Does language shape how we think?

I don’t believe much in this article is especially new or provocative, which makes sense as I see it was published back in 2010. Still, it’s interesting and well-written, so let’s revisit it now: Does Your Language Shape How You Think?

SINCE THERE IS NO EVIDENCE that any language forbids its speakers to think anything, we must look in an entirely different direction to discover how our mother tongue really does shape our experience of the world. Some 50 years ago, the renowned linguist Roman Jakobson pointed out a crucial fact about differences between languages in a pithy maxim: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” This maxim offers us the key to unlocking the real force of the mother tongue: if different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.

Thus, French or German require us to specify the gender of someone such as a neighbor or visitor or a tourist or whomever, whereas English obviously does not. So if you grow up speaking a gendered language, you’re compelled to think about the gender of all these people whenever you refer to them. This is a familiar example, but this next one I didn’t know:

[In English] I have to decide whether we dined, have been dining, are dining, will be dining and so on. Chinese, on the other hand, does not oblige its speakers to specify the exact time of the action in this way, because the same verb form can be used for past, present or future actions. Again, this does not mean that the Chinese are unable to understand the concept of time. But it does mean they are not obliged to think about timing whenever they describe an action.

The article then goes back to gendered languages and the way a masculine noun for “violin” makes people talk about the strength of the instrument, whereas a feminine noun inclines people to consider violins elegant and slender.

Also this:

Guugu Yimithirr doesn’t make any use of egocentric coordinates at all. The anthropologist John Haviland and later the linguist Stephen Levinson have shown that Guugu Yimithirr does not use words like “left” or “right,” “in front of” or “behind,” to describe the position of objects. Whenever we would use the egocentric system, the Guugu Yimithirr rely on cardinal directions. If they want you to move over on the car seat to make room, they’ll say “move a bit to the east.” 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.”

And naturally this means people who grow up speaking languages with geographic coordinates have a constantly running compass in their heads. Wouldn’t that be handy! I know I wouldn’t have been lost on a few uncomfortable occasions if English used geographic instead of egocentric coordinates.

Fun stuff! My actual favorite would be the languages that make you specify how sure you are about things and why — on the fly, as you speak. I do wonder how much more clear we’d all be in our thoughts, if we had to be this clear in our speech.

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3 thoughts on “Does language shape how we think?”

  1. I’m told the Irish language has no word for ‘no.’
    Which you’d think would result in a culture that raises very spoiled children ;)
    Apparently, they phrase their responses in a negative manner (roundaboutation?), but there’s no “short-and-sweet” two letter word.

  2. Penric sequel to Mira’s last dance is out. It has a very nice self referential comment, about ‘blessings of the white God,’ meaning ‘ridiculous coincidence necessary in high comedy.’

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