Slicing the onion – does dumbing-down language mean dumbing-down thought?
I recently came across a fine example of how keeping language “simple” means that a really deep understanding of concepts becomes impossible. Thinking depends absolutely and directly on language – people say that the purest thinking is mathematics, but all that is is words and grammar replaced by symbols. 1 means “one” or “jeden” or “uno” or whatever that is in your language – I think I can pretty much guarantee nobody reading here has abandoned their language’s word for 1, 0 etc and simply thinks about those terms in the non-linguistic way a binary circuit regards them.
So when we simplify language and remove harder constructions and any vocabulary beyond a few thousand words, what happens? The BASIC ideas may be more understandable to more people, but they are like explanations given to children.
Let’s look at the examples I found. Both are from the same source and both refer to something familiar probably to all of us, namely: why do cut onions make us cry? First the Wikipedia entry in standard English:
Cut onions emit certain compounds which cause the lachrymal glands in the eyes to become irritated, releasing tears.
Chopping an onion causes damage to cells which allows enzymes called alliinases to break down amino acid sulfoxides and generate sulfenic acids. A specific sulfenic acid, 1-propenesulfenic acid, is rapidly acted on by a second enzyme, the lachrymatory factor synthase (LFS), giving syn-propanethial-S-oxide, a volatile gas known as the onion lachrymatory factor or LF. This gas diffuses through the air and soon reaches the eye, where it activates sensory neurons, creating a stinging sensation. Tear glands produce tears in order to dilute and flush out the irritant.
Eye irritation can be avoided by cutting onions under running water or submerged in a basin of water. Leaving the root end intact also reduces irritation as the onion base has a higher concentration of sulphur compounds than the rest of the bulb. Refrigerating the onions before use reduces the enzyme reaction rate and using a fan can blow the gas away from the eyes. The more often one chops onions, the less one experiences eye irritation.
The amount of sulfenic acids and LF released and the irritation effect differs among Allium species. In 2008, the New Zealand Crop and Food institute created a strain of “no tears” onions by using gene-silencing biotechnology to prevent synthesis by the onions of the LFS enzyme.
And now, the same, but from the Simple English Wikipedia set:
Why onions make eyes water[edit source]
When you cut an onion, you open some cells of the onion. Then, some chemicals react. When one chemical floats through the air and reaches your eyes, they sting. There are ways to keep the chemical away. You can:
- Cut the onion under water
- Keep the onion in the fridge, and cut when it is cold
- Leave the root end on until last
- Use a sharper knife
- Have a fan blowing away from you on the onion
- Wear goggles, like for swimming or skiing
The Simple Version keeps the practical parts, like cutting from the top, but it just can’t handle what the chemicals actually are.
The good news is of course that these “Hard words” are the most international and, paradoxically, it is often the “hard” words which give the least trouble to the polyglot, so you end up with multi-language speakers who tend to talk like this:
This gas is diffusing through air and is reaching soon eye, where it’s activate a sensory neurons, created stinking sensation.
And the equivalent in four to forty different languages.