language and logic, English and Aymara

Following up on the last post —

If English were incapable of expressing ternary logic, then Aymara could not be described in English. It does not seem too contentious, then, to conclude that any natural language, like English, Spanish (Rojas’ original) or Aymara, can express any known logic. The means will no doubt differ: analytic languages would express notions of uncertainty with word-morphemes (like “might”); agglutinative and inflectional languages should express them with affixal morphemes.

The notions seem to drive the languages, not the other way around. For example, German has a past tense conjugation for the equivalent of English “must.” English doesn’t. Instead, English uses “had to.” No one would conclude that English speakers are at a loss for the notion. Rather, the pervasive usefulness of the notion has compelled English speakers to formulate an analytical combination that has every mark of a modal expression. You can see how far English speakers have strayed from the analytical elements of those combinatorial elements: students regularly write “could of” and “would of” for “could have” and “would have.” “Could of” has become a virtual past tense inflection. English isn’t missing anything.

On the other hand, English speakers don’t use the subjunctive much at all, and standard speakers don’t use the Inner City English aspectual be. Both notions are useful, and neither is easy to accomplish without a functional morpheme, and English has such morphemes available, yet English users of the standard prestige dialect don’t use them (if that doesn’t kill the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis what would?). So maybe, as useful as they are, they are not crucial, or not as crucial as past tense modals.

It is claimed that Aymara speakers treat the past as metaphorically in front of them, the future, behind them. And the presence of uncertainty markers is brought to bear as an explanation: what you see is clear and certain like the past; the future is uncertain like the unseen behind your back.

I find the explanation unsatisfying. We all view the future as uncertain and we all see the visual field as more certain than the unseen. The explanation implies that English speakers have greater certainty about the future simply because we don’t regularly temper statements of the future with “maybe.” Well, maybe. Or maybe we just use a different metaphor.

I am less excited by such differences as I am puzzled by them. The future and the visual field are strongly linked together. Sight is the sense we most rely on. Our goals in the visual field are before us, not behind us. We walk towards our goals so we can see them, not walk backwards where we’d stumble towards it, not knowing if it is still even there.

Human understanding and reasoning are motivated by our interests. Cognitive scientists have observed that people who have lost intention or desire, lose the ability to plan and reason things through and simply can’t make sense of the world any more. And computers that don’t have such a direction, don’t learn much. So it seems that treating the future as in front of us is not a metonymy or a metaphor, but a mere factual generalization.

Whenever we are motivated by any appetite, we set ourselves to work, which means looking at the means. The past may be more certain, but it is not anywhere near as present and pressing. When I am hungry, I don’t remember the dinner I ate last night. I can’t even remember what I ate last night.

The past, in that sense, is not certain at all. It’s a haze of incomplete memories. Its certainty is something of an abstraction. The future of today’s dinner presses on me immediately. What am I hungry for? What would I like and where will I get it and what do I have to do to get it? Whatever I do, it’ll all be in front of my face, with open eyes. We set the future always in front of us. Wherever you go, you don’t get there until the future comes, and you get there facing it, whether it’s getting to the kitchen or the refrigerator or to the corner of the street or to your friend’s house or a concert hall.

So why do the Aymara gesture behind them when they talk about the future? Reichenbach pointed out that linguistic time is not a mere line extending on either side of the speaker’s present point. Linguistic time includes the event discussed and the point of reference relative to the speaker’s present. So why can’t a speaker project his reference point into the future-front to express the conviction that the projected future will be accomplished?

Just as English speakers use “may” for “might” or “have to” for “must” (with no relation to the auxilliary “have” or the possession “have”), it has to be established that the Aymara affixes always retain their uncertainty meanings. And the same with gestures.

In any case, for me the puzzle exceeds the phenomenal fact.


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