Language as an Invisible Architecture


First, let’s look at visible architecture and the effect it has on us.  Imagine walking into each of the buildings in the pictures above. What felt sense do you have? What kind of “world” is created inside of each building? The architecture literally defines the space inside of which the inhabitants or users of the building operate. It can channel movement through narrow hallways or leave movement unrestricted in large open rooms. It can encourage certain activities or discourage them. (You wouldn’t try square dancing in a church, what with all those pews in the way.  Or maybe you would, I don’t know.)  Not only can walls serve as boundaries, but patterns on the floor can too. Windows can encourage or discourage interaction with the outside world. The style of architecture can make you feel free or oppressed, comfortable or uncomfortable, all kinds of different ways.

“Architecture, when understood in the broadest sense, refers to structured spaces in which we evolve individually and collectively. These spaces can be easily accessible to our senses (building architecture, space occupation) or partially perceived (language, money, social conventions, time…). In the first case we will refer to visible architectures, in the second case we will refer to invisible architectures” (Jean-Francois Noubel, “The Role of Architectures in Human Resources” p. 1).

Imagine that you signed up for a workshop, and when you arrive at the room in which it will be held, the chairs are placed in neat rows and there is a podium in front. What expectations do you automatically have?  Now suppose that when you walked in, the chairs were arranged in a circle, with no podium. How are your expectations different? How would you behave differently in those two “visible” architectural contexts?

As simple arrangement of chairs in a room illustrates how visible architecture can influence our expectations and behavior, let’s consider how language functions as an invisible architecture. How does it affect the “space” we communicate in? First, Benjamin Lee Whorf proposed that “the structure of a human being’s language influences the manner in which he understands reality and behaves with respect to it” (Whorf, 1956, p. 23). The structure of language is not learned explicitly (despite the hours of English classes on subject-predicate-object), rather we learn itsinvisible architecture implicitly when we are taught what can be or cannot be predicated to what. When we make a mistake as children, e.g., by drawing a purple dog, our parents and teachers are quick to correct us (unless they’re poets or artists…).  “Principles of predication are at the same time ontological principles” (Ashok Gangadean, Between Worlds, p. 4).

Here is the key to how language functions as an invisible architecture. The principles of predication, i.e., what words can be put together to make sense, reflect the speaker’s worldview and provide a way to communicate that worldview. For example, everything I have written so far has conformed to the principles of predication in a materialist worldview. However, if I started writing frothy sentences that wildly pulled red meanings from the blatant countryside, you not only might not understand, but would probably question my sanity. I clearly did not obey the principles of predication, and the result was nonsense–in this context of expository prose.  Dylan Thomas can write “Always when He, in country heaven/ (whom my heart hears),/ Crosses the breast of the praising east and kneels,/ Humble in all his planets,/ And weeps on the abasing crest…” but it is poetry rather than nonsense.  He has stretched the structure of the language far beyond ordinary predication (hearts don’t hear…the east does not have a “breast”). Where does the line between poetic metaphor and ordinary language metaphor lie?

Sometimes, though, great discoveries are made when one is willing to think beyond those same principles of predication.  For example, Riemann and then Einstein made it possible for us to speak of space as curved. Until then it would have been nonsense to say that space was curved. Space was fixed in a Euclidean geometric sense, and “curved” could not be predicated to “space.”

In that sense, then, “language is a paradigm generator—guiding us toward a particular world view, an epistemological framework—determining what and how we can learn [about] and know our world, and ontological map—it proscribes what we see as meaningful and significant to pursue as humans.” (Carol Sanford, “Psychological Aspects of Language” For example, think of the differences in paradigm between English and Hopi. Even without knowing many specifics about Hopi culture you can glean a significant difference in worldview from this simple (perhaps oversimplified) difference in how a basic phenomenon would be described: “Like most American Indian languages, Hopi sentences are not divided into subjects and predicates. In English we say, ‘the light flashed.’ ‘Light’ is the subject, ‘flash’ is the predicate. The Hopi says simply ‘Rehpi’—’flash’ for the entire phenomenon. For what is it but the light and the flash combined, synonymous subject and verb?” (Frank Waters, “Words,” p. 4).

There can also be vastly different worldviews not just between languages but also within a language. For example, see George Lakoff, The Political Mind, in which he describes how the notion of family and the political worldviews that follow from different notions of family result in radical differences between conservatives and liberals.

The invisible architecture of language influences worldview in subtle and profound ways that most people don’t stop to question.  Why question something that is “obvious?” Well, here we’re going to question…and perhaps begin to dismantle the old invisible architecture of language so that we can begin to build something new, something that fits our evolutionary drive toward co-creation and paradoxical uniqueness-within-oneness.

As our current culture shifts in a way that is more radical than that from fixed space to curved space-time, the structure of language—and the principles of predication—must also shift in a corresponding manner. In this blog, I will continue to investigate the ways in which the worldview is changing and explore ways to shift the structure of language to keep up with those worldview shifts.

Indeed, we’re going to take language broadband.

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