Dylan Evans’ ‘Placebo’, Languages, and “Yes Way”

I was reading the section called “Saying is Believing” in Dylan Evans’ book called ‘Placebo: Mind over Matter in Modern Medicine”,[1] which is one of my sources for an elective class I teach (called ‘Science, Medicine, and Reason’).

At the beginning of this section, Evans introduces the assent theory of belief, with references to C. Cherniak and Bertrand Russell. While I expect to talk about this idea in the near future, I will focus now on an example Evans gives, and share my thoughts about languages and translation. Evans says “If you want to explain why John took his umbrella when he went out this morning, the chances are you will say it was because he believed it was going to rain.” (p. 77). As a fully bilingual person who thinks and dreams in his second language, I nevertheless mentally transposed this statement, and found that the word choice for ‘belief’ (as used above) might correspond to a different word in Turkish than the primary word for ‘belief’: The word ‘think’ may be used instead in a good Turkish translation of Evans’ sentence.

I think this is informative about the meanings the word ‘belief’ can have. Do we really mean John believes it’s going to rain in the same sense that John might believe in God? I don’t think so. John may have been led to believe that the probability of rain on that day was 50% or higher (and perhaps it’s a different threshold for others), but typically, a religious person does not believe in God in terms of a 50% (or even, say, 70%) probability; they think of it as certainty. Could it be, then, that the word ‘belief” has (at least) two nuanced meanings? The sense of ‘belief’ as involved in faith must be different from the sense of ‘belief’ as involved in likelihoods.

If that seems unlikely, consider the word ‘no’. Obviously, ‘no’ is the opposite of ‘yes’. However, when it’s used in the humorous pop-cultural “yes way”, the “no way” to which it responds was not meant in the sense of opposition, but in terms of negating presence or existence. Here’s where fluency in another language helps: In Turkish, ‘no’ in the sense of “none” or “there isn’t any” is a different word from ‘no’ as the opposite of ‘yes’. That word, ‘hiç’ (pronounced close to “hitch”) carries a sense of “any”, as in “there aren’t any”.

“Yes way” is humorous because it doesn’t quite work; we recognize that. But we also don’t really think about why it doesn’t work. It’s just a sense, like a note that is out of tune. To the foreigner fluent in English, however, there is another way to access that sense of slight off-ness** which allows one, in my case, to recognize this yes/no pair not as the regular yes/no (evet/hayır) pair, but as a distorted any/any (her/hiç) pair, which remains unclear in English. (In English, “anyone can . . .” implies existence while “there isn’t any  . . ” implies nonexistence. The same word is used for opposite meanings. Not so in all languages.)

So, there it is: my introduction to the world of blogging, thanks to this quick thought that occurred to me while reading Dylan Evans’ ‘Placebo’.

In the next installment, I will examine the word ‘good’ (with respect to music and the two languages).

FOOTNOTE: [1] Disclaimer: I use logical/British/tech punctuation, not US punctuation, when it comes to placing commas and periods inside or outside quotations (but I’m aware of the US convention)

Placebo: Evans, Dylan. Mind over Matter in Modern Medicine, Oxford University Press, 2004, New York, NY, USA. First published in 2003 by HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © Dylan Evans, 2003, 2004.

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