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Glimpse[.sup.winter 2003-2004].

"Facts as we see them are little more than quick glimpses of a ceaseless transformation ..."--Wendell Johnson, People in Quandaries

Breaking Down Elementalism

Scientists have detected a neurological signal that occurs in the brain when a human experiences emotional pain. The big news? This signal occurs in the same area of the brain that senses physical pain. This fact caused the science writer for ABC TV to state "emotional and physical pain are more closely related than was previously thought."

This story represents an example of how elementalism in thinking can affect our perception. The writer says: "The researchers set out to test the idea that the brain responds to social pain in a similar way to physical pain."

Our language encourages us to distinguish between the "emotional" and the "physical," and because of that, we find it remarkable when they overlap. Even though science has not found evidence of a soul, or any other mechanism for the existence of emotions or thought separate from the brain-nervous system, our language encourages us to see a split where none exists.

The researcher reinforces this split when he says his research sought to discover "whether the metaphor for the psychological pain of social loss is reflected in the neural circuitry of the human brain."

Given that we only have one brain-nervous system with which to experience our lives, social and otherwise, I wonder whether we need have doubted the outcome of this research.

If we use a terminology that recognizes the "organism-as-a-whole," we would probably expect the result of this study, rather than think it noteworthy--pain registers in the brain, in an area of the brain devoted to registering pain.


The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.


We should have a great many fewer disputes in the world if words were taken for what they are, the signs of our ideas, and not for things themselves.


Rewriting History

Apparently the textbook industry and their school district clients have collaborated to institutionalize a kind of cultural correctness that I find quite alarming. In an article from The Age Online in Australia, Jane Sullivan reviews a new book by Diane Ravitch, called The Language Police, which reports the author's research on two dozen standard history texts used in US schools in the past few years. (See also Kate Gladstone's "Textbook Laundering--Offend No One, Teach Nothing," in the Summer 2003 ETC.)

With the motivation of reducing or eliminating language that might offend or intimidate, textbook publishers have created a politically correct fantasy world in which a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer carries no reference to Jews and a story cannot mention pumpkins because they have pagan connotations.

I have read that the alarming increase in allergies and asthma in the US might result from reduced early exposure of young children to dirt. According to this idea, the body's encounters with dirt encourage it to develop a healthy outer-oriented immune system.

So goes mental health as well. Exposure to lots of concepts, pleasing and not-so, encourages the mind to develop a healthy mental immune system. How can you recognize foolishness if you have never encountered it? Or bias, pain, or prejudice, or the hundred other difficult concepts that these texts have hidden? Couldn't teachers read these awkward passages with their students and then discuss WHY such things occur? Shouldn't children have the opportunity to learn how to handle the REAL world, rather than learning about some fantasy land of bland non-offensiveness?

Choose Your Words

Recently, on an e-mail group concerned with birds and bird-watching, someone posted an article that seemed to suggest that the increase in peregrine falcons has directly contributed to an apparent dramatic decrease in the numbers of several shorebird species. The article generated a great deal of heat, but not as much light as one would hope. As a number of the regular list contributors chimed in, the posts got longer and longer and drifted further and further from fact and closer and closer to opinion and insult. Lurkers like me no doubt found it both amusing and irritating, but who wants to point out the weaknesses in somebody's arguments only to have the flame of their disdain aimed at you instead of somewhere else?

Finally, in a post boldly titled "This thread is reaching the 'dead horse' stage," list contributor Dave Irons wrote an eloquent and rational message that reminded us all of the importance of choosing your words, and your facts, carefully. The post is four paragraphs long and contains a number of bird related references, but I have included it all because I think you need to read his argument as a whole to get the full impact:
 I am surprised at the willingness of all parties involved to
 continue a discussion that has no end point. As pointed out by others,
 the complex predator/prey relationships that exist between falcons and
 various shorebirds evolved long before humans were a factor in the
 equation. Our experiences as observers of these relationships have
 been so short, relative to the time scale over which the relationships
 have developed and existed, I would argue the human created database
 is statistically irrelevant. Over geologic time, the Earth has been in
 a state of constant change. Landmasses, estuaries, mudflats and
 vegetation communities where we make our observations today were
 dramatically different as recently as 15,000 years ago during the last
 glacial maximum.
 Humans define reality in the natural world based on perceptions we
 develop over comparatively short lifetimes. For any of us to say that
 Peregrine Falcons are having a greater impact on shorebird populations
 now than in the distant past assumes we know a lot more than we can
 possibly know. "Endangered," "threatened," and "sensitive" are totally
 subjective terms that are defined by our reality, not the species to
 which we attach them. Given the human impacts on the Earth's surface
 over recent centuries, it could easily be argued that no organism on
 Earth is at or near "natural" population levels. Eskimo Curlews and
 Passenger Pigeons darkened the skies over the N. American continent as
 recently as 200 years ago and the historical numbers of these species
 far exceeded any known numbers for Peregrine Falcons. Both these
 species are considered extinct or very nearly extinct (Eskimo Curlew),
 but some are arguing that there are too many Peregrines around.
 Numbers of Peregrines will be controlled by their ability to find
 food. If left alone (without other human interferences or
 environmental degradation) Peregrines and their varied prey base will
 likely find a state of equilibrium. I have no idea where that balance
 point will be.
 It would be nice for a change to hear some of us profess to know as
 little as we actually know, rather than boldly proclaiming that we are
 experts. As an example, Merlins and Dunlin migrate together and have
 been for as long as any humans have been observing them. Both species
 seem to be doing quite well, at least here in Oregon. If for some
 reason we started observing a few thousand less Dunlin wintering in
 the southern Willamette Valley, would there be an outcry to do
 something about all those pesky Merlins? I hope not.
 Let's all agree that everyone participating in this discussion would
 like to see healthy, stable populations of both Peregrine Falcons and
 Western Sandpipers. We should focus our efforts on reducing the
 negative human impacts on their habitats and cease making meaningless
 value judgments about the population numbers suggested by the poorly
 conceived article Lee Cain brought to our collective attention.

Traduttore, Tradittore

Many languages have the ability to express a particular thought in a variety of ways. Indeed, we instinctively base our choice of words on the current circumstances, casual for friends and peers, more formal for authority figures, playful or curt with children, and so on. The differences sometimes don't amount to much and yet we have known since childhood how to make these adjustments and what they mean when others make them.

The Italians have a saying, "Traduttore, tradittore" which means "to translate is to betray." I think they mean that any translation to some degree misrepresents the original meaning, especially a direct or word-for-word translation, which often misses not just the essence but even the sense of the statement. Translators try to avoid such problems by choosing words that convey the meaning they perceive in the original text, even if this means using words with quite different dictionary definitions. How they choose these different words then becomes a subject of interest.

For example, Luise von Flotow, in a treatise called Genders and the Translated Text: Developments in "Transformance," points out that translations of texts tend to reflect the prevailing linguistic paradigm of the culture in which they occur. She discusses two novels concerning homosexual behavior, one originally in English, one in French. The translations of each into the other language result in distinctly different books than the original, due, according to von Flotow, to the difference in the prevailing view of homosexuality in the two different countries.

General semantics suggests that translators cannot avoid some change in meaning. Such changes result from the personal understanding of individual words and the relative familiarity with cultural differences. Even the most technically adept and professionally objective translator brings to the task personal experiences that color the choice in translation. This I had come to understand early in my learning about general semantics.

That a translator might manipulate the translation for political purposes I had also come to understand. For example, The King James version of the Bible, translated during the 1600s, contains a number of deliberate changes, substitutions, and additions that reflect the religious and political climate of the era.

However, that a translation might reflect the current cultural climate had not occurred to me before. I now see that this influence falls in line with personal differences in meaning and abstraction, and intentional, politically motivated variations in meaning. The organism-as-a-whole-in-its-environment responds to cultural signals as well as to personal ones.

This could lead one to mistrust all translations, but that would severely limit the amount of reading material available. Instead, the reader can employ a healthy awareness of the potential biases of a translated text and draw moderate and measured conclusions from such works.

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Author:Miller, Nora
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2003
Previous Article:What we do with language--what it does with us.
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