I have problems with psychology, mostly because it is called a science.  Its partners, like sociology, are similarly guilty; all suffer from an inability to establish valid, replicable, unbiased experiments, a preponderance of confirmation bias in resulting analyses, and the fundamental flaw of attempting to diagnose a flawed tool using the tool itself.  Even some of the most apparently rigorous, significant, impactful, and useful experiments in fields like psychology have been scarred by the replicability crisis mentioned in Bernoulli’s Fallacy.  Despite my skepticism, I still find psychology fascinating, especially when it can be tied into neuroscience, and its flaws do not prevent it from being useful.

As most of us are human, we would all benefit from being students of human nature, but authors especially need this understanding; it is how we can craft believable, relatable characters.  This understanding can come from our own observations and experiences, and those will, perhaps inevitably, serve as the primary source and inspiration for our writing, but that which we can observe and interact with personally is necessarily limited.  Studying history, as I often advocate, can help to build upon that foundation, and though I less often mention it here, so too can psychology.

My dad recently shared with me an episode from the podcast Hidden Brain entitled “Watch Your Mouth.”  The episode was devoted to a discussion of how the features of the languages we speak affect the way we think in ways both conscious and unconscious; it served as a deeper and more up-to-date exploration of a concept that I remember reading about a few years ago pertaining to translation.  What I remembered was that certain languages have words for sensory inputs, be their scents or colors, which do not exist in other languages.  English, for instance, is very limited in its scent words, and languages that have more words for scents can communicate things that cannot be adequately translated into English because they have no translations.

What is even more intriguing than the linguistic aspect of this phenomenon is how these differences affect the way people who speak these languages think.  Experiments have shown with some confidence that people who, for instance, speak a language that includes colors that do not exist in English will perceive the world as chromatically different from an English speaker – they will actually be able to see colors that English speakers will not, or discern odors that elude English speakers.  Now, you may (and probably should) argue that it is preposterous to think that these other language speakers are actually seeing, smelling, or tasting something that does not exist for someone who just happens not to have the words to describe it, but this isn’t about the reality of the thing; it is about the perception of that reality.  If your language has words for purple that mine doesn’t, and we look at a sunset together, we will see the same sunset.  A spectrograph will reveal the same photon emission patterns.  Yet, we will each of us perceive that sunset differently.

Nor is this concept limited to sensory words.  “Watch Your Mouth” dwells upon a language which has no words for left or right, and instead contextualizes all space in terms of cardinal directions.  This means that instead of having a left and right leg, you might at one moment have a north leg and a south leg, but then, at the next moment, they will have switched, and what was the north leg is now the south leg, and what was the south leg is now the north leg.  Consider all of the implications: these speakers by necessity maintain a sense of direction which non-speakers might consider nigh impossible, their concepts of their own identities will be different, the way they interact with the world…so much is affected by a difference like this that to fully capture it would require living the culture.

Besides the humility that should come with internalization of this concept, the greater respect for other languages and polyglots, and the fresh awe at the wonder that can exist in our real world, the mind should reel with the worldbuilding and characterization potential.  The possibilities of leveraging this idea to render fictional characters and cultures more unique, more interesting, more textured, more genuine, more true, more alive, are veritably endless.  This is Siuan’s fishing references in Wheel of Time taken to an even more interesting and immersive level, and the greatest danger would be contriving to sketch out an element of a concept like this in a reasonable number of words within the context of a narrative structure while not allowing it to completely dominate the story and become more interesting than the main subject upon which you are writing.

I maintain that you should take the scientific findings of psychology with a healthy dose of skepticism even above what you might apply to other scientific fields, and at the very least that you should bear in mind that psychological findings are unlikely ever to be universally definitive; however, that does not mean that we cannot or should not make use of those findings which are of interest or relevance to us.  Quite the contrary: psychology provides another window onto human behavior, and there is perhaps no subject more important for an author to understand than humanity (or an understanding more difficult and elusive).  More than the specific subject of untranslatable words and how they affect lived perspectives, I hope that you will consider adding psychology to your fields of study as you too seek to improve your writing.  After history, there are few fields I can think of from which I derive more benefit for my writing.

One thought on “Words We Don’t Have

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