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Echoes and Mirrors» Blog Archive » Language and Thought

Language and Thought

HOW DOES OUR LANGUAGE SHAPE THE WAY WE THINK?

Most questions of whether and how language shapes thought start with the simple observation that languages differ from one another. And a lot! Let’s take a (very) hypothetical example. Suppose you want to say, “Bush read Chomsky’s latest book.” Let’s focus on just the verb, “read.” To say this sentence in English, we have to mark the verb for tense; in this case, we have to pronounce it like “red” and not like “reed.” In Indonesian you need not (in fact, you can’t) alter the verb to mark tense. In Russian you would have to alter the verb to indicate tense and gender. So if it was Laura Bush who did the reading, you’d use a different form of the verb than if it was George. In Russian you’d also have to include in the verb information about completion. If George read only part of the book, you’d use a different form of the verb than if he’d diligently plowed through the whole thing. In Turkish you’d have to include in the verb how you acquired this information: if you had witnessed this unlikely event with your own two eyes, you’d use one verb form, but if you had simply read or heard about it, or inferred it from something Bush said, you’d use a different verb form.

Clearly, languages require different things of their speakers. Does this mean that the speakers think differently about the world? Do English, Indonesian, Russian, and Turkish speakers end up attending to, partitioning, and remembering their experiences differently just because they speak different languages? For some scholars, the answer to these questions has been an obvious yes. Just look at the way people talk, they might say. Certainly, speakers of different languages must attend to and encode strikingly different aspects of the world just so they can use their language properly.

Scholars on the other side of the debate don’t find the differences in how people talk convincing. All our linguistic utterances are sparse, encoding only a small part of the information we have available. Just because English speakers don’t include the same information in their verbs that Russian and Turkish speakers do doesn’t mean that English speakers aren’t paying attention to the same things; all it means is that they’re not talking about them. It’s possible that everyone thinks the same way, notices the same things, but just talks differently.

Fascinating essay. I think it especially important to note that they took an a priori philosophical thought and went about using empirical science to back it up. This magical overlap of philosophy and cognitive linguistics is what I hope to focus my studies on one day. My love of rhetoric probably has something to do with it.

I suspect that a whole bunch of parallels can be made about given cultural item x in relation to the native language. Economics, religion and politics especially.

Perhaps a study involving sexual reaction to sentence structure and grammar use will earn me a Nobel one day? Does using an active voice while speaking drop panties faster, or does the content/intent of an utterance make the difference? I’ll take that Guggenheim now, thank you.

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