Symbolic Language

Language is a symbolic system. Among other things it allows us to label, categorize, and evaluate elements of a shared reality. Sometimes language subtlety sways our perceived notion of those realities. When people were presented with a picture of a bridge, German speakers described it with adjectives like  “beautiful, elegant, fragile, peaceful, pretty, slender”.  Spanish speakers reported  “big, dangerous, long, strong, sturdy, towering”. 1  These descriptive sets are strikingly different.  The perceived quala, subjective reality, of bridge for Spanish vs. German speakers is almost polar

In German bridge is feminine and in Spanish it is masculine. This might explain word choice, but it also suggests that something as simply as gender assignment can have a profound influence on perspective and the way we think about things.

The Oksapmin people of New Guinea have a base-27 counting system. The words for numbers  are  represented by the 27 body parts they use for counting, starting at the thumb of one hand, going up to  the  nose,  then down the other side of  the  body  to the pinky of the other hand. So the symbol for thirteen or twenty-two is not visualized as a digit like “13” or “22”,  but  rather    “right-eye”  or  “left  wrist”. 2

Oksapmin Counting


The Pirahã of Brazil have no past tense in their grammar. Most all of life for them is about the present. They consistently dismiss information not based on recent events. This is so pervasive in their culture that nearly 50% of the population cannot remember names of their deceased grandparents. 3

Piraha Homeland

Piraha Tribesmen











The Kuuk Thaayorre language, spoken by the Pormpuraaw in Northeast Australia, has no words for “left” or “right”. A typical Pormpuraaw greeting is not “Hello” or “¿Qué pasa?” Typically it is “Where have you come from?” or “Where are you going?” The response is always cardinal: “north north-east” “east south- east”. They have nearly 80 designations for responding. A cup on a table is not left or right of a person  but west-northwest, or east-northeast, or a completely different set of designations depending on the direction the person at the table is facing. You can take a five year old Pormpuraaw child, place them in a room with no windows, spin them, and when stopped they can tell you exactly the direction they are facing, without fail. 4,5   From the time they are born, this awareness is instilled in their cognitive processing through the apparatus we call language. Dance instruction for the Pormpuraaw is probably quite a mouthful.


Pormpuraaw Dancers


Lets say you find the following note on your desktop, “The meeting scheduled for Wednesday has been moved forward two days.” Now, ask yourself, which day will the meeting take place? 66.7% of people say Friday, 33.3% say Monday.   You may have to ponder those perspectives for a moment, but why is there such a discrepancy for the solution? It certainly is not a complex problem. A few psychologists have proposed that some people see themselves traveling through time as if on a path where they are propelling themselves through time. Other perceive themselves as stationary and the flow of time is the element that is moving; the futures approaches then flows by them becoming the past.
Time is a pretty basic cognitive percept.  For such discrepancies to occur in a shared language should alert us to the possibilities of cognitive anomalies that could occur when encountering a language that is not native to us.

I once asked a bilingual English-French speaker, “What language do you dream in?” She said, “It’s funny when I’m in the U.S. I dream in English, but when I visit my hometown in France, I dream in French”.
Language, it seems, can have a profound effect on the way we construct our world, even our dream world.

In other unseen worlds like that of quantum physics or molecular biochemistry, to have a genuine appreciation for these “landscapes” one has to understand the language of those disciplines. Oftentimes grasping novel abstract ideas involves understanding new sets of terms. For example The Desk Encyclopedia of Microbiology contains 1152 pages of terms, many of which are native to the discipline. 7 Collectively these terms constitute a unique language that allows us to peer into worlds that we could not otherwise conceptualize. The more abstract a reality is, the more language dictates our perception and comprehension of that reality.

Ancient Language

When we approach an ancient manuscript, not only are we faced with discrepancies of language but also temporal discrepancy. The populous world views in a province from 2000 years ago would have an enormously different influence on our general disposition than world views we would encounter 2000 years from now. It is difficult to imagine. Together these language and temporal discrepancies present a great challenge when we venture to understand the mindset or proposed realities of any ancient author.

But every once in a great while an individual beyond brilliant manages to ease that challenge for us. Carlos Suares’s Cipher of Genesis carefully presents indispensable linguistic tools for grasping mystical constructs contained in the first books of the Taroh. Chögyam Trungpa’s exposé on the Tibetan Book of the Dead transforms post-mortem superstitions into psychological events that we face in everyday life. And when it comes to Vedic literature, few can hold a candle to the genius of Sri Aurobindo.

Sri Aurobindo

Aurobindo was a Sanskrit scholar. He was also a solar adept. He looked at the sun. In the book Secret of the Veda not only do get the luxury of his language expertise but also the content of events he encountered in his decades of solar discipline. In a 2017 survey of 56 people that were sun gazers,  39% reported seeing symbols, 28% geometrics, over 30% experienced a suspension of breath, and 51%
reported a dissociation of time. 8  Good portions of Aurobindo’s purports on the Vedas speak to those that have had experiences in the Sun. In that context, his writings can feel very much like a private audience.

In the first several chapters Aurobindo addresses the general sense of the Vedic language and that Vedic words often did not have a fixed significance:

“For instance, the word, asva, usually signifying a horse, is used as a figure of the Prana, the nervous energy, the vital breath, the half-mental, half-material dynamism which links mind and matter. Its root is capable, among other senses, of the ideas of impulsion, force, possession, enjoyment, and we find all these meanings united in this figure of the Steed of Life to indicate the essential tendencies of the Pranic energy. Such a use of language would not be possible if the tongue of the Aryan forefathers obeyed    the same conventions as our modern speech or were in the same stage of development. But if we  can suppose that there was some peculiarity in the old Aryan tongue as it was used by the Vedic Rishis by which words were felt to be more alive, less merely conventional symbols of ideas, more free in  their transitions of meaning than in our later use of speech, then we shall find that these devices were not at all artificial or far-fetched to their employers, but were rather the first natural means which would suggest themselves to men anxious at once to find new, brief and adequate formulae of speech for psychological conceptions not understood by the vulgar and to conceal the ideas contained in their formulae from a profane intelligence. I believe that this is the true explanation; it can be established, I think, by a study of the development of Aryan speech that language did pass through a stage peculiarly favorable to this cryptic and psychological use of words, which in their popular handling have a plain, precise and physical significance.” (pg, 49)

Vedas and the Sun

Many of the early Vedas are hymns to different aspects of the Sun. The horse plays a significant role in dozens of these hymns. Some modern day people, while sun gazing, have reported seeing the archetypal icon of the horse imprinted in the face of the sun or striding across the peripheral morning skyscape. Yet, the horse is more than just an image. It is also an energetic aspect of the sun that is often present in the absence of the visual archetype. This solar energy can be described as the myriad of concepts that embody the horse, but to truly understand it as real- one has to experience it. Aurobindo is remarkably proficient in conveying these insights and does so with many archetypes that appear in the Vedas.

“These rays are, again, the seven brilliant horses of the sun, sapta haritah, and their full union constitutes the seven-headed thought of Ayasya by which the lost sun of Truth is recovered. That thought again is established in the seven rivers, the seven principles of being divine and human, the totality of which founds the perfect spiritual existence. The winning of these seven rivers of our being withheld by Vritra and these seven rays withheld by Vala, the possession of our complete divine consciousness delivered from all falsehood by the free descent of the truth, gives us the secure possession of the world of Swar (the luminous world) and the enjoyment of mental and physical being lifted into the godhead above darkness, falsehood and death by the in-streaming of our divine elements.” (pg. 182) Aurobindo’s remarks here are very consistent with the brilliant work found in Gene Savoy’s exoteric manuscripts describing a process of illuminating the chakras through the absorption of ultra-dimensional solar energy, resulting in the generation of divine consciousness within the practitioner.

The root word go in Sanskrit means both cow and light. The image of the Cow is constantly associated in Vedas with the “Dawn” and the “Sun”. The image of the Cow could very well be the most important of all the Vedic symbols.

“The Cows are the hidden rays of the Dawn or of Surya; their rescue out of the darkness leads to or is the sign of the uprising of the sun that was hidden in the darkness; this again is the condition, always with the instrumentality of the sacrifice, its circumstances and its helping gods, of the conquest of Swar, the supreme world of Light. So much results beyond doubt, it seems to me, from the language of the Veda itself; but also that language points to this Sun being a symbol of the divine illumining Power, Swar the world of the divine Truth and the conquest of divine Truth the real aim of the Vedic Rishis and the subject of their hymns.” (pg. 150)

The author then goes on for eight pages using numerous Vedic passages to explain the Recovery of the Lost Sun and the Lost Cows and that the Cows are the hidden rays of the Sun, an essential discovery in the Rishis’ quest for the Divine.

Soma Honey

Here, Aurobindo talks about the Soma honey and the four celestial rivers:

“In this hymn Brihaspati is described driving up the cows (the hidden rays of the Dawn), breaking Vala by the divine word, brahmana, concealing the darkness and making Swar (the supreme world of light) visible. The first result is the breaking open by force of the well which has the rock for its face and whose streams are of the honey, madhu, the Soma sweetness, asma syamavatam madhudharam. This well of honey covered by the rock must be the Ananda or divine beatitude of the supreme threefold world of bliss, the Satya, Tapas, and Jana worlds of the Puranic system based upon the three supreme principles, Sat, Chit-Tapas, and Ananda; their base is Swar of the Veda, Mahar of the Upanishads and Puranas, the world of Truth. These four together make the fourfold fourth world and are described in the Rig Veda as the four supreme and secret seats, the source of the “four upper rivers”. (pg. 178)

Even for an informed reader these accounts might seem obscure. For those that practice sun gazing and are aware of the four celestial chakras that reside beyond the traditional chakras, Aurobindo’s interpretations are far from foreign. Interestingly, Aurobindo wrote these passages over one hundred years ago. He is not stingy with these colorful portrayals. The book is saturated with such accounts.

Secret of the Veda is more than scholarly explanations of ancient poems, it also accounts Sri Aurobindo’s mystical sojourns into worlds of consciousness that are somehow intrinsically tied to energies the sun, and in that respect he is nothing less than a precisioned explorer.



Book format :

Free PDF:

1. Linguistic Relativity Boroditsky, L. 2006. Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science. Jan 15 2006

In the same study, German and Spanish speakers looked at picture pairs. Each pair included a picture of a person and a picture of an object. The participants rated how similar the two pictures were. There were no written labels, and participants did not speak during the task. Both Spanish and German speakers judged pairs to be more similar when the grammatical gender of the object matched the biological sex of the person in the picture. A pair consisting of a bridge and a man, for example, seemed quite similar to a Spanish speaker but not similar at all to a German speaker.


2. Numerical Mechanisms and Children’s Concept of Numbers (MIT library) Saxe, G. B. (1982). The development of measurement operations among the Oksapmin of Papua New Guinea. Child Development, 53, 1242-1248.

3. Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã Another Look at the Design Features of Human Language. Daniel L. Everett; 2010.


4. The Thaayorre think of time like they talk of space Alice Gaby, Front. Psychol., 28 August 2012.

5. How Language Shapes Thought The languages we speak affect our perceptions of the world
Lera Boroditsky Scientific America Feb 2011

6. Metaphoric structuring: understanding time through spatial metaphors (1999) Lera Boroditsky Cognition 75 (2000) pg. 15

7. The Desk Encyclopedia of Microbiology Moaelio Schaechter, Academic Press Dec 11 2003

8. Here is the link to survey. You can request the stats clicking the contact tab.

Addition references:

9. Does Language Affect Personality Perception? A Functional Approach to Testing the Whorfian Hypothesis, Chen, Sylvia Xiaohua,:;Benet-Martínez, Verónica ;Ng, Jacky C. K. Journal of Personality June 2013

10. Exact and Approximate Arithmetic in an Amazonian Indigene Group. Pica et al, Science 15 Oct 2004:Vol. 306, Issue 5695, pp. 499-503 DOI: 10.1126/science.1102085

Abstract Is calculation possible without language? Or is the human ability for arithmetic dependent on the language faculty? To clarify the relation between language and arithmetic, we studied numerical cognition in speakers of Mundurukú, an Amazonian language with a very small lexicon of number words. Although the Mundurukú lack words for numbers beyond 5, they are able to compare and add large approximate numbers that are far beyond their naming range. However, they fail in exact arithmetic with numbers larger than 4 or 5. Our results imply a distinction between a nonverbal system of number approximation and a language-based counting system for exact number and arithmetic.

11. Language may indeed influence thought. Zlatev J, Blomberg J. Frontiers in Psychology. 2015;6:1631.    doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01631.

We discuss four interconnected issues that we believe have hindered investigations into how language may affect thinking. These have had a tendency to reappear in the debate concerning linguistic relativity over the past  decades, despite numerous empirical findings. The first is the claim that it is impossible to disentangle language from thought, making the question concerning “influence” pointless. The second is the argument that it is impossible to disentangle language from culture in general, and from social interaction in particular, so it is impossible to attribute any differences in the thought patterns of the members of different cultures to language per se. The third issue is the objection that methodological and empirical problems defeat all but the most trivial version of the thesis of linguistic influence: that language gives new factual information. The fourth is the assumption that since language can potentially influence thought from “not at all” to “completely,” the possible forms of linguistic influence can be placed on a cline, and competing theories can be seen as debating the actual position on this cline. We analyze these claims and show that the first three do not constitute in-principle  objections against the validity of the project of investigating linguistic influence on thought, and that the last one is not the best way to frame the empirical challenges at hand. While we do not argue for any specific theory or mechanism for linguistic influence on thought, our discussion and the reviewed literature show that such influence is clearly possible, and hence in need of further investigations

12. Does the World Look Different in Different Languages? Ernest Davis Dept. of Computer Science New York University [email protected] April 6, 2016


Languages differ dramatically in the number of words that they possess. Some languages have only “black” and “white”; some have “black”, “white”, and “red”; some have “black”, “white”, “red”, and “yellow” and so on. Moreover, languages draw the boundaries between the basic color words along different boundaries in the spectrum. The theory of color words is quite complicated and imperfectly understood, and the history of the theory of color   words is very complicated; more than half of Deutscher’s book is an account of this history. I will discuss some of this in section 2.1. However, only a small part of this discussion is actually Neo-Whorfian. The strongest Neo- Whorfian result on color discussed in the two books1 (McWhorter (p. 7) describes it as “top-class”) is an  experiment reported by Winawer et al. [6] Russian has no word corresponding to the English “blue”; the word “goluboj” means light blue, and the word “siniy” means dark blue. Experimental subjects were shown a sequence of tableaux consisting of one blue square on top and two blue squares on the bottom and were instructed to see   which of the bottom squares were the identical color as the top square. Russian speakers were faster, by 124 milliseconds on average, at carrying out the task when the non-matching pair crossed the boundary between goluboj and siniy; English speakers showed no such effect. Moreover, if subjects were asked to do this task while carrying out an interfering task, such as reciting a random string of numbers they had memorized, then the difference between Russian and English speakers disappeared, validating that the difference was indeed due to the language facility being engaged. The experiment is pretty much indisputable evidence for an effect of language on a non-linguistic cognitive task. However, as McWhorter justly observes, a 124 millisecond difference in matching colors hardly amounts to seeing the world differently. The question is whether this small measurement is all the difference that there is between the color perception of Russian vs. English speakers, or whether it is the experimentally verifiable tip of a much larger iceberg

13. Language affects patterns of brain activation associated with perceptual decision
Li Hai Tan, Alice H. D. Chan, Paul Kay, Pek-Lan Khong, Lawrance K. C. Yip, and Kang-Kwong Luke
PNAS 2008 105: 4004-4009.

Well over half a century ago, Benjamin Lee Whorf [Carroll JB (1956) Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA)] proposed that language affects perception and thought and is used to segment nature, a hypothesis that has since been tested by linguistic and behavioral studies. Although clear Whorfian effects have been found, it has not yet been demonstrated that language influences brain activity associated with perception and/or immediate postperceptual processes (referred hereafter as “perceptual decision”). Here, by using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we show that brain regions mediating language processes participate in neural networks activated by perceptual decision. When subjects performed a perceptual discrimination task on easy-to-name and hard-to-name colored squares, largely overlapping cortical regions were identified, which included areas of the occipital cortex critical for color vision and regions in the bilateral frontal gyrus. Crucially, however, in comparison with hard-to-name colored squares, perceptual discrimination of easy-to- name colors evoked stronger activation in the left posterior superior temporal gyrus and inferior parietal lobule, two regions responsible for word-finding processes, as demonstrated by a localizer experiment that uses an  explicit color patch naming task. This finding suggests that the language-processing areas of the brain are directly involved in visual perceptual decision, thus providing neuroimaging support for the Whorf hypothesis.


14. Sapir, Reichenbach, and the Syntax of tense in Pirahha Daniel Everett May 1992   the_syntax_of_tense_in_Piraha/links/57af52c008aeb2cf17c26d2f.pdf