You Are What You Speak

August 31, 2010

Note: Its been brought to my attention (Hi Laura) that not everybody enjoys reading about Harry Potter. all. the. time.  So here’s something else that’s been on my mind recently.

I stumbled on this fascinating analysis of the way language affects perception in the New York Times this weekend. I find the study of languages fascinating and have often wished to be ploylingual.  In fact, I’ve never become completely fluent in another language but, through many years of education, I have studied Spanish, Latin, Italian and Dutch.  I’ve often thought that languages are affected by culture (for example the punctuality oriented Dutch ask about temporality not by asking “What time is it?” but by asking how late it is: “Hoe laat is het?”) but this article suggests that perhaps the reverse is also true.  Our perceptions, both personal and cultural, are affected by our language.

Although the author, Guy Deutscher, discounts Benjamin Lee Whorf’s theory (first published in 1940) that mother tongue languages can restrict the way people think, he does point out many ways in which our perceptions are shaped by our native languages.  For example:

German bridge is feminine (die Brücke), for instance, but el puente is masculine in Spanish; […] When speakers were asked to grade various objects on a range of characteristics, Spanish speakers deemed bridges, clocks and violins to have more “manly properties” like strength, but Germans tended to think of them as more slender or elegant. With objects like mountains or chairs, which are “he” in German but “she” in Spanish, the effect was reversed.

Thats a limited example that most people who have studied a romance language can relate to.  Here’s a more extreme one – A “remote Australian aboriginal tongue, Guugu Yimithirr” differs from English (and most other languages) in its use of directions.  Instead of explaining that something is to the left or coming towards yourself, a native Guugu Yimithirr speaker uses cardinal directions:

To tell you where exactly they left something in your house, they’ll say, “I left it on the southern edge of the western table.” Or they would warn you to “look out for that big ant just north of your foot.” Even when shown a film on television, they gave descriptions of it based on the orientation of the screen. If the television was facing north, and a man on the screen was approaching, they said that he was “coming northward.”

This has a huge effect on they way its speakers think about their surroundings (and they way remember them).  Deutscher describes a child from one village, a gifted dancer, who is sent to another village to study dance but is completely frustrated because the instructions “take three steps Northward” feel disorienting in his new surroundings.

In order to speak a language like Guugu Yimithirr, you need to know where the cardinal directions are at each and every moment of your waking life. You need to have a compass in your mind that operates all the time, day and night, without lunch breaks or weekends off, since otherwise you would not be able to impart the most basic information or understand what people around you are saying. Indeed, speakers of geographic languages seem to have an almost-superhuman sense of orientation. Regardless of visibility conditions, regardless of whether they are in thick forest or on an open plain, whether outside or indoors or even in caves, whether stationary or moving, they have a spot-on sense of direction. They don’t look at the sun and pause for a moment of calculation before they say, “There’s an ant just north of your foot.” They simply feel where north, south, west and east are, just as people with perfect pitch feel what each note is without having to calculate intervals.

Another interesting example of the way language effects reality:

For instance, some languages, like Matses in Peru, oblige their speakers, like the finickiest of lawyers, to specify exactly how they came to know about the facts they are reporting. You cannot simply say, as in English, “An animal passed here.” You have to specify, using a different verbal form, whether this was directly experienced (you saw the animal passing), inferred (you saw footprints), conjectured (animals generally pass there that time of day), hearsay or such. If a statement is reported with the incorrect “evidentiality,” it is considered a lie. So if, for instance, you ask a Matses man how many wives he has, unless he can actually see his wives at that very moment, he would have to answer in the past tense and would say something like “There were two last time I checked.” After all, given that the wives are not present, he cannot be absolutely certain that one of them hasn’t died or run off with another man since he last saw them, even if this was only five minutes ago. So he cannot report it as a certain fact in the present tense.

Check the link to the full article here, or read the whole book: “Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages,” out this month.  I’m reserving it at my library.

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