Monday, September 6, 2010

How Language Affects Thought

I have long had a layman’s interest in linguistics, which seems inherently fascinating. Anyone who has ever beheld a child learning her native language through observation and trial-and-error will appreciate the complexity and magnificence of this apparently effortless achievement. Grammar is so illogical and yet inflexible that specialists have great difficulty trying to impose a set of rules describing it. Yet a toddler quickly learns — usually through simple modeling and no direct instruction — to replace logical expressions such as “I falled down” or “I want meats for dinner” with their standard versions. Ah, if only we could soak up new languages in adulthood half as well as we all did as babies!

Long ago, I watched a NOVA program in which a speaker of Basque repeated the same pair of words, which had separate meanings and sounds to her, and could not, for the life of me, hear the difference. The point of the program was how we are born being able to hear and to say all the sounds of every language but, in true use-it-or-lose-it fashion, unused neurons are gradually pruned away until we can only hear the sounds of our own language(s). So, adult Japanese learning English will say “Ros Angeres” not because they cannot say the “L” sound, but because they cannot hear the difference. (Presumably, a speech therapist can teach us to form sounds properly, just as profoundly deaf people can learn to speak understandably.) Similarly, a non-native English speaker might be unable to distinguish between the spoken phrases “that’s tough” and “that stuff,” although a native speaker will be able to without the help of any context.

Back in the 1980s, I enjoyed the theory behind Robert Logan’s book The Alphabet Effect. Building on the ideas of Marshall McLuhan and Harold Innis, he asserted that the phonetic alphabets of Western cultures, as opposed to the ideographic writing of the Chinese, both enabled and encouraged the development of deductive reasoning, abstract thought, and empirical science. Think of the implications of needing only a few dozen characters to write down anything, rather than needing new symbols for every single idea. Logan believes that, because Chinese characters are analogs of the words they represent, the Chinese are conditioned to reason by analogy. Westerners, using “meaningless” symbols (letters) to express ideas, are more likely and able to express them without space or time contexts — that is, as universal truths. This notion of “objectivity” is the beginning of the scientific method. The alphabet even gave us a handy way to begin to classify data (by alphabetizing), and classification systems are absolutely necessary in order to manipulate large amounts of data effectively. The concrete and practical nature of Chinese writing and thought made them terrific inventors. The abstract and theoretical nature of Western writing and thought made for better transfer and wider application of inventions.

Who knows whether any of this is true, but it is certainly thought-provoking. It indicates how much of what we find “natural” or “intuitive” is actually based in culture.

A recent New York Times article, “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?” by Guy Deutscher, expands upon the idea that the particular features of our native language may not constrain what we can think about, but they do change our habits of thought by obliging us to think, often, about something. An obvious example is that English requires us to specify, using tenses, when an event occurred — thus making us habitually take note of time, which has obvious implications for scientific research. Many languages (Spanish, French, German, Russian), unlike English, assign gender to everything — and “various experiments have shown that grammatical genders can shape the feelings and associations of speakers toward objects around them.”

But the concept that was new to me, and so truly intriguing, is that languages differ strikingly in how they describe our orientation in space. I was aware that, in general in our culture, women tend to give directions in terms of landmarks and men in terms of cardinal or geographic directions (north, south, east, west). Once Deutscher mentioned it, it was also obvious that we tend to use geographic directions in wide-open spaces but egocentric coordinates (right, left, in front, behind) in small-scale spaces. But it had never occurred to me that languages might exist (among aborigines in Australia, Bali, Namibia, Polynesia, and Mexico) that have no words for or concepts of egocentric orientation. People who can only describe location in compass directions must therefore pay close attention, at all times, to subtle cues to geographic orientation, as well as constantly noting in memory any changes in their own position. And they do! Whether in a strange landscape, in poor visibility, inside a cave, or even referring to something on a television screen, they can instantly and accurately ascribe geographic orientation to what they see. They cannot explain how they know, they just do, even though this skill seems superhuman. Their speech is full of references to position; they could not possibly tell a story without constant notations of the positions of people and things and actions.

How do you imagine this affects other habits of mind? Do you suppose it makes them less egocentric? I bet they’d make terrific explorers on Mars, where the lack of magnetic poles makes compasses useless!

Another really remarkable linguistic difference is illustrated by the Matses language of Peru, whose speakers must always specify in great detail how they came to know any facts they report. Did they experience something directly, hear it from someone else, infer it from evidence, guess it based on past experience or general knowledge? They would never say the truth of a statement “depends on what your definition of the word ‘is’ is.” Any assertion that does not nail down the evidence for it is considered a lie. What fantastic lawyers they’d make! Or medieval theologians.…