August 27, 2010

"Does Your Language Shape How You Think?"

Guy Deutscher proposes in the New York Times Magazine a commonsensical compromise on the old Sapir-Whorf controversy that differences in language ("Eskimos have a 100 different words for 'snow!'") force different ways of thinking. (I've noticed that skiers have a lot of different words for snow, such as "corn.")

This has become very unfashionable in recent years. But Deutscher points out that: "Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey." So, English can expand to meet the needs of skiers and, now, snowboarders (who seem to have some different terms for snow than skiers), but English speakers don't have to worry about, say, whether snow is masculine or feminine.

Thus, Frenchmen tend to strike Englishmen as having gender on the brain all the time. (And maybe, to some extent, they do.)

Some Australian Aboriginal languages don't have terms like "right" or "left." Instead, speakers use absolute directions at all times: "East" or "West."

Presumably, they only verbally teach each other line dances where everybody is facing the same direction. Would they be flummoxed by trying to teach a dance where people stand in a circle like the Hokey-Pokey?
You put your -- depending upon where you are facing -- north (east, south, or west) foot in,
You take your -- depending upon where you are facing -- north (east, south, or west) foot out.

Not surprisingly, Aborigines are famous for their sense of direction. In one experiment at an Australian preschool, when the children were asked to point in the direction of their homes, a majority of the Aboriginal tykes got it right, compared to a basically random number of the white toddlers.

That reminds me of how Adam Smith was kidnapped at age three by gypsies, but was soon rescued. His biographer wrote, "He would have made, I fear, a poor gypsy." In contrast, I think, at least in regard to speaking the language, I would have made a pretty fair Australian Aborigine. I think about direction all the time. My favorite R.E.M. song is Stand:
Stand in the place where you live
Now face North
Think about direction
Wonder why you haven't before
Now stand in the place where you work
Now face West
Think about the place where you live
Wonder why you haven't before

If you are confused, check with the sun
Carry a compass to help you along
Your feet are going to be on the ground
Your head is there to move you around, so

Stand in the place where you live
Now face North
Think about direction
Wonder why you haven't before

114 comments:

Anonymous said...

In my brain this REM song is forever associated with Chris Peterson, the 30 year old paperboy in "Get a Life." I always sing a few bars of this song to friends whenever they mention their loser adult children living in the basement after a divorce or a job loss.

Anonymous said...

Re: directions, the same is true for a lot of Indo-European languages, where right and left are often related to the words for south and north (ie, the default 'forward' in IE cultures was once east, not north). I can't find any references right this second, but in modern Welsh, the word for south is still identical with the word for right.

zxcvb said...

If you can only think in one language,or in languages that are structurally very similar, you are missing out on a lot of insight.

kurt9 said...

Why is it unfashionable to think that differences in languages result or reflect differences in thinking?

This notion of difference is obvious and intuitive to anyone who have traveled extensively or has lived as expat for long periods of time.

SFG said...

"In contrast, I think, at least in regard to speaking the language, I would have made a pretty fair Australian Aborigine."

"Hey, don't you think we should quit blaming the white man for everything and stop drinking all the time?"

-thwack- goes the boomerang

Paavo said...

You english speakers have sex all the time in your mind because you have he/she that sensible finnish doesn't.

I didn't read the article very carefully, but some assertions seemed pretty ridiculous, like that how you see a color painting would depend on the words your language has. Like if you didn't have a word for gray then you would see black and white pictures with absolute contrast.
...
It's the culture, not the language that shapes whether you think about left and right or south and north.

Well my ideas are mostly based on Steven Pinkers pop-science linguistics books.
...
But the gender thing, I guess can be significant. In Finland we just had an ex-minister bad mouthing one of his staff-members for mis-informing him. I read the news in finnish. Finnish readers tended to assume that the staff-member was a he, but fortunately the ex-minister had given the original interview in swedish (that has gender pronouns) so quickly commenters pointed out, that the ex-minister had referred her as she.

Anonymous said...

Surely you know that it is a total myth that Eskimos have an unusually large number of words for snow. They naturally have more such words than do many tropical languages, but no more than is typical for European or East Asian languages. Here is Wikipedia on the topic. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eskimo_words_for_snow

JeremiahJohnbalaya said...

I took an Art & Anthropology course at a shall-remain-unnamed-but-currently-the-focus-of-a-major-atheletic-scandal public university. The enteresting thing we learned about Eskimos was that their art didn't have a top and bottom. So, for instance, they might carve a figure out of a bone, but make it so that it could be placed in any number of positions. Or you could hand them a photograph and they wouldn't need to turn it right-side-up to look at it. Some of this was supposedly related to their lack of a written language.

We also learned about monkey art in that class.

And I wasn't a particularly dedicated student at the time, so any of the above could have been propoganda, false memories, or party-induced hallucinations.

adsfadfadfadf said...

People who know more than one language know this. I mean it is sooooo obvious.

Different languages FEEL differently, and feelings do color or influence thought.

The same is true of dialects within the same language. A person who speaks like an English gentleman, a person who speaks like a West Virginian hillbilly, and a person who speaks like a punkass rapper are all going to FEEL differently about themselves, other people, and the world. Their feelings will color their thought.
We can do this experiment ourselves. Spend the an half hour speaking like Foghorn Leghorn and then spend next half hour speaking like Speedy Gonzalez. You feel differently, thus you think differently, I say!
Si si, it seem so, loco duck!

Maybe Japanese tend to be rigid--not always but sometimes--in their thoughts because Japanese language is so geometrically carpenterish. It's all straight lines and edges but not much in the way of curves or springs.
Maybe Germans tend to be thickskulled at times because of their teutonic sauerkraut language. I can't imagine Hitler raging and ranting quite so effectively in French(well, maybe about cooking).
It could be French poetry and music tended to be lighter than the German because of the fluffy duff nature of the French tongue.

And it could be Jews have funny ideas about us cuz Yiddish long influenced their outlook. We are a bunch of schmucks to them.

JeremiahJohnbalaya said...

And the lyrics to the REM song reminded me of the Phish song Contact

The tires are the things on your card that make contact w/ the road

Anonymous said...

I don't think I am following you.

I have no problems distinguishing 'left' and 'sinister.'

Anonymous said...

Sailer, tell us how you got your doctor to prescribe you the medicinal marijuana...

Camlost said...

Well, white women are directionally challenged. Maybe it's genetic.

Every time I speak in terms of cardinal directions - North/South/East/West - when describing the location of something to my girlfriend she gets very wide-eyed and cannot seem to comprehend. It's comical.

Mikey said...

Anon #2 wrote:Re: directions, the same is true for a lot of Indo-European languages, where right and left are often related to the words for south and north (ie, the default 'forward' in IE cultures was once east, not north). I can't find any references right this second, but in modern Welsh, the word for south is still identical with the word for right.

The words for south and right are also very similar in both Scottish Gaelic and Irish, but I can't think of any examples outside the Celtic language group.

Wasn't East, specifically Jerusalem, at the top of European maps for centuries until the 1400's? Perhaps that is why the south was 'to the right' for whichever ancient Briton/Gael that decided the enduring word for 'south'?

Said said...

It may be out of fashion, but the left certainly knows it. That's why they go so far to alter the English language. If they can get the people to say reproductive rights instead of abortion, the the people think about abortion changes. Retarded has to be handicapped has to be mentally disabled, has to be person with a disability, became PWD. Are other languages so policed? If not, I would think they are more free in thought than badgered American English speakers. Has French for instance, gone through several rounds of words for black people, N- became negro, became colored, became black, became African American (the final word doesn't even make sense as a racial descriptor). They are struggling hard to take race out of the vocab for the reason that if you don't have a word for it, you won't think it. I doubt Arabic or Chinese suffer from this stuff. Steve is aware of it, per his "law of the ground" column, but in general I don't think the anti-left is proactive about trying to shape thought by shaping language. The right certainly hasn't been able to outlaw any words. I'm wondering if there has ever been such a move at any other time in history to take certain words out of usage. I know that conquerors forbid the use of the conquered language, but that's different than taking particular words out of use for the specific purpose of guiding thought.

dearieme said...

My wife has a wonderful sense of direction, and a remarkable memory for the lie of the land. She can lead me through a city that we've not visited for 30 years. But she can't tell left from right.

TD said...

Men have an innate sense of direction and spatial relations. North-South-East-West is always present in their brains to some extent. A man is generally aware of his relative location, even when he's not really consciously thinking about it.

For Michael Stipe, a gay man with a female's brain, thinking this way was apparently revelatory; like late-night-dorm-room epiphany stuff. "Think about direction, wonder why you haven't before" -- ? Er, speak for yourself, bud.

Anonymous said...

British comic Simon Munnery has the line...

"I'm fluent in 99 languages - 98 of them of my own devising!"

adsfasdasdf said...

Bill Cosby seems to think so.

Polistra said...

English is nearly unique in having semantic gender in pronouns, but no grammatical gender. Most of its relatives (Teutonic, Romance, Slavic) have grammatical gender which muddies up the picture, and most of the non-Indo-European languages don't represent gender at all.

Feminists who try to eliminate the gender from pronouns are missing this point. If feminists were right, then Persians and Chinese, who have no pronoun gender, would be the most perfect feminists, while Sweden and Denmark, with gender marked in every noun, would be among the worst places for "women's rights".

BamaGirl said...

"For Michael Stipe, a gay man with a female's brain, thinking this way was apparently revelatory; like late-night-dorm-room epiphany stuff. "Think about direction, wonder why you haven't before" -- ? Er, speak for yourself, bud."

Idk, I have known a few non-gay men with awful senses of direction. Of course they were all horribly lazy so I suppose that explains it.

Toadal said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
stari_momak said...

I never understood the need for 'port' and 'starboard' (i.e. why not just left and right) on a vessel until one day it hit me, they are always oriented to the vessel -- that is, a captain can be looking 'aft' to his helmsperson (looking 'foreward'), say 'hard to port', and the boat with go the right direction. I'm sure that little fact was written down somewhere, but it was an internally generated revelation to me.

Kylie said...

kurt9 said..."Why is it unfashionable to think that differences in languages result or reflect differences in thinking?"

Because differences in thinking might reflect differences in the ability to think. And differences in the ability to think might mean that we are not all equal.

And we can't have that, can we?

ironrailsironweights said...

My favorite language factoid is that during the 1500's and thereabouts, students from other European countries routinely would spend four or more years at Oxford or Cambridge and have active social lives, yet would never have to learn English. Everything was in Latin, socializing included.

Peter

James Kabala said...

"Men have an innate sense of direction and spatial relations. North-South-East-West is always present in their brains to some extent. A man is generally aware of his relative location, even when he's not really consciously thinking about it.

For Michael Stipe, a gay man..."

I think I'm secure enough in my masculinity to admit that I nearly always think only in terms of front/back/left/right. After living in the city where I currently live for several years, I finally did develop a decent north-south-west-east sense, but it was an acquired skill based on maps rather than innate knowledge.

Anonymous said...

@dearieme: My wife is the same way, with the uncanny (for a woman, anyway) sense of direction and no idea of right/left. Curious.

My reaction to the language / thought thing is reflected in Wittgenstein. Although I lived as an expatriate in Spain for many years as an adult and picked up the language (at least a locally idiosyncratic Andalusian variety of it) to the point of fluency, I don't in fact think it changed my way of thinking when I was speaking it.

What I think language does do to thought is this: it tricks one into habits of thought that are informed by structures in the language one is speaking...but only if one fails to be vigilant. I guess I therefore have a foot in both camps. I don't believe one thinks in a given language, and I think it's in fact obvious that thought must in fact precede linguistic notation. But I do believe that language can influence thought if one isn't careful.

(Sometimes one doesn't want to be careful, by the way. Poetic composition is an important example of this.)

Couchscientist said...

The article stated that gendering objects can interfere with recall, it didn't explain, but I imagine this is when they play a trick like having a boy hold x a feminine object and then later ask if the boy was holding y a masculine object. On the other hand, it probably makes it easier to remember in the opposite context. I would concede that gendering could have some drawbacks, but does it have advantages? My guess would be that giving gender to objects might help people form attachment with them. So, if your boat for instance is she, you might take better care of her and be more content when alone with her. Hypothesis could be easily proven with simple surveys: genderizing peoples should show greater attachment to objects than other peoples.

Toadal said...

Said said...said:
It may be out of fashion, but the left certainly knows it. That's why they go so far to alter the English language.


As Orwell, Huxley knew, he who can define a new term or phrase, will control that term or phrase..

A Google search can provide us with the strengths or weaknesses of current political perceptions. It shows us how favored groups are promoted and unfavored groups demoted by the media. Knowing the media's perception of a group simplifies an individual's decision making process; i.e. to back winners, ignore losers, and vilify the dangerous. Here are some example political searches.

Black Studies: redirects to 'African studies': (Wikipedia)
African studies: the study of the histories, politics and cultures of peoples of African origin both in Africa and in the African diaspora. It is thus the sum of the fields of African studies and African diaspora studies (Afro-Latin American and Black Studies programs narrowly conceived as African American studies). Google search: 555,000 hits

Asian American Studies: (Wikipedia)
Asian American Studies is an academic discipline which studies the experience of people of Asian ancestry in America. Closely related to other Ethnic Studies disciplines such as African American Studies, Latino/a Studies, and Native American Studies, Asian American Studies critically examines the history, culture, politics, issues, and experiences of Asian Americans. Google search: 325,000 hits

Latino Studies: (Wikipedia)
Latino studies is an academic discipline which studies the experience of people of Hispanic ancestry in the United States. Latino studies critically examines the history, culture, politics, issues, and experiences of Hispanic people. Google search: 792,000 hits

White Studies redirects to 'Whiteness Studies': (Wikipedia)
Whiteness studies is an interdisciplinary arena of academic inquiry focused on the cultural, historical and sociological aspects of people identified as white, and the social construction of whiteness as an ideology tied to social status. A central tenet of whiteness studies is a reading of history and its effects on the present, inspired by post modernism and historicism, in which the very concept of race is said to have been socially constructed in order to justify discrimination against non-whites. Google search: 66,600 hits

Anonymous said...

The funnest language is Arabic. You have three letter roots related to a concept then you can make an endless number of words out of that. For example kataba means 'he wrote.' From the k-t-b root, you get.

kaatib- writer/secretary
maktub- written
maktabah- library, bookstore
maktab- office
miktaab- typewriter
mukaataba- exchange of letters
kattab-to force someone to dictate
istaktaba-to ask someone to write something
kaataba-to keep up a correspondence
istiktaabi-dictaphone
iktataba-to copy something
inkataba-to subscribe
mukatib-reporter
iktitaab-subscription
kutayyib- booklet
kutaab- Koranic scholar
kitaab-book
kutubi- bookseller
istiktaab-dictation

Just about the entire language is made up this way. Take a root and then through a formula you can make words for everything related to it. This is why Muslims all over the world fall in love with it.

Anonymous said...

I've read that in German you have to know what you are going to say before you say it, whereas in English you can just start out and wing it as you go along. Supposedly that helps Germans with abstract thinking.

Anonymous said...

"I never understood the need for 'port' and 'starboard' (i.e. why not just left and right) on a vessel until one day it hit me, they are always oriented to the vessel -- that is, a captain can be looking 'aft' to his helmsperson (looking 'foreward'), say 'hard to port', and the boat with go the right direction. I'm sure that little fact was written down somewhere, but it was an internally generated revelation to me."

Also "starboard" was where the "steer board" used to be: the paddle attached to the right side of the boat that was used to steer with, before the invention of the sternpost rudder.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Port_and_starboard

Anonymous said...

"Well, white women are directionally challenged. Maybe it's genetic.

Every time I speak in terms of cardinal directions - North/South/East/West - when describing the location of something to my girlfriend she gets very wide-eyed and cannot seem to comprehend. It's comical."

Boys had those orienteering classes in Boy Scouts, with the maps and compass. Boys like maps and games involving map making and spatial relationships, war games, that sort of thing. Can't control your territory if you can't find it on a map.

Maybe the women should be taught how to go on shopping trips with map and compass. Get them properly motivated.

Peter A said...

Paavo said "how you see a color painting would depend on the words your language has."

That doesn't strike me as ridiculous at all. Japanese has a word "aoi" which means "blue-green" and covers the whole spectrum. Japanese "may" distinguish more specific shades but they "must" not. On the other hand Russian has one word for "dark blue" (sinniy) and another for "light blue" (goluboi) and no single word covering the English concept "blue" (or the Japanese concept "aoi"). I'm not sure how this all affects the way Japanese or Russian speakers think, but it does show that colors - the way we perceive the world - are far more arbitrary than we normally believe.

Couchscientist said...

TD is right in that greater masculinization of the brain generally leads to greater space/directional orientation (orient meaning east by the way, as in orienting yourself by the risen sun) and is right that stipe is gay, but many men have less than completely masculinized brains, don't have a great sense of direction, but are not gay. There is a range of masculinization within straight men's brains. You can see this effect in large families where the first son is generally more math/science/cars oriented and later sons are more liberal arts geared, but not necessarily gay. The cause of this is thought to be that first sons are exposed to higher levels if testosterone in the womb than later sons.

Anonymous said...

I am reminded of a speech by the leader of the Oregon Education Association who said "we will rewrite the textbooks so the next generation grow up incapable of thinking sexist thoughts." She got a standing ovation.

TGGP said...

I'm another man with a horrible sense of cardinal direction. I generally don't need to know where things are in relation to north pole & greenwich england, just in relation to other things nearby.

Eileen said...

Mikey said: "Wasn't East, specifically Jerusalem, at the top of European maps for centuries until the 1400's? Perhaps that is why the south was 'to the right' for whichever ancient Briton/Gael that decided the enduring word for 'south'?"

East was to the front (and south to the right) because the sun comes up in the east. Important direction, therefore it was "front".

David said...

I am aware of absolute ("compass") directions at every waking moment (and even asleep, as nutty as that sounds). Never was a Boy Scout. Did play with compasses, but my direction-awareness was anterior to that.

A good way to think about directions is to be aware of where the sun is - where it rises and sets.* Probably a large part of direction-awareness consists of sensitivity to light.

(* Where the sun sets is broadly West; where it rises is broadly East. Tell that to your girlfriend or wife and she will appreciate your gift for making complicated things simple.)

Eileen said...

Paavo said: "It's the culture, not the language that shapes whether you think about left and right or south and north."

But, which comes first, the culture/language or the way of thinking.

('Cmon. This is an HBD blog!)

~~~~~

See this article, too:

You Say Up, I Say Yesterday

Eileen said...

Anonymous said: "I don't believe one thinks in a given language, and I think it's in fact obvious that thought must in fact precede linguistic notation."

Some of us (me & Galton, for instance) are much more aware of this than most people.

Underachiever said...

I think in general differences in language reflect differences in perceiving the world. For instance, Japanese people are polite and their language is organized around relative status.

"Some Australian Aboriginal languages don't have terms like "right" or "left." Instead, speakers use absolute directions at all times: "East" or "West.' "

Aboriginals had to transverse very long distances; therefore, it isn't surprising that their languages reflect this. Their spatial IQ is also MUCH higher than their verbal. This is again probably due to the fact that they evolved in an environment where they had to transverse large differences.

In one of Steven Pinker's books, I believe it was "Words and Rules", he expresses extreme skepticism that the language you learn strongly affects your thoughts. You can see this to some extent in the euphemism treadmill where each new word used to describe something bad gets colored with the bad association of the thing itself until eventually the euphemism is offensive.

In short, Steven Pinker is probably right especially since this is his field of expertise. If you want to disagree, you should probably make an extremely strong argument.

michael farris said...

As a linguist I usually try to stay far away from lay discussions of my field, but three points:

1. The SW hypothesis is less about words for snow or grammatical gender than those parts of linguistic structure that speakers are often unaware of. I would say that language, culture and thought are in a feedback loop and influence each other in interesting ways.

2. "Does language shape thought" is a question shaped by the structure of English which is all about something called 'agency' (very roughly: entities acting on their own accord. If thought appears to have some coherent form it's been 'shaped' which implies something shaped it. Lots of languages don't work that way.

3. A linguist of my acquaintance did a survey of multi-lingual people asking (among other things). "Do you feel like a diffrent person when you speak a different language?" The results broke down into two roughly equally sized groups.
a) of course I do, what a silly question.
b) of course I don't, what a silly question.
That is, both side thought their perceptions on the issue must naturally apply to everyone the same way that breathing oxygen does. (I'm in group a, for the record).

James Kabala said...

"Where the sun sets is broadly West; where it rises is broadly East."

Well, yes, I know that and have since I was five, but I don't know if I could tell you where the Sun is at any given moment unless I stop to look at it! I tend to look down rather than up when outside.

I am really intrigued by those who claim to have constant awareness of compass directions. If I interpret you correctly, David, you mean that you can do this without reference to the Sun, the North Star, a map, or any other external marker. That strikes me as almost a comic book superhero power, but apparently for many people (most men?) it is routine!

It's interesting that baseball southpaws are the opposite of the Gaelic south. (It has to do with the layout of old baseball parks - the batter faced east so as not to have the sun in his eyes when the potentially dangerous ball came at him; hence the pitcher faced west and had his left arm on the south side.)

Steve Sailer said...

I think about direction a lot, but that's in part because I don't know the direction much of the time, especially at night.

Anonymous said...

Languages do shape thought. A short proof follows.

1. Computer languages are a subset of all languages, used for communicating with computers and other computer scientists

2. Some computer languages allow the use of things like higher order functions. Others do not without significant effort roughly equal to creating a new language.

3. The choice of language radically shapes your approach to a given problem. You couldn't come up with map/reduce (or Google's search indexing backend) without the "words" called "map" and "reduce" [yes Google uses them differently than Lisp].

QED

sabril said...

Off-topic, but check out the latest Onion broadcast:

http://tinyurl.com/36yt9ca

tests biased against students who don't give a ****

Bill said...

Language has influence, but I think it's been oversold by people like Lakoff. Try to "control" language, and you might become the butt of a Dilbert joke. "Downsizing", "Rightsizing". People are not fooled by these euphemisms.

One school of linguists focus on metaphor, but Lakoff sells a "pig in a poke". That's a metaphor that transferred to idiom when people no longer knew what a "poke" was. Calling him out on this is "letting the cat out of the bag". Until I read Safire I had no idea where those idioms originally meant, yet I used them in proper context.

Similarly, English has no plural for "you", "ye" haven fallen into disuse. This doesn't s top us from creating "yinz, yous, and y'all". At a minimum, a linguistic need will be filled.

dearieme said...

Do people who grow up in grid cities have a different ability to think in compass terms compared with those who don't?

David Davenport said...

Wasn't East, specifically Jerusalem, at the top of European maps for centuries until the 1400's?

Pre 1400's mapmaking --> pre-Copernican.

Why put East at top of a map? Everybody knew that Heaven was somewhere above, and also aligned with the directions whence Sol Invictus arrives or departs.

Perhaps that is why the south was 'to the right' for whichever ancient Briton/Gael that decided the enduring word for 'south'?

Face the Sun in the morning -- South is at one's right hand, North to left.

In the afternoon, similar but different. Bonus points if you can accurately estimate the hour by the sun's angle and the season of the year.

iStevies, including native Engleesky speakers who don't habitually orient themselves thusly -- very indoorsy, untraditional people.

Dana said...

I have long thought this was the main reason metaphysics, particularly ontology, arises in cultures that speak Indo-Aryan languages and NOT in Judaism. A combination of Hebrew being a "me tarzan, you jane" language + the ban placed on the use of the verb "to be" in the present tense by making the future perfect of the word the unspeakable name of god "YHVH" means "state of being that exists out of time" basically--beingness that always was, is and always will be. It is obvious they were a literate people with a significantly well developed sense of verbal reasoning as evinced by their holy books being in large part legal code--later on in the Talmudic period you get very sophisticated legal reasoning that would be right at home on any modern law school campus--but no great ruminations on existence.

Many Indo Aryan languages convey the primacy of the EXISTENCE of the speaker in every sentence. Look at a simple English sentence "I am going home". Basically you are saying "I exist, and go to my house". In Hebrew this would be rendered "I go the Home" (ani holech ha bayitta). Is this the case with ancient Greek or the languages of Hinduism and Buddhism?

Henry Canaday said...

Good stage actors know something about the influence of language on thought and feeling. I knew an American actress who had played Juliet shortly after graduating college. She said she was a 22-year-old American college graduate of the 20th Century, playing a barely literate 15-year-old Italian girl of the 16th Century who spoke the language of and had the intellectual complexity of a 40-year-old male Renaissance genius. Not easy.

Anonymous said...

In the limited field of computer languages, the Sapir-Whorf hypotesis is more or less true.

The analogue of "being able to express any thought" for computer languages is "being Turing-Complete". Most, if not all, of the popular programming languages are Turing-complete.

However, within a language some problems will have a natural and concise expression, while others will prove cumbersome to specify. These vary for each language.

Anonymous said...

Apart from Orwell's "1984", another interesting fictional treatment of the Sapir-Worf hypothesis is the novel "The Languages of Pao".

CuChulainn said...

Language may also be a reflection of what you think about. Its interesting to notice that most of the "hip" new words that come out in Ebonics are associated with crime, drugs, insults, and gaudy displays of wealth.

K(yle) said...

"I don't know if I could tell you where the Sun is at any given moment unless I stop to look at it!"

I'm sure a lot of people could tell you based on the rays hitting their skin, and various visual telltales like barely perceptible shadows in their environment. Without even thinking about it.

There is also the direction of wind, its temperature, the smells that wind carries. Knowledge of the lay of the land like elevation, which your inner ear is sensitive to.

My direction sense is good, but I've met people who have one that is quite uncanny. It might seem miraculous, but our senses are capable of picking up quite a lot. Few people will collate all of that data bombarding them into any kind of useful information. Some people apparently can, instinctually.

Think of synthetes. If someone can 'see' sounds, et cetera, then it certainly isn't that outrageous that someone can similarly combine their senses and accumulated knowledge into a singular 'direction sense'.

asdfasfasf said...

The fact that English don't have formal and informal pronouns and verbs may explain why Anglos might have turned out to be more egalitarian.

There is only YOU than tu and usted, or du or Sie.

Anonymous said...

My wife is Russian. They have a lot more specialized words than we do, especially for things like snow. English speakers tend to use more adjectives. It makes the language less elegant (Russians think Russian is elegant). This is also what might make English simplier to use. It is easier to hash out a phrase or sentence and hence easier for someone to try and use.

asdfasdfasdfadf said...

One thing for sure, the language of other people does shape how we see them. We are likely to think better of the French after listening to French than of Southern Chinese after hearing Cantonese, a truly uglyass language.

I say Greek sounds the best, followed by Italian(as long as it's not spoken too fast). Spanish could be fixed by taking out some O's and Polish would gain by taking some of those O's(placed inside the middle of words).

asfasdfsf said...

A language, when adopted by another people, is probably somewhat altered by one's inner nature or racial nature or cultural background. Notice that English adopted and spoken end up differently among different peoples. And I'm not just talking of accents here. Even the grammar can change. So, instead of "Should I kill you?", it becomes "you want I kill you?"

How Africans, Arabs, Asians, Mexicans, and others altered English is quite amazing and/or distressing.

Anonymous said...


Blogger michael farris said...

As a linguist I usually try to stay far away from lay discussions of my field, but three points:

[deletia]

2. "Does language shape thought" is a question shaped by the structure of English which is all about something called 'agency' (very roughly: entities acting on their own accord. If thought appears to have some coherent form it's been 'shaped' which implies something shaped it. Lots of languages don't work that way.


The most important thing for humans to talk about, from small-scale societies to large-scale societies, is who is doing what to who/me.

Perhaps I am misreading you, but it would seem that the ability to find agency is fundamentally encoded in our genes and built into our brains.

Dan Sperber would be surprised, methinks.

Duncan said...

Have done a lot of traveling in northern vermont and new hampshire and a broad sense of solar oriention has saved me from more than a few wrong turns in my time.

Elbrac said...

OT.

http://standpointmag.co.uk/node/3313/full

South Africa, what a country!

Gene Berman said...

Eileen:

Even though I tend to the same conclusion (as you and Galton and a great many others, I'd imagine), it's by no means a "done deal" (and may never be) that "thought" precedes--must precede--language. And I'd also say that, following your link, I was quite disappointed to find nothing much more than "it seems I know and can describe my thinking and it's different than that other guy says--so, since I must be right, he must be wrong!"

There's even a suggestion (to me, at least) that Galton doesn't even quite understand the question. I cannot divine exactly what he was saying but it he seems to have taken the intent of the question to have been, whether in thinking, he "said" the words to himself as part of that thinking. Take, f'rinstance, his example of picking a tool for a specific job and imagine the job to be hitting something with something heavy (as, for instance, driving a nail) and selecting such tool from a toolbox well-stocked with such instruments, variously specialized for driving tacks, common nails, roofing nails, masonry nails, for cracking/pulverizing concrete, driving wedges, hammering hot iron on a an anvil, or nails through sole leather on a shoemaker's mandrel. I think that Galton would have found it just as difficult as the rest of us to keep the damn words (denoting specific characteristics) from, literally, shouting at him.

It seems logical that thought must precede language, since the very idea of language, itself, is a "thought." It also seems obvious, though, that language is such a powerful adjunct and enhancer of thought that only the most primitive of thought can be carried on without resort to such enhancement--something on the order of a stimulus-response mechanism differentiated from a reflex only because it has involved the brain
in the loop.

I think this particular question is one of those beyond that for which human reason can provide an answer and am surprised that Galton had no such thought occur to him.

Baloo said...

This is a question that's always fascinated me. I think it's partially true. The whole Loglan project was ostensibly put into motion to test the hypothesis, but seems to have come to nothing.

The remark that all languages can, at least potentially, express anything, but that the requirements vary, is true. It goes much deeper than sex, tho as English speakers we can certainly see the effect when we study languages with no sex in the pronouns, but rather gender. As Mark Twain put it (this is from memory.)
"Where is the young lady?"
"It has taken the turnip to the kitchen."
"Where is the turnip?"
"She is in the kitchen."
My conclusion is that the form of language encourages thinking in certain directions, but doesn't require it.
Newspeak was all about preventing certain thoughts by abolishing the words that represent them. Of course, usually, a language isn't that easily controlled. Think of how euphemisms have to be replaced because they lose their euphemistic quality rapidly.

Anonymous said...

A big difference between English other languages is that in English we don't have strict formal/informal divides. In Korean, confucianism permeates the language and every time you talk to someone you must make a judgment about your relative social status and familiarity. English more and less formal ways to express things, but it's not a must situation. The janitor can tell the CEO "thanks" in the same way that the CEO can say "thanks" to his own child. It's not, " thank you very much" in one instance and "thanks" in another. Not so in Korean. I imagine that our lack of must-use formality helps social mobility.

Anonymous said...

"Surely you know that it is a total myth that Eskimos have an unusually large number of words for snow. "

Yeah, that's a classic of debunking, and I tend to believe it. Still, I read a book by Margaret Vissar, a South African/Canadian pop cultural-history writer, in which she not only endorses the idea, but references a whole slough of Inuktitut (sp?) snow words.

So, just possibly the debunkers need some debunking on this one.

Anonymous said...

'If feminists were right, then Persians and Chinese, who have no pronoun gender, would be the most perfect feminists, while Sweden and Denmark, with gender marked in every noun, would be among the worst places for "women's rights".'

I make this point using neighbouring, culturally similar countries with different systems.

Sweden vs. Finland?

Latvia vs. Estonia

Turkey vs. the Arab Middle East

(In Turkey's case, speakers of the non-gendered language ARE more respectful of women's rights, but there are clear historical reasons for this.)

Anonymous said...

"My favorite language factoid is that during the 1500's and thereabouts, students from other European countries routinely would spend four or more years at Oxford or Cambridge and have active social lives, yet would never have to learn English. Everything was in Latin, socializing included."

Apparently even the prostitutes spoke latin. I just find that so funny.

Anonymous said...

'Japanese has a word "aoi" which means "blue-green" and covers the whole spectrum. Japanese "may" distinguish more specific shades but they "must" not. On the other hand Russian has one word for "dark blue" (sinniy) and another for "light blue" (goluboi) and no single word covering the English concept "blue" (or the Japanese concept "aoi").'

This makes sense to me. English has "pink", but no words for other pastel colours (at least in common use). So, we think of pink as a colour.

German didn't have a word for "orange" until they took over "Orange" from French. They called it "Hellbraun" - bright brown. Well, if you think about it, orange IS bright brown. But I would never have thought of it that way before learning German.

cultural attache said...

...not sure what some here mean about gay men having a female brain. Isn't it the case that gay men are exposed to MORE testosterone in the pre-birth phase? That's what they were saying a few years ago.
Aside from gays, some observers have noted that hyper-"feminine"
women--the ones obsessed with make-up, jewelry, dress,their looks, sex in a predatory way or in a ways that highly objectifies them, are not usually comfortable with being biologically female, i.e. not much into child bearing, care-giving, solicitousness, child rearing and all the baggage that goes with it. I've noticed this myself, though there are some exception.
Gays may love to dress and have an aesthetic that seems "feminine", but I'd bet Humphrey Bogart was more in touch with his feminine side than almost any of the flaming queens or even subtle gays, I have encountered. They are good parodists, especially of tje cultural accoutrements of femininity, but also, I'll wager, of masculinity.

Anonymous said...

I have no sense of direction inside, or outside on a cloudy day. But I pretty good at keeping tracking of direction and time by the sun.

Jim O said...

Yes, anonymous # whatever, German has that verb-at-the-end thing going on, so, unlike in English, you have to know what your sentence is going to man before you start it. I've often wondered how that influenced German thought.

Baloo said...

Just for fun, here's my attempt to devise a language with a minimum of linguistic bias, thinkingwise:
Ceqli.

Anonymous said...

Peter A said:
------
That doesn't strike me as ridiculous at all. Japanese has a word "aoi" which means "blue-green" and covers the whole spectrum. Japanese "may" distinguish more specific shades but they "must" not. On the other hand Russian has one word for "dark blue" (sinniy) and another for "light blue" (goluboi) and no single word covering the English concept "blue" (or the Japanese concept "aoi"). I'm not sure how this all affects the way Japanese or Russian speakers think, but it does show that colors - the way we perceive the world - are far more arbitrary than we normally believe.
------
Another datapoint:

Swedish is a germanic language as is English, but the former has a useful quirk that very few languages have.

English has one word "grandmother", but Swedish has two different words for that relation - but their meanings are distinct. Swedish has the word "Farmor", which means mother of my father, and "Mormor" which means mother of my mother. The English word "Uncle" is replaced by either "farbror" (brother of my father) or "morbror" (brother of my mother). Likewise, Swedish has 4 different words for great-grandmother. The corresponding goes for all other relations - the name of a relation describes exactly how the speaker is related to the person spoken about.

I have checked, but apart from Norwegian (which has borrowed this from Swedish quite recently) no IE languages in Europe seem to distinguish between the two different types of grandmothers.

Chinese does have this distinction, and it goes one step futher. Chinese has four completely different words for "uncle", meaning:
1.elder brother of my father
2.younger brother of my father
3.elder brother of my mother
4.younger brother of my mother

However, these words are not generated from easy-to-remember wordstems as in swedish, all those relations are completely dissimilar. The same goes for the 4 words for "aunt". Surprisingly, chinese does not differentiate between 1st,2nd,3rd and so on cousins, they just use one word for that. Anotherquirk is that chinese often uses a generic word similar to uncle when referring to male relatives which are one generation older, but further out to the side - those that would be described as "grandson of my great-grandfather" in english.

This quirk of Swedish and Chinese makes family discussions quite a lot easier.

gwern said...

If you want to learn directions, might want to check out an electronic compass+buzzer called the Northpaw; see http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/15.04/esp.html

Curvaceous, etc. said...

I am woman and I cannot *stand* to get my directions mixed up, as, say, when you get off a plane and feel like you're walking west but get outside and -- WHY is the sun in the NORTH?!!!
It annoys my husband no end, who needs to know only right and left to navigate to our hotel, when I pester the desk clerk, "Please point to the south," and she can't do it, so I keep asking everyone I see.

Anonymous said...

"Because differences in thinking might reflect differences in the ability to think. And differences in the ability to think might mean that we are not all equal."

Some of the easiest languages in the world to learn are Swahili, Afrikaans (which was basically the simplified form of Dutch spoken by South African blacks starting in the 17th Century and later adopted by the whites), and Indonesian.

Conversely, some of the most difficult languages to learn by any criteria you use are Finnish, the Eastern European slavic languages, Hungarian, Russian, Japanese, Korean, and Mandarin.

On the other hand, when I tried studying the Navajo language, I found it extremely complex, so it's not a perfect correlation between language and average intelligence.

Anonymous said...

In response to James:
It's not as implausible as you think. In the modern day, you look for available clues when you're in an unfamiliar area- it helps that US cities are laid out on a grid and have regular naming and numbering patterns. Before street lights, you'd have visible stars, and you still have the moon.

In a familiar area, it's as easy as pie. You remember from the daytime.

Even without that, you can have weak background processes keeping track of which way you're going. Have you ever been counting time then started thinking about something else, then gone back to counting and realized you hadn't stopped? I have.

Anonymous said...

"3. A linguist of my acquaintance did a survey of multi-lingual people asking (among other things). "Do you feel like a diffrent person when you speak a different language?" The results broke down into two roughly equally sized groups.
a) of course I do, what a silly question.
b) of course I don't, what a silly question.
That is, both side thought their perceptions on the issue must naturally apply to everyone the same way that breathing oxygen does. (I'm in group a, for the record)."

Did your friend break it down between those who speak the 2nd language with native proficiency and those who are non-native speakers?

To me as a non-native speaker of German and Spanish, those two languages feel vastly different from each other. On the other hand, since I'm a native speaker of both French and English, "book" and "livre" feel like the exact same thing to me.

Kylie said...

Steve Sailer said..."I think about direction a lot, but that's in part because I don't know the direction much of the time, especially at night."

I'm the exact same way. I'm not only keenly aware of the sun's path throughout the day but have recently begun checking out the moon, too. When traveling around here in the heartland, I orient myself to familiar landmarks on the horizon.

Google Maps is one of my most visited websites. And I'm a sucker for any book that has maps as endpapers.

GMR said...

I don't think it's just the vocabulary that influences you, but other parts of the language.

Are people who grow up learning to read and write Chinese and other character-based languages better at memorization because they had to basically memorize thousands of symbols when they were little?

Do native speakers of German think differently because they've had to memorize genders for every word (well, there some rules, such as all words ending with -heit and -ung being female). Or because German has a fairly complex grammar, which made the speakers learn rules much more fully than other language speakers?

Anonymous said...

Anotherquirk is that chinese often uses a generic word similar to uncle when referring to male relatives which are one generation older, but further out to the side - those that would be described as "grandson of my great-grandfather" in english.

No native English-speaker on God's green earth has ever described somebody as the "grandson of my great-grandfather." Such a personage would be referred to as "my father's [bzw. mother's] cousin."

Kylie said...

Curvaceous etc. said..."I am woman and I cannot *stand* to get my directions mixed up, as, say, when you get off a plane and feel like you're walking west but get outside and -- WHY is the sun in the NORTH?!!!"

I know just how you feel. What I remember most from my trip to Oregon was how much more oblique the sun's rays were than in my home state, MO. Drove me nuts. I was disoriented the entire time and in tears of relief when I got back home to where the sun rose and set in the usual manner.

Sexy Pterodactyl said...

The language of Game has affected my mental processes. Prior to reading edgy PUA/Game blogs, I would use beta words like “Hi” “Thanks, you too” and “I’ll email the report to you by Monday”. I had the mindset of a beta pterodactyl.

Now I use alpha words, like “Game” “Alpha!” “manjaw” and “hamsters”. With my cigarette at this jaunty angle, Sexytime females say I resemble Don Draper.

Hugs,
Sexy Pterodactyl

P.S. Roissy and me have a video at my latest post, showing how we Game females at lakes.

Kylie said...

Anonymous said..."On the other hand, when I tried studying the Navajo language, I found it extremely complex, so it's not a perfect correlation between language and average intelligence."

I know that and you know that. When I said in an earlier comment: "Because differences in thinking might reflect differences in the ability to think. And differences in the ability to think might mean that we are not all equal", I meant that's the mindset of the left, as I see it.

Let me make myself clearer still. It seems to me that the left wants to abolish any notion of differences between peoples that would reflect badly on people of color, just as it wants to enshrine any differences between peoples that would reflect badly on whites.

Baloo said...

Ah, a Vance fan! BTW, his autobiography is out.

Re Swedish, etc., I have the same system in Ceqli, but I go Swedish one better, by making the kinship terms capable of all these distinctions but requiring a little as possible:

pam - parent
-i female ending
-o male ending
fil - son or daughter
frer - sibling
zban - spouse

So... pamipam - mother's parent
pampami -parent's mother
pamopami - paternal grandmother
etc.
It's a fun exercise to see what minimum of root words is necessary to express all kinship terms.

Anonymous said...

michael farris:

I'm in group a, too, though with a twist: speaking Spanish has made me aware of stuff like when I'm in the subjunctive tense in English, even though modern American English doesn't actually change the verb in the subjunctive tense. But yeah, subjectively, it feels very different thinking in Spanish than in English.

As a second anecdote, I once had a Spanish teacher from the Dominican Republic. Her stories and descriptions of things in English were very much in the normal middle-class American style of discussing things. The same or similar stories and descriptions in Spanish had a *really* different flavor--everything was lo mas increible or lo mas hermosa or lo mas preciosa or whatever. It always made me think of the bit in the old Wizard of Oz movie where you switch from black-and-white Kansas to color Oz.

David said...

At night the coordinate system, based on your memory of where the sun was, does not change. The side of the building where the sun sat is still the western side of the building.

The only way the coordinate system can be broken is to pass out, be moved to an entirely unfamiliar location, and then come to at night. (Or to have a massive memory loss.) It's not like this happens to anyone very often. You don't just suddenly materialize in some place, wondering, "My God, I wonder which way is North??"

Melykin said...

James Kabala wrote:
"I am really intrigued by those who claim to have constant awareness of compass directions. If I interpret you correctly, David, you mean that you can do this without reference to the Sun, the North Star, a map, or any other external marker. "
=========================

Maybe David's town has a lot of hills. My town does so you always know that north is where one of the rivers flows from, next to Mount ___ , and in most parts of town you are going down hill when you are going north, even if you don't glance up towards Mount ___ (it is really just a big hill but you can see it from a lot of places). I recently was in a strange city that is pretty much flat, and had to resort to using the sun.

travis said...

Now stand in the place where you work
Now face West
Think about the place where you live
Wonder why you haven't before


This song is a sly comment on one of the many ways living in cities has distorted are perspective. That's my take. Check out video. It alternates between scenes of a boy in the city and an old woman in the country.

Some of what we have lost in the move from primarily a rural society to an urban one, REM covered previously in their excellent 1985 album Fables of the Reconstruction. Southerners tend to think about those things. Aborigines too, I imagine. City folks, not so much.

Curvaceous, etc. said...

"The only way the coordinate system can be broken is to pass out, be moved to an entirely unfamiliar location, and then come to at night. It's not like this happens to anyone very often. You don't just suddenly materialize in some place, wondering, "My God, I wonder which way is North??"

I disagree, David. It happens to me a lot. Say I'm in a plane or reading in a car when many directional changes are made which I was not paying attention to at the time.
I can step out at 12:00 noon and be astonished that what "feels" to me to be north has the sun in it.
It can take me hours or days until my perception corrects itself that the sun is rising in what "seems" east.
Is this a female thing?

Saint Louis said...

I read recently (it might have been a link from iSteve; if so please forgive me) that there was a study done where they showed a picture of a bridge to German speakers and to Spanish speakers and asked them to describe it.

In German, bridge is "die bruecke" (or brucke if you put an umlaut on the u) and is feminine. The German speakers almost all described the bridge with words like "beautiful" and "elegant."

In Spanish, bridge is "el puente" and is masculine. The Spanish speakers tended to use words like "strong" and "sturdy" to describe it.

All of this is to say that language definitely seems to shape how we think about things.

I also read somewhere (but can't for the life of me remember where) that many Germans think English (and American) humor is often unfunny. Apparently the idea is that the word order of German sentences makes it more difficult to set up puns and punchlines. Thus Germans think English humor relies too heavily on these tactics and consequently English-speaking humorists fail to develop other types of jokes.

Saint Louis said...

Now I feel stupid. I made that last comment before I read the linked article. Then I went and read it and saw that the study I spoke of was actually mentioned in the article.

Doh!

Bantam said...

What about this useful part of language every iSteve commenter should master ?

It took me less than 48h to learn it.

michael farris said...

"The most important thing for humans to talk about...is who is doing what to who/me.
...it would seem that the ability to find agency is fundamentally encoded in our genes and built into our brains."

I don't argue that agency is important, and all languages deal with it to some extent. What's odd about English (speakers) is that it/they don't seem to be able to turn it off.

small examples:
English tends to coflate subject and agent and even subjects of passive sentences are assumed to have agency. This means that you can turn passive sentences around and make sentences like:
"Don't get ripped off...."
"Don't be a victim of..."
Those sentences don't make sense in some languages where the closest equivalent would be somthing like 'minimize your chance of being...' English can also re-agentify (if that's a word) passive constructions so
that "he was struck by lightning" can become "he got himself struck by lightning" where he actively sought out the state. Again cross linguistically that's a weird structure.

Lots of languages distinguish between voluntary and involuntary actions/states. English tends to coflate the two and you have to rely on context to know whether
"she coughed" refers to a voluntary or involuntary action.

michael farris said...

"Because differences in thinking might reflect differences in the ability to think. And differences in the ability to think might mean that we are not all equal"

Well linguistics would have to be a hbd enthusiast's least favorite field as it doesn't add to any evidence of measurable human differences in ability.

Regardless of language, children learn to speak at about the same age. There's no evidence whatsoever that babies of one race are less able to learn the languages of other races. (the sample is incomplete since not many white or black babies are exposed to Navajo in infancy but all the evidence points to babies being equally able to learn whatever language is in their environment.

Also, linguistic structures are not necessarily distributed along racial lines. In terms of grammar Mandarin has more in common with Yoruba than with Korean...

michael farris said...

One of the few studies I've read of language differences with observabe real world effects: A comparison of work related accidents in factories in Finnland. Basically, factories in which Finnish was the working language had higher accident levels than those where Swedish was spoken. The authors speculate that something about location marking in the two languages could lead the situation.

Two possible problems: small sample size of the Swedish factories (since Finnish is much more widely spoken in Finnland) and it's not clear if they controlled for alcohol consumption (ethnic Finns drink considerably more than Swedish nationals in Sweden - I'm not sure about the levels by Swedish speaking Finns).

Graham Asher said...

"Why is it unfashionable to think that differences in languages result or reflect differences in thinking?"

Because the theory - the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis - was carefully examined over a long period of time and proved to have little explanatory or predictive power.

V. Walter said...

Anonymous wrote:

"In Korean, confucianism permeates the language and every time you talk to someone you must make a judgment about your relative social status and familiarity."

Well, there are plenty of Indo-European languages which - even without Confucianism - operate on similar lines, though in my limited experience at least one of them (French) is now doing so less and less. With German, Italian and Spanish, as well as French, there are different words for "you" (when addressing a boss, high-ranking civil servant, slight acquaintance etc) versus "you" (when addressing a close relative or a close friend).

But I've discovered an odd thing in recent months. When I'm involved in a French-only conversation with French people whom I've never met before, they're more and more inclined to address me as "tu" (informal) instead of "vous" (formal).

Until a few years back, this usage among almost total strangers would've been considered insulting, an absolute no-no among the French: horribly pushy and vulgar. (Especially among Frenchwomen of my mother's generation or older - I'm 48 - who used to be so formal in their speech that they didn't dare address even their husbands by their given names!)

Matt said...

"Why is it unfashionable to think that differences in languages result or reflect differences in thinking?"

It's only unfashionable among linguists, and that is for the eminently reasonable reason that it has been poorly demonstrated if at all and the hypothesis that people think alike is the more parsimonious hypothesis. As the evidence changes, linguists will change their minds. It's not unfashionable amongst people at large (e.g. studenty Leftists who'll chew yer ear off about Newspeak).

The funnest language is Arabic. You have three letter roots related to a concept then you can make an endless number of words out of that. For example kataba means 'he wrote.' From the k-t-b root, you get.

Hebrew's the same way (quite a few Jewish and Muslims folks talk online about how this is divinely beautiful [or if they're dumber, evidence of god]). It's really cute, but in the abstract seems rather inefficient, given that if you just made the roots and patterns with separate syllables, you could drop most of the pattern stuff out when you don't need it, which is what Arabic speakers basically do in writing anyway.

Its interesting to notice that most of the "hip" new words that come out in Ebonics are associated with crime, drugs, insults, and gaudy displays of wealth.

Harpending and Cochran on this - http://the10000yearexplosion.com/human-cultural-diversity/ - "Another prominent vehicle of male competition in ethnographies is bombast, rhetoric and verbal facility. Big men in New Guinea give speeches that go on for hours. There is a lot of competitive language one-upmanship in other Cad groups like rap or cockney rhyming slang. If there is a new word around and if you do not know about it while others do you lose status... This valley-girl talk phenomenon is widespread in humans but is especially intense in groups where male competition is prominent."

ricpic said...

The Romance languages are more flowery than the Germanic languages, of which English is one. English, relative to French or Italian, is a blunt language. This makes shit detection easier in English. Of course there are bullshit artists everywhere. But I think they have an easier time of it in France.

Anonymous said...

Aboriginal tykes got it right, compared to a basically random number of the white toddlers.

I couldn't find a reference (Google conspiracy?) but I suspect that Aboriginal children develop faster than white kids.

Or it could just be that the Abo kids walked to school and the white kids rode.

I do believe that the sense of direction varies in people. Tell a woman you will meet her of the north west corner and she will ask you where that is. But on the strength of the evidence so far presented about Aborigines that they have a special sense of place, it is - not proved.

It sounds like the quasi-mystical traits ascribed to American Indians - like the ability to walk soundlessly through the woods and a special sensitivity toward nature. Hollywood makes movies about Indian's ability to creep silently through the woods ( See "The Outlaw Josy Wells" or "The Stalking Moon").

The number of media presentations about environmentally sensitive Indians is too great to enumerate. My favorite is the TV ad with Iron Eyes Cody crying at the mess made by white men.

Of course Cody was a fake Indian and all of this environmental sensitivity is just tripe. Probably the biggest ecological disaster in human history was the "Pleistocene Blitzkrieg" where the Indians killed all the New World mega-fauna. Had their been no Indians, Columbus would have found horses, camels, Mammoths, Mastodons, giant cave bear, lions, and Saber Toothed Cats.

I don't know much about Australian Aborigines but this whole innate sense of direction stuff smells. Aren't they famous for their walkabouts - pointless, directionless wanderings?

Albertosaurus

none of the above said...

The natural way to think of this (for a complete amateur in this area like me, at least) is in terms of what words you have. If your language has no word for compound-interest, or variance, or algorithm, then it ought to be hard to explain a lot of the world to you. But I think that's all wrong--the really important thing is having the concept behind the term. If you have the concept of what an algorithm is, and so do I, it won't take long to convey what I'm talking about, even if I have to make up a new word for it or use some circumlocution like "precise sequence of steps to carry out some computation" every time I want to use "algorithm."

I've seen this a lot in Spanish, where I often start out lacking the specialist vocabulary of whatever's being discussed in a book or news article or conversation. It's not too hard for me to catch up, because I already have the concepts--I already know what a mortgage is, for example, so learning the word hipoteca doesn't require also learning a whole new concept.

By contrast, if you start without that concept, even in your native language, you'll have a hard time understanding quite what's going on. There are many excellent explanations of complex financial derivatives, evolution, statistics, etc. in English. The barrier for most people understanding them isn't the language, it's getting the underlying concepts, which require some real time and work for most people to absorb.

Anonymous said...

This month in Jewish cinema...The Debt. In 1965, three young Israeli Mossad agents on a secret mission capture and kill a notorious Nazi war criminal. Now, thirty years later, a man claiming to be the Nazi has surfaced in Ukraine and one of the former agents must go back undercover to seek out the truth. A Film Unfinished. A film about an unfinished film which portrays the people behind and before the camera in the Warsaw Ghetto, exposing the extent of the cinematic manipulation forever changing the way we look at historic images.

Baloo said...

None of the above is right. The concept necessarily comes first. Think about it. People don't create words and then try to come up with a new concept tn can represent. However, the concept can be represented by a single word or a phrase, and it's conceivable that such fact can affect the way the concept is handled mentally. Re intelligence, most all languages that have been studied extensively are big enough that it has intelligent speakers, no matter how low a percentage, and has therefore become capable of expressing intelligent thoughts. You'd have to study a given person's ideolect and compare it with his IQ, to find any real correlation.

Re vous-tu and all, my opinion is that the language follows cultural trends, not so much viceversa.

zxcvb said...

I've been making the argument for quite some time that existentialism is philosophical garbage by pointing out how trivial and absurd it is in languages very unlike English, French, etc. Too much philosophy is naive wordplay--being, doing, essences, ...

Truth said...

"On the other hand, when I tried studying the Navajo language, I found it extremely complex, so it's not a perfect correlation between language and average intelligence."


Why is it than whenever you guys are bad at something, there's "not a perfect correlation" between it and intelligence?

I've just always wondered

Mike said...

'"On the other hand, when I tried studying the Navajo language, I found it extremely complex, so it's not a perfect correlation between language and average intelligence."


"Why is it than whenever you guys are bad at something, there's "not a perfect correlation" between it and intelligence?"'

-Why is it that you have to rely on distorting what others talk about as a way to "one-up" them? Furthermore, how does one generalize from a single comment about one instance to an overarching phenomenon for the entire group of Sailer readers? If you can't have an honest discussion about things, then you are not really showing any brilliant insights, are you? For future references, that behavior works in verbal arguments better than written arguments, where people can go back and readily re-read what has actually been written, and ponder it over.

Anonymous said...

A Frenchman once said, "The English do not have the word longueur, but they have the thing in great abundance."

(A longueur one of those awkward pauses in conversation.)

Truth said...

"-Why is it that you have to rely on distorting what others talk about as a way to "one-up" them?"

What did I "distort"?

I copied and pasted the damn thing!

linguist said...

"I say Greek sounds the best, followed by Italian(as long as it's not spoken too fast). Spanish could be fixed by taking out some O's and Polish would gain by taking some of those O's(placed inside the middle of words)."

An Estonian once told me that Estonian was ranked with Italian as being the most beautiful language to the ear. I would include French. Not crazy for Spanish, although Castilian can be elegant to hear. Greek? Never thought about it, but it does sound neat with all those strong, rounded O and OUs.

kudzu bob said...

What did I "distort"?

So you DO admit that you distort.

Truth said...

We all distort, my friend.