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25 March 2013

Language and Mental Frames

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According to McLuhan’s oft-cited maxim, ‘we shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us’. The first tool, which we all have and shapes our thinking, is language: we think by talking to ourselves and our language can shape our ideas.

We think in terms of metaphors, and often the metaphor is not only in the words we use, but in our own concepts, since abstract concepts can only be expressed through metaphors, and our stock of metaphors is shaped by our cultural system, where we group the ideas into conceptual systems.

G. Lakoff, in Metaphors We Live By, provides examples of how we think in terms of metaphors, as we cannot otherwise tangibilize abstract concepts (there are things that only exist in words), and metaphors are not merely in the words we use, but rather in our own concepts.

For example, we structure time, a concept of greater abstraction, based on space and our experience of space, an so we talk about the future as something the lies ahead of us, and about the past as something that is behind us. We also take that expressions from other fields to talk about time. We say “to waste time”, “invest an hour”, “steal a minute”, which suggests that at mental level we view time as money.

Likewise, we create symbolic universes, groups of concepts based on their similarity, whether real or not, for example, when we combine the black color with sinister aspects (which etymologically means “to the left”). The meaning of words is not univocal and is determined by reference, or by the relationship between them in “families”. This semantics and these symbolic universes are what we cannot find today in the digital universe, what separates today’s Internet, that handles data that must be provided with a meaning, from real artificial intelligence, which addresses semantic aspects and not only syntax.

The metaphors we use to think determine our view of the world. Being aware of how we perceive reality enables us to realize that there is no single way of viewing the world, that our cultural universe shapes thinking frames that we cannot accept as universal, and should encourage us to try to understand the frames in which other people live, to create a more open society.

 

 

Alicia Sánchez Soriano

BBVA Innovation Center, Madrid (Spain)

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