Tower of Babel

Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt.
The limits of my language are the limits of my universe.
– Ludwig Wittgenstein

I think this post is going to be regrettably link-heavy. So, you know. Sorry.

Conversation this week started with a friend sending me a link to a Wall Street Journal article about linguistic relativism.


Here’s the link if you want to read the whole thing:

Some findings on how language can affect thinking, according to the article:

  • Russian speakers, who have more words for light and dark blues, are better able to visually discriminate shades of blue.
  • Some indigenous tribes say north, south, east and west, rather than left and right, and as a consequence have great spatial orientation.
  • The Piraha, whose language eschews number words in favor of terms like few and many, are not able to keep track of exact quantities.
  • In one study, Spanish and Japanese speakers couldn’t remember the agents of accidental events as adeptly as English speakers could. Why? In Spanish and Japanese, the agent of causality is dropped: “The vase broke itself,” rather than “John broke the vase.”

So basically, the point of the article is to give anecdotes to reinforce a weak linguistic relativism; in other words, that language structure can ALSO structure one’s relationship with the world. The example about the  Pormpuraaw, an Aboriginal culture in Australia, is a great example. I quote from the article:

“For example, in Pormpuraaw, a remote Aboriginal community in Australia, the indigenous languages don’t use terms like “left” and “right.” Instead, everything is talked about in terms of absolute cardinal directions (north, south, east, west), which means you say things like, “There’s an ant on your southwest leg.” To say hello in Pormpuraaw, one asks, “Where are you going?”, and an appropriate response might be, “A long way to the south-southwest. How about you?” If you don’t know which way is which, you literally can’t get past hello.

About a third of the world’s languages (spoken in all kinds of physical environments) rely on absolute directions for space. As a result of this constant linguistic training, speakers of such languages are remarkably good at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes. They perform navigational feats scientists once thought were beyond human capabilities. This is a big difference, a fundamentally different way of conceptualizing space, trained by language.

Differences in how people think about space don’t end there. People rely on their spatial knowledge to build many other more complex or abstract representations including time, number, musical pitch, kinship relations, morality and emotions. So if Pormpuraawans think differently about space, do they also think differently about other things, like time?

To find out, my colleague Alice Gaby and I traveled to Australia and gave Pormpuraawans sets of pictures that showed temporal progressions (for example, pictures of a man at different ages, or a crocodile growing, or a banana being eaten). Their job was to arrange the shuffled photos on the ground to show the correct temporal order. We tested each person in two separate sittings, each time facing in a different cardinal direction. When asked to do this, English speakers arrange time from left to right. Hebrew speakers do it from right to left (because Hebrew is written from right to left).Pormpuraawans, we found, arranged time from east to west. That is, seated facing south, time went left to right. When facing north, right to left. When facing east, toward the body, and so on. Of course, we never told any of our participants which direction they faced. The Pormpuraawans not only knew that already, but they also spontaneously used this spatial orientation to construct their representations of time. And many other ways to organize time exist in the world’s languages. In Mandarin, the future can be below and the past above. In Aymara, spoken in South America, the future is behind and the past in front.”

The article follows this idea of TIME with the concept of causality; in other words, the thought that THIS happened, THUS, this happened. The author is arguing that cultures that have a linguistic structure with a strong sense of causality (as in the example above, “John broke the vase” as opposed to “The vase was broken, or broke itself”) might also have a different culture of criminal justice. Or blame. Or consequence. Or, actually, of determinism vs. free will, if you want to take it there. For example.)

I reposted the link, with the Czech quote that “Learning a new language is like gaining a new soul”. There’s another one that says: “Kolik jazyků znáš, tolikrát jsi člověkem” which means, “The more languages you know, the more you are human, or literally “As many languages you know, as many times you are a human being”.

It was an interesting concept for me, and I suppose it had particularily poignant resonance for me since I’ve been studying French and trying to learn to express myself in a different language.   I’ve had a sort of dissolution of ego, a very real personality crisis that has, probably more at its root, the feeling of disassociation resulting from LACK of ability in verbal self-expression. But I guess I’m wondering…seriously wondering…if speaking a different language, in a way, creates a different person inside you, a person who relates to the world in a different way. In Turkish: Bir dil bir insan, iki dil iki insan: One who speaks only one language is one person, but one who speaks two languages is two people.

Apparently this is a common feeling. 🙂 For better or for worse.

So linguistic relativism, basically, is that the structure of a language influences and shapes how its speakers view and organize the world. More or less. We won’t get into the stupid myth about Eskimos and all their purported names for snow, but this is the basic gist of the concept. Ok?

The idea of linguistic relativism is not a new idea. Ludwig Wittgenstein to a degree addressed this in his early work, Tractatus. In short, my understanding is that one of the aims of the Tractatus is to reveal the relationship between language and the world: what can be said about it, and what can only be shown. Wittgenstein argues that language has an underlying logical structure, a structure that provides the limits of what can be said meaningfully, and therefore the limits of what can be thought. The famous quote about how what cannot be said must be passed on in silence comes from this book, and we had to read it when I was in college. I largely remember a sense of frustration with the whole thing at the time, to be honest…and remember very little about it. (I’m trying to plow through an online version again this week and it is just about as readable as I remembered, although infinitely more interesting when you have an actual reason to be attacking the thing.)

In its contemporary form, it’s called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. There’s a “strong version” of this theory which is just silly, and a weak version which is a little more plausible. The strong version seems to ultimately imply that language shapes a persons POV so profoundly that two people from two different cultures would be unable to share a world view. And this, I don’t think, is really the case. A friend gave me an example…if you were to give, for example, a gun, to two people with two very different language traditions and ask them to describe the function, it’s not like each wouldn’t be able to do it, or that they would describe a different object. Conversely though, the idea of color description is a little more interesting: if you have more names for particular shades and colors, you’re more likely to be able to perceive a wider range of colors. Naming really does alter your perception of the world.

I’ve been slapped around a little by a linguist friend of mine, who basically said that Sapir-Whorf, while popular, has been largely discredited in linguistic scholarly circles, and that its existence tends to drown out theories and works in the field that are more interesting, accurate, and provable.

Still, as a new language student, it’s hard not to think about how language shapes our world, and how the study of a new language changes that perception. This idea, while perhaps romantic and inaccurate, does resonate with the feeling of displacement and the struggle of trying to describe the world in an unfamiliar language.


2 thoughts on “Tower of Babel

  1. Do watch wearing cultures have a different sense of time – maybe as it relates to distance?

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