Roman Church), followed by Spanish, German, French and Russian. Why do people speaking a language falling in the same linguistic category (in this case futured) would display different saving patterns? Or, just to take an even more striking example, why would three linguistically identical countries like Ireland, Australia and UK have more than 10% points difference in their saving rates?

One among many contradictory points which this theory does not explain is that in the previous 30 years, and not considered in the above graphs, from 1955 to 1985, Italians (speaking a futured language) had attained saving level comparable to Japanese, speakers of a futureless language. Why do people speaking languages falling in two different linguistic categories (futureless and futured) would then display similar saving patterns?

In his General Theory (1936), John Maynard Keynes had already explained the psychological motives, the social mores and the economic conditions conducive to the prevailing saving rates.
Will our new generation of economists call Keynes’s model ‘the saving paradox’?


This summer we have read with some interest and curiosity an article published by The Economist written by R.K.G. entitled “China’s tyranny of characters” (5th July, 2016), a comment on the Chinese writing system and how it would influence the political thought of the PR China. In a nutshell, the idea of the article, is that given the inflexibility in the structure of the Chinese writing systems (or Sinograms, a more appropriate definition coined by Fosco Maraini), by extension, also the political thought of the Chinese Government is inflexible. The task to educate and eradicate illiteracy through the national standard language or Putonghua, as the Chinese call it, would stifle local languages and help the political control over the whole country.

The author probably forgets a joke that goes something like this: if someone who speaks two languages is called bilingual and someone who speaks three languages is trilingual. What do call someone who speaks only one language? An Anglo-saxon. After all it is not so much of a joke considering how England has tried hard to get rid of her neighbours’s gaelic languages or how successfully the USA have virtually wiped out all native north American vernaculars.

China, on the contrary, thanks to her logographic writing system has succeeded in two remarkable feats: to preserve a linguistic continuity since the first written record were laid down in ancient era and, at the same, time to create a writing system that encompasses very different spoken languages within and outside her borders. Sinograms have proven to be (contrary to what affirmed in the article) a rather flexible writing system, a truly (written) lingua franca. For centuries Europeans have in their “Search for the perfect language” (after the title of a book by Umberto Eco) overlooked the fact that such a perfect language (as much as a human construct can be perfect) already existed on the other end of the Eurasian landmass and has been an unparalleled tool for the transmission of thoughts, in time and space.

When Emperor Qin Shi Huang politically united China in 221 BCE (more than 2000 years before the EU came into existence) he did so by bringing together six different states and tying them under one currency, one taxation system, and a standard metrology. The true stroke of his genius was the adoption of Sinograms that until today have withstood the test of time. Achieving unity but preserving the different oral languages of its vast landmass, has been a major contribution to the richness and diversity of China.

Today, even Western people have to admit the convenience of logographic systems: road signs, icons on a computer or signs in an airport are perfect examples of how the Chinese script works. Everyone reads them according to one’s own language sounds but the meaning remains unambiguous and universal: an arrow indicates direction, a walking man a crossing point, a pair of scissors cutting off text, etc. If the Europeans had created or adopted a logographic writing system and we were a member of the EU, for instance, on our passport, instead of having twenty-four different words, each one for every official language of the Union to indicate the word “Passport”, we would have only two characters to indicate its meaning, perfectly comprehensible to all EU members. This is exactly the case within the China borders, with all her numerous minorities (55 officially recognized, according to the last count, of which two, Uighurs and Tibetans still use their own script form) using the same writing system but each group still talking their native idiom. And, until not long ago, also Viet Nam, the whole Korea, and Japan, who were using the same writing system, could perfectly communicate by writing to each other, without speaking the same language.

Today, unfortunately, only Japan has retained much of its use integrated by two indigenous phonetic syllabaries (Hiragana and Katakana). Koreans have adopted their own sound-based system (Hangul), with the North having eliminated the Chinese characters and the South partially retaining them, especially for names and technical words. The case of Viet Nam is much more dramatic if not outright tragic, having adopted Latin letters with no resemblance in their pronunciation to any western language. The result has been to isolate herself from her rich past, from other East Asian societies and without gaining any proximity to any other country who uses the same kind of alphabet.

Despite the longer time needed in mastering the Chinese writing system, it has not been an obstacle to literacy. Cases of dyslexia are less and, on average, reading speed is higher in comparison to alphabetic systems. Rote learning, so despised these days, has widely documented benefits: it fosters discipline, enhances memory, teaches patience, endurance and provides that touch of humanism that the modern educational system seems to have lost. Used by a fifth of the world population, contrary to the author’s doubts about China definition of literacy rate, people using Sinograms have proven to be well ahead of Westerners or other people using alphabets, including Devanagari and Arabic script in reading and comprehension ability. Since the municipality of Shanghai has been invited to join the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) contest, the students of that city have invariably scored highest and, in the last edition (2012) it scored best again with Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei, Korea, Macao and Japan (in this order) right behind her.

One fascinating aspect of a Sinogram is that either you can read it and know its meaning, or you can’t and thus you do not know what it means. On the other hand, my eight years old son, who at school is being trained in reading an alphabet, can virtually already read any line on a newspaper, but does not have a clue of most of what it says. After all, the definition of literacy is perhaps more uncertain in the western world than in East Asia. Sinograms are an excellent tool in memorizing new words when learning an East Asian language. When you ask a Chinese native speaker who is studying a new word of an alphabetical language she or he will invariably answer you that it is very difficult to memorize it only through sound, as initially does not bear any meaning to her or his ears (while a Chinese character conveys by itself, visually, a distinct meaning).

A rather baffling statement in the “China’s tyranny of Chinese Characters” is following: “The inflexibility of the Chinese script has always reinforced the inflexibility of the Chinese state”. Following the thought of the author would the Japanese political system be slightly less tyrannical than the Chinese because it uses along Chinese Characters also phonetic syllables? Or would the South Korea Government be a bit more flexible because it uses Hangul, and Chinese Characters are confined to a marginal role? Perhaps we shall look to the North of the Korean peninsula to find a form of Government particularly flexible because they have abandoned Chinese Characters all together….

The whole article is unconvincing as it assumes that Chinese Characters are an unsuitable linguistic tool to absorb anything new, unconventional, foreign or representing anything said in a slang or dialect. As a matter of fact, Vietnamese, historically, had been creating new characters, as needed. The vitality of Chinese characters does not end here. They are similar to building blocks, as Europeans use words of Greek or Latin origin to create new ones. For instance, the word INTERNAUTA can be easily translated and no one (not even the Chinese Government) can forbid to translate it into: 网上冲浪者!


a comment to an article by Andrew Browne published in the Wall Street Journal on 12th June 2015 

We should sincerely thank Mr. Browne for his article published by WSJ on June 12th, 2015. As our memories of the Cold War hysteria have been fading away, the author reminds us of our leader’s myopia and, since the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, the almost necessity to be able to find a new “enemy” we (or rather they) were so desperately looking for.

Which better candidate than China to replace former USSR, by depicting it as a powerful country poised to conquer the world? China can, at pleasure, be labeled as “red”, “communist”, “dictatorial”, “imperialist” or a “Frankenstein” just when our military spending urgently needs again a raison d’être and a new well-defined scapegoat after our own mess in the Middle East.

America’s engagement with China looks rather as a “clumsy containment” at best, a failed attempt to rein in what we perceive as a potential threat. It has perhaps been forgotten that not later than in 1997, the US Gov’t was begging China to devalue CNY to help the ailing SE Asian economies when the IMF and World Bank medicines were not delivering the promised effects. A plead reversed only a few years later when the US dollar-denominated exports started dwindling.

At that time Mr. Lawrence Summer managed to stop Japan from creating a 100 billion Asian Monetary Fund. This time, sorry for him and Mr. Henry Paulson, the AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) is the creation of a less malleable, independently minded country. How has this been possible? Is the “American Lake” shrinking? Someone else wants to build her own sphere of influence? Is there again someone interfering with our hegemonic plans of world domination? We need to be ready to go great lengths ‘to do what needs to be done’ to re-establish our core values (and interests)! We thought to be the only one to displace local population as the British did for the US on Diego Garcia (1968-1973), or trod on someone else’s territory and sea, and build whatever we deem appropriate (as we have planned to do in Henoko Bay, Okinawa). We established 700 military bases (but there are probably a few we have lost count of) and we will not tolerate any country to build not one of her own, even few hundred nautical miles from her coast.

Mr. Browne recalls a phrase uttered by Nixon in 1967 that America has “to persuade China that it must change” and five years later during his famous trip in 1972 that “by opening China, we will turn the communist giant into a diplomatic partner [to isolate the Soviets] one that would adopt America’s values and maybe even its system of democracy” (and eventually buy American goods, as XVIII century Manchester’s spinning and milling entrepreneurs were thinking –‘if only every Chinese would make their robe an inch longer …’).

In the article we read about today’s disappointment in the U.S., heightened by the fact that engagement with China has promised so much and progressed so far [little] and that the ideological gap hasn’t narrowed at all. A hubris and haughtiness only second to Mr. Thomas Friedman.

Myopia does not affect only politicians, but also their scribblers. China has always followed her own ways. Before it was communism with Chinese characteristics, today is Capitalisme à la Chinoise. When Nixon ever wrote that “Taking the long view, we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbors” it tells a lot about how poorly he was informed and about his inability to discern what was really happening in those days, caught as China was in the midst of her Cultural Revolution.

Since China has opened her door, unlike the USA, who has been bullying Middle Eastern nations with pre-emptive wars, she pre-empted an economic clash with her SE Asian neighbours, inviting them to join a period of unheard prosperity for a fifth of humanity. The recent creation of AIIB is only the last step in the creation of a Western-free-sphere of co-prosperity.

But what would happen if we would let this going on? If China continues in her benign expansion it could reverse the course of history laid down for us by the Almighty (and by us). Something unexpected could reverse our Divine plans.
Just imagine for a moment, for whatever reason, the indigenous population of Hawaii declares independence from the USA. China could promptly support it, send her fleet, sell hundreds of warplanes and other weapon systems to a country which is fighting for her independence and freedom (sounds familiar with Taiwan?). How could we possibly tolerate it, since we and only we are the predestined country, the chosen one, the one which reveres at every cash transaction the only and unmistakable God of ours with our prayer printed on our beloved bucks (“IN GOD WE TRUST”)?

We must prevent doomsday, when China will strike an alliance with Mexico and place her warships (including an aircraft carrier), a dozen thousand soldiers, and a bunch of atomic bombs on the island of Guadalupe, Baja California (the distance between Okinawa and Wenzhou is of 390 nautical miles, while Guadalupe from Los Angeles is about 300 miles away).

Mr. Browne writes about the fact that “the optimistic prospects of transforming an ancient civilization through engagement, followed by deep disillusion, has been the pattern ever since early Jesuit missionaries sought to convert the Chinese to Christianity. Those envoys adopted the gowns of the Mandarin class, grew long beards and even couched their gospel message in Confucian terms to make it more palatable. The 17th-century German priest Adam Schall got as far as becoming the chief astronomer of the Qing dynasty but fell from favour and the Jesuits were later expelled”.

Well then, shall we conclude that if the Chinese do not want to learn from us by hook, perhaps by crook?

We ought to know better and instead ask ourselves on what ground should China (or any other country for that matter) adopt America’s values or system. Do we ever ask ourselves which values or system are we talking about? Is America really democratic, where few clans (the Kennedy’s, the Bush’s, the Clinton’s) dominate the political scene? A country where the entry fee to a political race is a six-digit figure, powerful lobbies write the laws for senators and congressmen, and 0.1% of the population (about 300,000 people) have as much as 90% of US national wealth (out of a total population of 318 million, 2014 census). Isn’t America a country based on a moral plane founded on racism, wealth discrimination, hypocrisy, arrogance and bullish attitude towards the weak? Isn’t America the country of predatory behaviour, of the “quick buck”, where you can bet on someone else’s death, pay her or his insurance and cash in when she or he dies (see “What money can’t buy” by Michael Sandel)?

In their conquest of the West, white Americans have not thought twice about exterminating the natives and enslaving millions to work for them. Why should China become more like us? Isn’t she the longest and uninterrupted great living civilization? Han Chinese during their long history have assimilated other people in their own civilization-state system. The government, run by bureaucrats selected through a meritocratic process, permeates society, is not a part of it. It certainly smacks of paternalism, with its pros and cons, but it is administered like a family, not like a corporation (“What is good for GM is good for America”). Can we really teach her something on the corrupted American Way of Life?

Yes, indeed: once in a while, please, do not copy us!

Thomas Ruehling