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The language filter

I’ve become very interested in the way that language, as expressive as it is, can also be limiting. Yes, we’ve come up with words that express the concepts and emotions of our minds, but the way a language is constructed forces the users of the language to think in certain ways.

Take the case of how English treats verbs. Verbs are placed in time. She is sitting. She sat. In Indonesia, you can’t do this. Well, you can sit, but you can’t describe whether it was a while ago or whether it’s now. In Russian, you would change the verb depending on the gender of the person doing the sitting. In Turkish, an additional change is made to the verb depending on whether you observed this person sitting or whether you obtained your information from a third party. Do these subtle differences in how describe actions change the way we think about the actions or do the differences come about because we think differently in different cultures?

Another interesting difference is the case of space, time and causality. Fully a third of all the world’s languages rely on absolute directions in space. In these languages, the concepts of ‘left’ and ‘right’ are foreign. Instead, if you ask the people from the remote aboriginal Pormpuraaw tribe in Australia where they are going, they will tell you, for instance,  “Just a short way north-northwest.” What is even more interesting is that speakers of these types of languages can keep themselves orientated and navigate extremely well, even in unfamiliar environments, to an extent originally thought beyond human capabilities.

Looking at perception of time, we can again see differences in how languages approach this. In one experiment, participants were asked to arrange a series of photos showing temporal progressions (a man at different ages, a banana being eaten, etc) in the correct temporal order.  Each person was tested twice, each time facing a different cardinal direction. When English speakers did this, they arranged the photos from left to right. Hebrew speakers did this from right to left, because Hebrew is written from right to left. The Pormpuraaw people arranged time from east to west. If they were facing north, they would arrange the photos right to left, and when facing south, left to right. The Pormpuraawans were at no point told which cardinal they were facing. They just knew it. In Mandarin the past is below and the future above while in the South American language Aymara, the past is behind, the future in front.

Language can also influence how we do or don’t ascribe blame. English tends to describe events in terms of agents acting on things. For instance, English speakers will say “John spilt the glass of water”, even if the action is accidental, while Spanish or Japanese speakers will more likely say “the glass spilt the water”.  No blame game there. You can see how different way of describing events could influence how people think about causality and blame. Perhaps in a court case an eyewitness’s cultural background and mother-tongue could influence the way they witnessed the events and where they believed the blame should be laid?

So, does the way we think change the way we speak or is it the other way around? It’s probably a reinforcing cycle. What I find a lot more intriguing is how much more we may be able to expand the way we see the world if we spoke a number of different languages.

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