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It’s a Langue Story - Can Language Shape The Way We Think?

You are reading this article on the Contrarian Website, with a screen in front of you. Each sentence you read is composed of words coming together to convey some meaning. Further, every set of words is made of amalgamations of letters from the English alphabet. As you go on reading, each word leaves behind a trail of thoughts, which, in turn, leave footprints of perspective as they come and go. Thus, by reading a set of words and sentences, thoughts similar to the ones racing through my mind, as I write this, or perhaps slightly different ones, are triggered in yours. Amazing, isn’t it?

A Word’s Worth

We owe the credit for this miracle to a magical thing called language. We all crossed paths with language for the first time as babies, as we uttered our first words. Later on, as we took our first steps into the realm of education, we were acquainted with the Alphabet consisting of 26 letters, and further, with the myriad of combinations we can use it in. As language evolved, it was no longer seen as a mere bridge through which one would ferry their thoughts to others. People eventually started writing stories, tugging at the core of human sensitivity. As we discovered the concept of rhyme, the world of poetry opened its doors. At first, language was only seen as a medium to express one’s preconceived thoughts and feelings, though the method one implemented to do so, varied. Think of it as a ship, carrying goods and transporting them from one place (in this case, person) to another. Language was perceived as the ship through which to send your thoughts, emotions, feelings and opinions, the goods; to others.

However, with the passage of time, the question that has become an object of particular intrigue for linguists, neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists worldwide is whether language shapes the way we think; whether the languages which we had, thus far, regarded as mere mediums of communication, are potent enough to manipulate the very contents they carry. This debate found its way into research papers and articles, journals and linguistic discussions as each expert left his two cents on the issue. The matter first saw the light of day as American linguists tried to interpret Native American languages. They discovered various aspects setting Native American tongues apart from the likes of English, German, Latin and Greek. Novel sounds never heard before in any European language; grammatical structures conveying the shape of the object and evidentiality influencing the syntax brought them to the conclusion that such peculiar linguistic formats influence the minds of the speakers.

The American linguist Edward Sapir remarked - “The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same worlds with different labels attached”.

For years, we believed that words serve as labels for thoughts, concepts and ideas; however Sapir and his fellow linguists posited not only that people speaking different languages perceive the world differently, but also that they can only perceive those aspects of the world that have corresponding words in their language.

Was there any truth to Sapir’s claim?

Sapir’s proposition can be tested within the domain of colour perception. Though we all perceive colours identically, the way we describe and classify what we see tends to differ. The number of basic and limited colour terms each language has is ignorable in comparison to the plethora of colours the human eye can veritably perceive. For instance, while the English language uses eleven basic colour terms; the Dani tribe originating in the Central Highlands of New Guinea classes the entire colour spectrum using either of these two terms - Mili, for cold colours and Mola, for warm ones.

Research, however, has found that having a binary colour classification does not act as a handicap for the tribe as they are able to distinguish between distinct colour tones just as efficiently. The binary colour classification highlights the fact that, in order to describe the colours they see, the Dani have to first detect whether a colour is cold or warm. Thus, we can infer that Sapir’s claim was only half-right. While language does not impose restrictions on the speaker’s ability to perceive worldly concepts, it does drive his attention towards certain specific physical and cultural aspects of his environment, which differ according to the language spoken.

The Boroditsky Breakthrough

In 2009, Lera Boroditsky, an assistant professor of Cognitive Psychology, Neuroscience and Symbolic Systems at the Stanford University, along with her collaborator Alice Gaby, came up with research instigating new breakthroughs in the world of linguistics that further fanned the flames of the issue at hand. Her curiosity led her to Northern Australia, where she visited Pormpuraaw, a small aboriginal community in Cape York. The inhabitants of this community, the Kuuk Thaayorre, have a different way of looking at and talking about space.

Where the Anglophones use words like left, right, forward and back; the aboriginal community is more precise; using cardinal direction terms - north, south, east and west, to define space. Yes, even in everyday conversations! Imagine enquiring about an exit and being told, ‘The exit to your north-west’! Or someone asking you to ‘shift to the east’ as you wait in a queue! Moreover, the Kuuk Thayorre’s custom greeting is ‘Where are you going?’; to which one is expected to respond with the exact direction in which they are headed. Thus, those incognisant of cardinal directions cannot even say the customary hello to their fellow humans. Bizarre as it may seem, this peculiarity translates into heightened spatial abilities for the community as they are adept at keeping track of where they are, even in unknown surroundings. This spatial knowledge further adds to their ability to discern concepts like musical pitch, time and number. This was tested by Boroditsky as she presented the Kuuk Thaayorre with pictures showing temporal progression, for instance, of a man ageing. When asked to arrange them in chronological order; an English or Arabic speaker would arrange them from left to right or vice versa, respectively. With the Kuuk Thaayorre, however, Boroditsky found a pattern that might, at first, look random. They arranged the pictures from east to west, a pattern that changed with the person’s direction.

Boroditsky also found differences in the way language dictates colour perception. She pointed out that the Russians have two distinct words for dark blue (siniy) and light blue (goluboy); which the English speaking world considers shades of the same primary colour. Consequently, Russian speakers are quicker to distinguish between various shades of the same hue since they are called by different names. Also, when Russians notice colours moving on the spectrum from goluboy to siniy shades of blue, a reaction of surprise is kindled in their brains, a phenomenon missing in native anglophones.

Another aspect of language that is riveting to Boroditsky is grammatical gender. Languages like French, German, Spanish and even Hindi assign binary genders to things like chairs, keys and bridges. While a key is feminine in French, it is masculine in German. Does this seemingly negligible difference affect the way the Germans and the French perceive keys?

The answer, surprisingly, is yes. If you ask German speakers to describe keys, they would use adjectives like ‘jagged’, ‘hard’, ‘serrated’ and ‘heavy’; while across the border, the French use words like ‘shiny’, ‘little’, ‘lovely’, ‘intricate’ and ‘tiny’. Similarly, 85% of the time, language influences whether an artist paints a personified concept as male or female.

In Conclusion

While earlier, little was known about the effects of language on thought and perception; research has now provided noteworthy insight into the matter. Language, once seen as a medium to describe reality, has turned out to act as the pair of tinted glasses through which we perceive reality. The fact that seemingly minor grammatical flukes like gender can affect artistic œuvres points towards the fact that a new language is the veritable flying carpet, waiting to welcome us into ‘a whole new world’.

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