What language does a deaf person think in? Redux

“Thinking in a language” is a convenient shorthand for letting the structure of the language guide your thinking; but we’re setting ourselves up for a lot of confusion if we take the idea literally.


As background, read this blogpost from more than four years ago on which got an indignant comment recently. What I want to say in response is long enough that I thought I’d make it a post.

First–and only first because I want to leave the mea culpas for the end–I meant inconvenient to the speaker, not to the listener (who is really secondary to this discussion). And convenience isn’t simply a matter of convention: I can speak and brush my hair, say, at the same time, which somebody who has to sign with their hands can’t do. That’s all I meant.

Second, I don’t dispute that speakers of English, say, can sometimes “think in English”, where “think in English” is shorthand for “use some of the conventions of the language as a shortcut tool for thinking” (more about this in the “what I got wrong” section below). I’ve seen musicians talk to each other “in music”, so I can easily believe they’re capable of “thinking” in music. In my own experience, as I get more familiar with programming, it is sometimes easier to just “think in C++” instead of trying to translate some idea into C++. But, if this isn’t exclusively the only way to think (see below about the “if”), we still have to ask what happens when this isn’t the way the thinking happened. Answer: mentalese.

Now, on to what I got wrong:

a) I said “different versions” of sign language, instead of different sign languages. (Having never used a signed language,) I got this wrong.

b) My thoughts on whether language can affect thought have changed after I read Guy Deutscher‘s incredibly good books on language: both The Unfolding of Language and Through the Language Glass are masterpieces of persuasive writing and I highly recommend them. My favourite example from Through the…  is where Deutscher talks of a tribe in Australia whose language, Guugu Yimithirr, only contains the cardinal directions (North, South, East, West). Native speakers of this language, it seems, are able to keep track of which way is North far better than speakers of a language that also uses user-fixed directions – left, right, forwards, backwards(*footnote1).

This is not at all to say that speakers of this language don’t–much less can’t–understand what ‘left’ or ‘right’ are. They just have a point on the rest of us when it comes to keeping track of which way is North.

This is also not proof that the speakers of Guugu Yimithirr “think in” Guugu Yimithirr. The speaker of the language is forced to keep track of the cardinal directions in order to be able to talk coherently. If people “thought in” a certain language–if we could only “think in” a certain language–then we would be arguing that speakers of a language such as Guugu Yimithirr don’t understand the concepts of ‘left’ and ‘right’.

My point is this: “thinking in a language” is a convenient shorthand for letting the structure of the language guide your thinking; but we’re setting ourselves up for a lot of confusion if we take the idea literally.


1) “Native” speakers are people who were raised from infancy speaking the language. Also, there’s a proper word for “user-fixed” directions


Your consciousness differentiates into boundless belonging

We exist as atomic ionization. To traverse the vision quest is to become one with it.

Nothing is impossible. This life is nothing short of an ennobling uprising of spiritual empathy. We must develop ourselves and enlighten others.

It can be difficult to know where to begin. Although you may not realize it, you are dynamic. Being, look within and unify yourself.

We are at a crossroads of chi and ego. Our conversations with other beings have led to a summoning of ultra-sublime consciousness. Humankind has nothing to lose.

As you grow, you will enter into infinite growth that transcends understanding. The akashic record may be the solution to what’s holding you back from an unimaginable oasis of serenity. You will soon be aligned by a power deep within yourself —a power that is Vedic, powerful.

Greed is the antithesis of growth.

Without grace, one cannot believe. Yes, it is possible to disrupt the things that can exterminate us, but not without chi on our side. We can no longer afford to live with yearning.

It is a sign of things to come. The transmission of potential is now happening worldwide. Soon there will be a deepening of power the likes of which the planet has never seen.

This blogpost was generated by reionising its electrons. See also the random Deepak Chopra quote generator.

HT: Pharyngula.

Oh my. Apparently, people don’t take kindly to pictures of Ganesha with his…

I’ve had a surprising amount of pushback about my posting a link to this The Onion article, and about my surprise that Facebook would censor a post with this link because somebody reported it as, I don’t know–obscene, offensive, blasphemous, take your pick. Which brings me back to: oh my. People really don’t take kindly to pictures in which “the Hebrew prophet Moses high-fives Jesus Christ as both are having their erect penises vigorously masturbated by Ganesha, all while the Hindu deity anally penetrates Buddha with his fist.”

[Edit: Picture removed. It was an editorial decision.]

I’ve made a list of people’s complaints. If you’ve been following along on Facebook, this isn’t new.

Here’s Saikishan:

I actually think it is not inappropriate to curtail free speech till people get open minded. A riot /people getting killed/ inciting violence/ increasing communal tensions is too big a price to pay for someone being able to post random stuff online or write a controversial novel or make a outrageous movie. While we should work towards tolerance and liberty in every sense, that has to be gradual & systematic.. creating awareness and open-mindedness over time without offending people… and people who argue for freedom to expression should behave with more maturity. With great power / liberty should come great responsibility.

And a random-dude:

It got blocked because it shows penises, pubic hair and arseholes. Free speech curbing does not enter into it. Be responsible and post such links on 18+ forums if you must.

fb Statement of Rights and Responsibilities(section 3.7): You will not post content that: is hate speech, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.

Random dude’s supporter:

The link you posted was just obscene… and maybe deep down they had a motive to avoid any probable reaction to your link (which might happen, even when you are only “advising” that it should not happen etcetera)… However you just gave them a legitimate reason by posting a link that violated the section [random dude] has mentioned above…

and btw… don’t you think “purpose is to point out that people should learn that in a free world, people have no right against being offended” is an oxymoron in itself..??

And the guy who got the post censored:

Croor – I have the right to TELL you NOT to call me an idiot… or protest against it to the moderators of a forum like facebook ( Which btw i did to prove a point to you ) you of course have the right to continue to ignore my request, till you can’t, like in this case, or find a way to express your views elsewhere.

Facebook did nothing on its own account anyhow. It just listened to the requests of other individuals converging on the nature of your article.

My point is that this was still a democratic removal of your article. There is a difference between this and China removing pictures of Tiananmen Square. People rated your post, and it fell below the troll line. This is moderation in ‘good faith’.

And btw, you were asked to fill in security information because facebook was polite enough to assume that maybe it wasn’t you and your account was hacked. How do i know this ? It asks me before reporting if i thought your account was hacked. Again.. ‘good faith’, not Mamata Banarjee

I leave as an exercise to you the reader to deal with random dude and his supporter. The other two made one or two points worth addressing.

Free speech is a line-drawing exercise, sure. The line is usually drawn at anything that poses a ‘clear and present danger’. Like yelling ‘fire!’ in a crowded theatre. Or Advani or Uma Bharathi telling an assembled mob that god wants them to break down the mosque. “Increasing communal tension”, whatever that means, should not be covered. It isn’t ‘clear and present danger’. It happens over time. Which means people have time and brains to think about what was said, how much it offended them, and most importantly how they don’t have the right to ask somebody else not to offend them.

Comparing a post at The Onion (or indeed on my Facebook) to Tienanmen Square is a bit much, no? Can anybody say Godwin? More importantly: free speech trumps “democracy”. Especially if we’re talking about MY facebook wall, where democracy doesn’t apply at all.

You don’t like what’s on my wall? Don’t read it. Nobody is making you.

In which I send you off to read an article in The Caravan. Mine.

And Anjali Vaidya’s. It was her idea. She was very nice and included me in it.

The article’s called Shelved AwayIt’s about Select Book Shop in Bangalore. It’s only one page or so and features in The Lede. Do read. I’ll start you off with the first paragraph:

JUST OFF BRIGADE ROAD in central Bangalore is a quiet store, remarkably removed from the nearby bustle. This is Select Book Shop, a name familiar to many book lovers in the city. The store overflows with books old, new and rare, and the two men who will direct you to the treasures within are the owner KKS Murthy, and his son Sanjay.

Questions, comments, bouquets, brickbats and so forth are welcome.

P. Sainath is such a dolt. Or something.

Bitch, please. You don’t live in an “undistorted market”.

Swati pointed me to this blogpost about P. Sainath. The author takes Sainath to task for what are apparently grave errors of basic economics, basic maths, basic common sense. Or so the author of the blogpost would have you think. The blogpost goes on at length about how dumb Sainath is and condescends to point out several “Basic Econ101 lessonsthat Sainath has obviously failed to learn.

I know very little economics. I haven’t been formally educated in economics, or studied economics on my own. Nevertheless, there are some very obvious things that are wrong with the blogpost. First, Atanu Dey, the author, is an idiot. Now that the ad hominem is out of the way, you won’t see me mention the author again.


“We shifted millions. . .” Who are the we? Are farmers stupid and passive? Do they have any choice in what they do? This automatic categorization of them as victims is what I call the manufacturing discontent industry. I will come back to this matter later on.

Incentives don’t count? If the government sets support prices for cash crops but none for food crops, will farmers grow cash crops or food crops? Is this not “we” shifting millions of farmers from one form of agriculture to another?


But in the same breath that he talks about food prices, he also talks about the poor farmers. I don’t suppose he understands that buying and selling are two sides of the same coin. If food prices are kept low by decree, it is the same as decreeing that farmers starve. By putting an artificial lid on food prices, it discourages food producers from producing food. That restricts supply, and that increases the price of food.

Unless — radical thought! — you ensure that everybody has the right to enough food.


His pet hobby horse is farmer suicides. He rattles off numbers–so many farmers killed in so many years. Again the context is missing. Yes, we understand that 250,000 farmers killing themselves is serious business. But why are they killing themselves? Because food prices are too high or too low?

“Pet hobby horse”? Insensitive much, dude? Here’s a Sainath article from 2009. I quote a bit of the article; a bit called, you know, the first paragraph:

The number of farmers who have committed suicide in India between 1997 and 2007 now stands at a staggering 182,936. Close to two-thirds of these suicides have occurred in five states (India has 28 states and seven union territories). The Big 5 – Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh– account for just about a third of the country’s population but two-thirds of farmers’ suicides. The rate at which farmers are killing themselves in these states is far higher than suicide rates among non-farmers. Farm suicides have also been rising in some other states of the country.


Basic Econ101 lesson: Prices in undistorted markets reflect the supply and demand of goods. They convey essential information to producers and consumers. If prices rise, it could be due to demand increases or supply shocks, or both. Producers increase production when prices rise; consumers reduce consumption. Suppressing price information leads to foreseeable but unintended adverse outcomes.

Bitch, please. You don’t live in an “undistorted market”.

Anybody remember this, from House M.D.? —

Foreman: First year of med-school; if you hear hooves, think horses not zebras.
House: Are you in first year med-school? No.

Am I back?

Sort of…

My last post was well over a year ago. I hope to come back to blogging in the near future, although I will still not put blogging front and centre in life. Several things have happened in 2011, which I will hopefully get opportunities to get to.

We’ll start with something I wrote in response to a demand that non-vegetarian food be segregated in JNC’s student hostel.

An announcement and an apology

The following is entirely off-the-cuff; so I fully expect it to sound like blabbering. I haven’t been writing here too often of late. I have been otherwise occupied, let’s say. There’s been somewhat of a steady decline in how much I write here, and I see no point in making the blog a link-collection. There’s a lot I want to write about which I don’t think I’ll do justice.

This, then, will be the last post until I get some things at work sorted out. Which, if it happens, I don’t expect will take inordinately long. It’s another matter if it doesn’t happen at all; but then the blog will be the least of my concerns. You are welcome to think of this as a winter hiatus. With that out of the way…

I read about this work from the University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP), which is quite inventive. A bunch of people from the electronics and the agriculture departments have come together to use the Tobacco Mosaic Virus to create high-performance batteries. Technically, they’re only using the outer shell of the virus, which like most interesting things today is nano-sized.

They coat the outer shell with nickel and use the tenfold increase in surface area over a plane surface that happens because of this to act as the current carrier in a battery. These batteries will be smaller for the same power output, and can be scaled up to meet large demands, they say. They also expect this type of battery to be longer lasting, and cheaper to produce. I haven’t put in any links here, but the story is from PhysOrg, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find it.

I thank you for reading. I hope to be back soon.