Monday, August 30, 2010

Today's New York Times: Does Language Shape Thought?

When I was growing up in the Boston area, "Braintree" was the last stop on the Red Line. When a friend came from England to visit, she asked why anyone would name a town after such a horrible image. I was 24 and it had never occurred to me to break apart Braintree into brain tree. When I learned that the word for skyscraper in Spanish translates to "sky scratcher" I thought it such a poetical language - again - never thinking that our buildings were scraping the edge of the summer sky. Perhaps this explains a little of  why I am in love with the article Does Your Language Shape How You Think? excerpted below on the ways the language we speak can shape our perception of the world. Guy Deutscher begins with a summary of why scientists have been reticent to study this and then provides superb examples of the ways different languages create assumptions about the world. His overview of feminine and masculine in German, Spanish and French is told with a wry humor. One of my (several)favorite passages is:

Of course, all this does not mean that speakers of Spanish or French or German fail to understand that inanimate objects do not really have biological sex — a German woman rarely mistakes her husband for a hat, and Spanish men are not known to confuse a bed with what might be lying in it. Nonetheless, once gender connotations have been imposed on impressionable young minds, they lead those with a gendered mother tongue to see the inanimate world through lenses tinted with associations and emotional responses that English speakers — stuck in their monochrome desert of “its” — are entirely oblivious to. Did the opposite genders of “bridge” in German and Spanish, for example, have an effect on the design of bridges in Spain and Germany? Do the emotional maps imposed by a gender system have higher-level behavioral consequences for our everyday life?

The ideas of how spacial relationships are "egocentric" or "geographic" I love --- although it's clear English is "egocentric" in that we usually give directions as to where the person's right or left wil be, I can remember moving to Oregon where people often directed me to turn "East" expecting that I had a compass in my head. It makes sense in a landscape of open spaces to not rely on going right at the Citgo Station. In any case, I love the ideas here.

IN WHAT OTHER WAYS might the language we speak influence our experience of the world? Recently, it has been demonstrated in a series of ingenious experiments that we even perceive colors through the lens of our mother tongue. There are radical variations in the way languages carve up the spectrum of visible light; for example, green and blue are distinct colors in English but are considered shades of the same color in many languages. And it turns out that the colors that our language routinely obliges us to treat as distinct can refine our purely visual sensitivity to certain color differences in reality, so that our brains are trained to exaggerate the distance between shades of color if these have different names in our language. As strange as it may sound, our experience of a Chagall painting actually depends to some extent on whether our language has a word for blue.

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