Linguistic Relativity — different language, different thoughts?

A NYTimes book review of „Through the Language Glass“ by Guy Deutscher touches on the interesting topic of how languages shape our thoughts (the book itself might or might not be worth reading, according to the review the anecdotes are more convincing then the theory the author wants to prove with them).

Here is an interesting example of how that could happen:

[…] the Amazonian language Matses, whose arsenal of verb forms obliges you not only to explicitly indicate the kind of evidence — personal experience, inference, conjecture or hearsay — on which every statement you make is based, but also to distinguish recent inferences from older ones and say whether the interval between inference and event was long or short. If you choose the wrong verb form, you are treated as a liar. But the distinctions that must be expressed by verbal inflections in Matses, Deutscher argues, can all be easily understood by English speakers and easily expressed in English by means of circumlocutions.

Now, the information is indeed very fascinating to me, and I also don’t quite follow his conclusion. First, to make the point that languages shape our thoughts, you don’t have to prove that certain things cannot be expressed in some languages — it is enough to show that speakers of different languages habitually use certain concepts more than others. And here you can say that the degree of evidence backing a statement seems to have much more everyday importance to Matses speakers than to us. Second, if you assume there is something that cannot be expressed in English — how do you think you could talk (and think) about that in an English book, review, or even mind? Almost by definition, this part of reality would get lost in translation…

Which brings us to another example: colors.

Although the strange sequence in which color terms appear in the world’s languages over time — first black and white, then red, then either green or yellow, with blue appearing only after the first five are in place — still has no full explanation, Deutscher’s suggestion that the development of dyes and other forms of artificial coloring may be involved is as convincing as any other, making color terms the likeliest candidate for a culture-induced linguistic phenomenon.

Other explanations are also possible, of course, and have been made, like here by the British statesman and Greek scholar William Gladstone, who

noting among other things the surprising absence of any term for “blue” in classical Greek texts, theorized that full-color vision had not yet developed in humans when those texts were composed?

Along with psychological experiments, this backs up one of the basic constructivist claims (as put forth, for instance, by Maturana and Varela), that there is hardly any connection between physical spectra of light and the colors we see.

I think if you don’t view languages as static objects, but as systems of thought and expression that keep evolving, and provide an enormous space for creativity and new thoughts, you won’t be too interested in what can and cannot be said (and consequently thought). And from my experience, there are many areas where different languages focus on different aspects of life, and make you more inclined to view reality in a different way. Like, for instance, I’m amazed by how the elaborate linguistic system that has evolved around „dating“ in English in my opinion makes you more likely to view the whole thing as some sort of game, with certain rules, and more importantly, with certain conflicting goals for the participants. And I would argue that while the relative lack of established expressions for this in German makes it harder to communicate with outsiders about what is going on, it leaves more freedom to the individuals involved.

Datum: Samstag, 4. September 2010 11:49
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  1. 1

    im loving this english week! :D maybe you could switch between french, english and german…whatever you can to communicate your point the best ;)