Specializations > Semantics and Pragmatics

Sense of self implicit in language

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Is anyone aware of any language where our experiences are expressed in terms of "what we are" rather than "what we are aware of," or what we perceive.  There are two ways we can think of our experiences -

- as something "not me" that I am "aware of," or that I "perceive,"
- as something "I experience."

In English, for example, we say, "I HAVE and idea," as if it is something that is "not me" that I "have."  Of course, when we stop and think about it we realize that (within the scientific context) our ideas aren't things that exist separate from us, but rather are inseparable from our brains.  In the scientific context, then, I since my brain is inseparable from me, I am whatever happens in it.

Another, and I believe more accurate way of describing such experiences would be to say that "I AM" my thoughts, dreams, emotions, etc.  They aren't "things" that exist independent of me of which I become aware.  They are experiences I have.  I understand that, in English at any rate, it would be clumsy to say, "I was a dream about a lion last night," or "I was being the idea that I might not get to work on time."  I'm not suggesting we try to change the way we talk.  My interest, which is related to our conception of space, is rather from the a personal interest in trying to find ways to think about our experiences of color as they relate to our conception of ourselves as beings, which I won't go into here. 

My particular interest is in whether there are any languages in which color is implicitly conceived, not as being something "things are" - as in "Apples are red" - but rather as something experienced - "I am being the experience of red where I see the apple."  This is obviously very clumsy in English, precisely because we don't have an implicit concept of "being what one experiences." 

Is anyone aware of any language in which color is implicitly conceived of as being something experienced, rather than being something that "things are" that we "perceive."  (I'm not talking about scientists and philosophers here, but rather people in everyday life.)  I seriously doubt it, but I want to be sure.

Languages vary in how they express possession. The two most common types are roughly "I have X" and "There is X to me", along with another variant (e.g., in Quechua) "My X exists". But these all seem to fit into the existing-as-separate-entity category you described (even more so than "I have" perhaps).

As for colors, what comes to mind is that in a number of languages, colors (and some or all adjectives in general) are essentially verbs. So you'd have a verb "be happy" or "be green", literally translating to something like "the tree greens" or "the sky blues". I don't know that this represents much more than a grammatical difference (whether there's any philosophical difference for those speakers-- for which see the highly controversial topic of Linguistic Relativity).

From your response it looks like there is a pretty consistent general view throughout language groups as to color being conceived of implicitly as being "not me."
I would expect that language usages would have evolved for the same kinds of reasons as does every other dimension of human life.  While my person interest is the extent to which our thinking and talking is consistent with reality, there is no "rule" that says a usage has to be ontologically accurate in order to be beneficial.  According to science, for example, our experience of color happens in our brains.  But how useful would it be to go around talking about "I'm being green in my brain in the representation of that tree"?!  This is precisely why I find this issue interesting - because although the way human language has evolved might be evolutionarily beneficial for surviving on a savannah, it might profoundly mislead us in the way we think about reality.

Along a similar vein, do people in most languages talk about "having" dreams or "having" ideas, in the sense that they are "things we have" as opposed to being something we as individuals "are"?  When I think about it, to my mind, I "am" my dreams and I "am" my ideas - and yet I say I "have" dreams, ideas, memories, etc.  This also applies to our bodies.  I am supposed to "be" my body, and yet I talk about "having" hands, as if there is "me" and then there is "my body" - something I "have," as if it was a possession.  I suspect I might be looking for more "deep meaning" in these things than is really there.  Many of these usages are probably just "the way things worked out," as opposed to there being some profound expression of our "ultimate nature as beings."

I'm not familiar with the expression "have a dream" in a large number of languages (just a few European languages where it is similar to English, I believe), so I can't comment on that.

But it seems odd to me to say that "I am a dream". It would be logical to say "I create a dream" or "I experience a dream", but "I have a dream" is just a vague version of either of those anyway.

One idea that might interest you is how some languages express a distinction between alienable and inalienable possession (you'll find information searching under those terms). For example, "my hat" and "my hair" might be marked in distinct grammatical ways, because hats are 'alienable' (non-permanent or non-inherent possessions). Perhaps some distinctions in some languages would be of interest to you.

Regarding the "I am my dreams" comment, I have come to understand that I can't experience anything that "isn't me."  This is true even within the context of the materialist theory of the senses, in which case everything I experience is supposed to be something happening in my brain.  If I am my material body, and if everything I experience "happens in my brain," and if there is no aspect of anything I experience that doesn't happen "in my brain," then, even within the context of the materialist worldview there is nothing I experience (brain happenings) that "isn't me" (my material body). I have come to understand that the materialist worldview has problems, and I don't "believe" it any more - but you don't want me to get into that here!  Thanks for your response.


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