Languages speak as windows to world
As globalization and communication overwhelms local cultures, what will become of all our languages? In colonial times, the dominant powers often banned the speaking of native tongues. It’s a power thing. Yyou are one of us now and you will speak our language only!” Not so long ago, children in Wales received beatings for speaking Welsh in school.
People identify strongly with their native language. It is part of their history and culture. Recent ideas suggest it may be even more, and giving it up is like losing part of your soul. Those fluent in many languages compare it to possessing a collection of souls, with each language imparting its own unique view of the world. You are what you speak.
Since the 1960s most cognitive scientists dismissed this as romanticism. The traditional view held that language is a tool like a pen, universally hard wired into our brains, and changing the style of pen doesn’t affect the writing content. The world remains objectively the same regardless of which language you use to describe it. How could languages affect how you think?
Easy! Different languages require the user to notice different things about the world, and what you notice becomes important. In English, we can address someone with relatively little thought. Spanish speakers need to decide how well they know someone, “tu” or “usted.” Japanese need to consider their age, the age of the person they’re talking to, gender and relative social status. This is one reason the Japanese exchange business cards when meeting; it gives answers to some of the above questions.
In English, we think of position in relative terms, like “next to the tree.” One-third of the world’s languages use absolute terms for position, such as “north of the tree,” or “the seaward side of the tree.” These people will always know where north is, as they couldn’t talk without it. This alters their awareness of the world.
English speakers are always bemused by the arbitrary male or female gender of foreign language words. Why is the word for “door” feminine and “bra” masculine? There is no consistency between languages. The “sun” is neutral in Russian, feminine in German and masculine in Spanish. Does this continual thinking of gender alter how people think?
Lera Boroditsky of MIT presented Spanish and German speakers with nouns that have opposite genders in their languages and then asked for adjectives to describe these nouns. Two words she chose were “key” (feminine in Spanish and male in German) and “bridge” (female in German and male in Spanish).
The Germans described bridges as “beautiful, fragile, elegant” and keys as “awkward, worn and jagged.” The Spanish described bridges as “big, sturdy, solid, sturdy, strong” and keys as “lovely, intricate and little.”
To Boroditsky, these are gender-laden adjectives and the arbitrary male-female prefix to a noun has affected how it is perceived. It would be interesting to see if bridge design differs between the two countries.
Perhaps the biggest effect of language on our perception of the world is how news is conveyed. Almost everything we know about the world comes through language, and it might be wrong to assume that the same description conveys the same message regardless of language.
English, for instance, uses very descriptive action verbs. We “walk,” “trot,” “stride,” “stumble,” “amble,” etc. Our verbs provide a very detailed image of how that action took place. French and Spanish usually use simpler action verbs like “go,” then if needed add a few words to describe how the person moved, i.e. “while running.” Often they don’t bother and as a result how something happened becomes less important than in an active verb language like English, Dutch or Russian. Bilingual speakers comment that the news seems full of energy and more violent when presented in English, as opposed to French.
If this idea that languages do affect how we see the world is true, then they are more valuable than we thought. Each language provides a window to other cultures and diversity to human thought. Consultants are always telling us to think outside our (American-English) box. Somewhere, someone in a strange tongue is.
The new colonialism of globalization threatens this diversity of thought and culture. In the next century, half the world’s 6,000 languages will disappear under this mainstream flood. Diversity is a good thing, but we’re losing it in our business world, biological world and cultural world. Pretty soon we’ll only be speaking basic MTVglish.
“They have been at a great feast of languages, and stolen the scraps.” – Shakespeare
Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.
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