Does Language Shape Thought?

language-shapes-thought.fw_ Does Language Shape Thought?Our mother tongue does not have power over our minds, but does it influence how we perceive reality, or relate to one another?

Take for instance the formal or informal form of address. In English, You fits all, but in Spanish there are choices: the formal Usted and the informal (or vos in countries that have embraced the informal voceo). Not having to choose the form that you will use when approaching a stranger or someone older, or in a higher position, does make approaching people quicker and more spontaneous in English than in Spanish, for instance.

The unique properties of Slavic verbs of motion baffle not only students of the languages but also linguists. For example, if you ask a student how he or she gets to school in Russian, the answer will tell you whether he or she uses transportation or simply walks. Я иду в школу, implies that he or she walks to school, and  Я еду в школу, says that the student uses some mode of transportation. Russian motion verbs also make a distinction between going in one direction and setting out (я иду; я еду) and making trips back and forth (я хожу; я езжу). I imagine this saves some time at the ticket booth… There are many more interesting idiosyncrasies of Slavic motion verbs that are beyond the scope of this article.

How cultures view the passing of time is also reflected in language. A student from Argentina may tell you that he or she has “homework to do this evening”, but an American student is likely to quantify the time that the task will take: “I have about two hours of homework to do.” This difference may seem irrelevant, unless you consider that in America, time is very valuable and, when time passes without decisions being made or actions being performed, it is wasted. Punctuality is very important to Germans, Swiss, British and Americans for instance, but other cultures, like Spanish, Italians and Arabs, place more importance on human transactions than the passing of time, so they may ignore time if it means that conversations will be left unfinished.

The use or lack of genders also influence human interaction. In America, if your teenage daughter asks permission to go to the movies with a friend, most likely you will ask if the friend is a boy or a girl. But that would not be necessary in France, where she would have said amie for girl and ami for boy.

Modern English is a “natural gender” language. Pronouns are gender specific, but nouns do not have gender as they do in languages like French, German and Spanish, to name a few. Actually, Old English did have grammatical genders. There was a masculine article “se” and a feminine article “seo”. The sun was feminine, “sēo sunne” and if you referred to the sun, you would even say “she”.  Professor Anne Curzan, of the University of Michigan, author of books on language, suggests that genders were lost when the languages of Northern England mixed together: Old English and Old Norse. Both of these had gender, but sometimes they contradicted each other so, to simplify communication, gendered nouns disappeared about the 1200’s.

However, although English nouns do not have genders, we often assign genders to inanimate objects, like ships, countries, cars. For example in the lyrics of God Bless America, our country is a “she”:

God bless America, land that I love

Stand beside her and guide her

Through the night with the light from above

Although USN ships that named after people often have men’s names, the ship is referred to as “she”. We also refer to our cars as “she”.

Often, the gender of nouns in different gendered languages contradict each other. Car is a masculine noun in Spanish: el automóvil, but a feminine noun in French: la voiture. A bridge is masculine in Spanish (el puente) and French (le ponte), but feminine in German (die Brücke). One might wonder whether the design of cars and bridges was in any way influenced by the gender assigned to them. A cartoon animator giving a voice to a fork, would have to make a choice between a male or female voice. A fork is masculine in Spanish (el tenedor), but feminine in French (la fourchette).

Different cultures also assign different meanings to colors. In French, one turns green from fear (vert de peur), but in America you tend to turn pale and we think of pale as white, gray or yellow. A wedding dress is most likely while in America, but in China it tends to be red. In America the color of mourning is black, but in Nepal it is white.

If you are lost and ask for directions, sometimes you will be told to go right or left and others to go East or West. These are cardinal directions. However, if you are looking for an item inside your home, for instance, you will may be asked to look at the right corner of the table, the drawer on your left or the chair that is in back of you. These are relative directions. Unless you speak a remote Australian aboriginal tongue Guugu Yimithirr or another geographic language. Then you will have to know where your North, South, East and West coordinates are at all times as if you had a compass implanted in your mind. You see, the Guugu Yimithirr, do not use relative directions, so they would tell you to look for that misplaced item north of you, for instance, while precisely pointing to the North. Guugu Yimithirr is not the only known geographic language, there are a few scattered from Polynesia to Mexico, from Namibia to Bali. Needless to say, people who speak geographic languages have a heightened sense or orientation. I suppose they would not be very likely to need a GPS to find their way around…

When asked to arrange items in order, members of the geographical languages community tend to arrange them from East to West, while we would arrange them from left to right. Interestingly, Hebrew speakers will arrange them from right to left, in the direction of Hebrew script.

These are some instances that illustrate how language may influence the way we interact with one another and see the world around us. No doubt, there are many more.