Nautilus

Language Both Enraptures and Deceives Us

The purpose of language is to reveal the contents of our minds, says Julie Sedivy. It’s a simple and profound insight. We are social animals and language is what springs us from our isolated selves and connects us with others.

Sedivy has taught linguistics and psychology at Brown University and the University of Calgary. She specializes in psycholinguistics, the psychology of language, notably the psychological pressures that give birth to language and comprehension.

More recently Sedivy has been writing about language in her own life. She was born in Czechoslovakia, spent time as a kid in Austria and Italy, and came of age in Canada. She speaks Czech, French, and English, and gets by in Spanish, Italian, and German.

In “The Strange Persistence of First Languages,” featured again this week in Nautilus (it first appeared in 2015), Sedivy explores how revisiting her first language, Czech, brought her closer to her late father and revived memories of her own past. In another Nautilus essay, “Why Doesn’t Ancient Fiction Talk About Feelings?” Sedivy burrows into the evolution of literature and how its shift to the interior life of the mind has reflected the expanding complexities of society.

In this interview, from her home in Calgary, Sedivy explains how language enraptures and deceives. Our discussion ranges from evolution to Trump to what makes good fiction and bad writing. Throughout, Sedivy’s insights resonate.

How did language shape human evolution?

That’s entering a very speculative domain, but we can have some insights into that by looking, for example, at populations that exist now that maybe don’t have access to language. For instance, many deaf people around the world are still raised in environments where they’re not really given access to a language because their senses don’t allow them to take in the ambient language around them. Unless they’re put together with other speakers who use a signed modality of language, they might spend most, or even all, of their lives without access to language.

There are some interesting studies that look at what happens when you take someone like this and add the experience of language. There’s a very interesting study by Jennie Pyers and Annie Senghas that looked at

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