Skip

Does the language we speak shape our thoughts? - An online debate
December 15, 2010 4:35 PM   Subscribe

Does the language we speak shape our thoughts? The Economist is hosting an interactive online debate running all this week. Lena Boroditsky, a Stanford psychologist, supports the motion that it does, while Mark Liberman, a linguist from the Univ of Pennsylvania opposes it. Elsewhere you can read a WSJ article in which among other things Boroditsky argues that Japanese and Spanish speakers have a different sense of blame, and listen to a lively in-depth seminar at the Long Now Foundation. All her articles and papers are available in PDF online.
posted by philipy (72 comments total) 59 users marked this as a favorite

 
Very interesting. I've often thought about how the languages we speak shape ourselves. As a musician I've pondered how people who speak certain languages, and even certain dialects within languages, tend to have more vocal control and produce more pleasant sounding tones. It makes sense that this would have a deeper developmental reach than the voice.
posted by bhamrick at 4:44 PM on December 15, 2010


Great Chomsky's ghost!
posted by Artw at 4:44 PM on December 15, 2010 [9 favorites]


Obviously it does, otherwise why are the Inuit so much better at snow-identification than the rest of us.

hamburger. oh my goodness, hamburger. I just wanted an excuse to drop a Whorf Hypothesis wikipedia link in here for some historical context.
posted by 256 at 4:45 PM on December 15, 2010 [10 favorites]


Ah, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I'm on the side of "yes," though my time studying speech pathology probably puts me at a bias.
posted by honeydew at 4:45 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


The Sapir-Worf says that people who speak Klingon are assured a death with honor and a place in Sto'Vo'Kor.
posted by revgeorge at 4:50 PM on December 15, 2010 [12 favorites]


Babel-17
posted by Artw at 4:50 PM on December 15, 2010


Would be interesting if true, but it seems we run into strange territory when we try to contend that the words - the morphemes themselves - that we developed to describe our cultural concepts influenced those cultural concepts themselves. But I'll hold off on all that for now and RTFAs.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 4:52 PM on December 15, 2010


During an extended language immersion experience I found that language seemed to impact my thoughts. The program I was in forbid english for the entire duration. After a few days thoughts and dreams began to move into the language. The lack of a broad vocabulary reduced my ability to express and see nuance. I remember a after a couple months it was like the world was reduced to few colors and seemed to lack the depth it formerly did. I noticed a kind of social regression as well within my colleagues, everyday interactions reduced to an It was actually a few weeks after the program before things popped back to normal again.
posted by humanfont at 4:55 PM on December 15, 2010 [8 favorites]


I tend to think language evolves to accommodate what we need to express.

The notion that language shapes thought is an attractive one, but limitations of language does not preclude us from thinking thoughts we do not have words for. I may not have the Inuit word for snow-that-is-soft-on-top-but dense-underneath (or whatever), but that is (imo) because I have no use for the word, i can still think about it, and even describe it.

Just because two cultures have different senses of blame, or any given concept, does not automatically mean that language is the culprit for the difference, it could be that the culture expression of the concept requires different concepts to express it.

That being said, I do think language influences thought, but only on a basic, emotional way, and that it does not take much to be able to transcend that process.


FWIW the FPP is decent, but it definitely shows a bias in the debate in the way it was constructed. It is more of a Lena Boroditsky FPP rather than a FPP about the language shaping thought, or thought shaping language debate. Which is fine and good, but it could have been even greater with tweaks.
posted by edgeways at 5:01 PM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


I speak English natively, and Japanese tolerably well. On a particular occasion in Japan, a Japanese gentleman (who spoke English tolerably) and I agreed in our assesment that an instruction our monolingual Australian boss wanted to give to one of his Japanese employees could not be expressed comprehensibly in Japanese. Which is to say, the instruction could be translated well enough, but would not be comprehended by the employee as a sensible thing for a boss to ask, and for the employee to agree to do.

The interesting thing is that while I remember this occasion clearly, I can't remember what the request was -- because it was unexceptional in English, and incomprehensible in Japanese.

So, count me with the "language shapes our thoughts" crowd. Or, as Wittgenstein apparently said, "if a lion could talk, we would not understand him."
posted by spacewrench at 5:06 PM on December 15, 2010 [10 favorites]


Is there any realistic way of studying this without bringing children up in a culture distinct from the one in which the language is normally spoken? That said, the WSJ article, if accurate, seems to support at least the weak Sapir-Whorf hypothesis very well.
posted by BrotherCaine at 5:08 PM on December 15, 2010




I am ashamedly monolingual, but I remember reading somewhere (perhaps here) that there are thoughts you can have in French that you cannot have in English.

That struck a serious chord with me, and it has made me wonder what I've missed out on being fluent in only one language. What other thoughts am I missing out on? What could I learn about myself and the rest of the world if I could think in Russian? In Spanish? In Japanese?
posted by Thistledown at 5:18 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, I think there is probably some indirect influence at least. I know that there are times when I think purely in images, but there are other times when words form in my head in my phonological loop. One language might afford me a particular set of concepts that fit easily in my phonological loop, and other languages might afford me a slightly different set of concepts that fit.
posted by Jpfed at 5:22 PM on December 15, 2010


edgeways That being said, I do think language influences thought, but only on a basic, emotional way, and that it does not take much to be able to transcend that process.

How about gender-neutral English pronouns?
posted by aeschenkarnos at 5:25 PM on December 15, 2010


spacewrench The interesting thing is that while I remember this occasion clearly, I can't remember what the request was -- because it was unexceptional in English, and incomprehensible in Japanese.

I wish you would remember, that sounds very interesting.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 5:26 PM on December 15, 2010


The Sapfir-Wharf hypothesis.
posted by phooky at 5:42 PM on December 15, 2010 [5 favorites]


A good example of this, with a kissing-cousin language to English (Dutch) is gegelligheid. See the tortured wikipedia attempt at translating what is essentially a cultural normative state to English, where the USAians have no equivalent (although I suspect that outside of London there's an English one).
posted by digitalprimate at 5:46 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


So if language shapes thought, then what shapes language?
posted by carter at 5:55 PM on December 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


Seems like a two-way street, no? Culture molds language molds thought molds culture molds...

In one sense, language is art. And art imitates life imitates... In another sense, language is technology, so the law of technological determinism applies, and that's a whole nuther kettle of fish. Still, language enjoys a very special relationship with thought and culture.

Language is the liquid that we're all dissolved in: great for solving problems after it creates the problems.
-Isaac Brock

vs

Language just happened; it was never planned, so it's inadequate to describe where I am...
-Conor Oberst
posted by es_de_bah at 6:04 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Here is the video of the Long Now seminar.
posted by AlsoMike at 6:05 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


I have studied Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Yiddish, and Syriac, and I'd say I think very differently in each of the languages. In Hebrew, I think, why do they write without vowels; this is impossible to read! In Latin, I think, I am going to kill myself, why did I take Latin? In Greek, I think, I can't say any of these words out loud without wanting to laugh. And in Syriac, I think, Syriac? There's only, like, seven sentences possible in this language, and all involve a wolf eating somebody! What am I supposed to do with this?

This is why students of the classical era are invariably mad.
posted by Astro Zombie at 6:30 PM on December 15, 2010 [31 favorites]


In Greece, the verbal--and that is to say: the intellectual--seeds of scientific language are of a very ancient date. To take one example: we could scarcely imagine the existence of Greek science or Greek philosophy if there had been no definite article. For how could scientific thought get along without such phrases as to hydro (water), to psychron the cold, to noein (thought). If the definite article had not permitted the forming of these 'abstractions' as we call them, it would have been impossible to develop an abstract concept from an adjective or a verb, or to formulate the universal as a particular. As far as the use of the definite article, Homer's speech is already more advanced than the classical Latin of Cicero. Cicero finds it very difficult to reproduce the simplest philosophical concepts, for no other reason than the lack of an article. To express ideas which to a Greek come easily and naturally, he has to fall back upon circumlocution: his translation of to agathon (the good) is id quod (re vera) bonum est. - Bruno Snell
posted by jfuller at 6:43 PM on December 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


A good example of this, with a kissing-cousin language to English (Dutch) is gegelligheid. See the tortured wikipedia attempt at translating what is essentially a cultural normative state to English, where the USAians have no equivalent (although I suspect that outside of London there's an English one).

OK, in a sense language shaped our thoughts, but the reason there is no Gegeligheid in English is because English-speakers had no use for it. I am reifying what esgeways said. I know Gegeligheid doesn't necessarily mean cosy, or homey, or even the Yiddish hamish (although I think it is kind of closest because I could replace hamish with gegelig in almost all the sentences in that Wikipedia article.)
So English speakers have choices if they needed a word to convey that. They could import it - think of angst or je ne sais quoi - they could expand the definition of homey or hamish - or they could invent a new word.

So yeah, a weak Sapir-Wharf thing probably happens, since gegelig is untranslatable and doesn't even correlate 100% with Gemutlich or hygge. But the BIG S.W. thing always struck this non-linguist as a bit silly.

Perhaps the most interesting thing is how much S.W. there is between languages, and for that matter, between dialects, and even between *people.* How can I be sure that the word terrific, say really means exactly the same thing for me as it does for you?

Small example. For me, the word sneaker conveys sneakers obviously, but I categorize sneakers as footwear, but not shoes. By that I mean you have this tree
  • Footwear
    • shoes
      • loafers
      • pumps

    • boots

    • sneakers
      • keds


Apparently most people would put sneakers next to loafers and pumps as a sub-category of shoes. My own individual S.W. worldview!

posted by xetere at 6:48 PM on December 15, 2010


I'm a linguist and multilingual; my best language outside of English is Japanese. My husband speaks it, too, and we use some code switching when there is a Japanese phrase that is handier or more economical for expressing something.

I don't really believe that there are things that speakers of language X understand that can never be explained to speakers of language Y. Certainly, there are cultural divides, but with time, empathy, and the occasional epiphany it is possible for two people from any set of different backgrounds to understand one another.

Still, I like to think of languages as sets of tools, and each has some tools that are very, very handy in certain situations.

For example, I went to a funeral today, a difficult one. I don't really think in Japanese all that much if I'm in the United States, but I spent most of my afternoon that way, just because the words for thinking about grief and sadness are so much richer.

In addition, I met several new people who might not have been at their best today, behavior-wise. Japanese gave me words to describe them in my head, non-judgmental ones that fit the circumstances so I could think my thought and move on. In English, I would have been left with 'bitchy', and 'bratty', but who wants to think that way in a place where strangers are holding each other and crying?
posted by Alison at 6:52 PM on December 15, 2010 [10 favorites]


> The interesting thing is that while I remember this occasion clearly, I can't remember what
> the request was -- because it was unexceptional in English, and incomprehensible in
> Japanese.

spacewrench, please think deeply and try to remember. Because I ache to plug the English into Google Translate, and then re-translate the Japanese output back into English. Just to, y'know, see.
posted by jfuller at 7:09 PM on December 15, 2010


"Shape," eh? Thought has shapes? So how's a spherical thought different from a pyramidal one?

I jest, but the point is that the outcome of this debate will hinge on how you fill in the unstated assumptions in the question. The very fact of grouping things in different ways, like how some languages have different words for "green" and "blue" while some don't, might itself qualify as "differently shaped" thought, because you're categorizing colors differently. Whether that's what you mean when you talk about the shape of thought probably depends on what you're interested in. Is it important or interesting that different cultures (linguistic communities) categorize colors different ways? If so, language shapes thought. If not, it doesn't.
posted by LogicalDash at 7:11 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


As the years go by, and I live more of them in cultures other than the one I grew up in, I become more and more convinced that some weak form of linguistic determinism is indeed the case.

There are a lot of other things that people are talking about upthread, many of which are not germane or are just distractions to the main thrust. But I personally do quite strongly believe that a) language and its structures guide and (to various extents) determine human knowledge or thought, as instantiated in things like attitudes, values and beliefs, b) that different languages shape knowledge and thought in different ways c) that there is a kind of feedback loop in effect between culture and language which strengthens this effect.

It's far from just a matter of vocabulary per se -- the spurious 'Eskimo words for snow' that most people dismiss these days, thank goodness, is a ridiculous simplification, of course -- but of the ways in which language addresses not so much things but concepts and meta-concepts, ideas about ideas and beliefs about thoughts and thoughts about... well, you get the picture. It's the knot at the center of the mass that binds language to culture and the individual to his or her society where these things are perhaps not determined, but certainly chopped and channeled.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 7:13 PM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Is it important or interesting that different cultures (linguistic communities) categorize colors different ways?

No, it isn't.

If so, language shapes thought. If not, it doesn't.

Not at all. That conclusion doesn't follow in any way from your premise. This is the distraction I mentioned. Things in the world, colors (arguably not 'things in the world', I know, but let's not go there right now), whatever: differences between languages for these, I suggest, aren't interesting or illuminating, particularly.

That Person X using language Y might lump together colors that I describe using different words tells us little to nothing interesting.

To suggest that that in turn means that language does not shape thought is a wild leap indeed.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 7:19 PM on December 15, 2010


In many languages, the word for blue and the word for green is the same. It's the same color in the way turquoise is blue and teal is green, and it completely alters the way the speakers think and talk about color.

So, yeah, your nouns define your universe... you actually try to find existing nouns to think about new and otherwise alien concepts - mouse, window, browser, program, memory, processor.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:20 PM on December 15, 2010


I think the best example to use when talking about the effects that language can have on thought is mathematical notation. It's possible to do math without using any notation at all, but it gets awfully long-winded. The differences are not enormous when dealing with arithmetic, but calculus probably couldn't have been developed without Euler's notation.
posted by LogicalDash at 7:25 PM on December 15, 2010


I was trying to use the colors thing as an example of something that might or might not be considered "shaping thought". I apparently failed to indicate the generalization that I wanted to make. Sorry.
posted by LogicalDash at 7:27 PM on December 15, 2010


I'm sure some form of language-shapes-perception is true, in that languages sometimes affect what you pay attention to, but most of the discussions around it come across, to me, like people engaging in romantic wishful thinking when the reality is much more boring and banal. Like in discussions about "untranslatable words" that seem more like circle jerks because no one points out that you can explain said words in a short English sentence and everyone instantly knows what you're talking about.

But I just had to watch Eat Pray Love and am a little annoyed with cultural mysticism, so take my disdainful skepticism for what it's worth.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 7:39 PM on December 15, 2010


Okay yeah, on further reflection "If not, it doesn't" should read "If not, I can't say anything about it".
posted by LogicalDash at 7:39 PM on December 15, 2010


"She is a bitch" vs "She's being bitchy": one ascribes a personality trait, the other describes a behavior. Translations/transliterations frequently ride roughshod over these critical details. It is entirely plausible that different languages are biased toward one or the other; and this is only one dimension of possible difference. Nuance is depth. But maybe again what matters most is the articulation of the speaker/writer. Look how shallow/unprecise so much of modern narrative is, at least what we see/read in media.
posted by yesster at 7:42 PM on December 15, 2010


In many languages, the word for blue and the word for green is the same. It's the same color in the way turquoise is blue and teal is green, and it completely alters the way the speakers think and talk about color.

But doesn't everyone see colors as seamlessly blending into one another? Surely I don't see colors as part of a three-dimensional continuum just because I've learned to express them as RGB triplets or whatever. It would seriously floor me if people naturally had some kind of quantized perception of color dependent on the language they grew up with- at the very least, continuous color information is available at the primary visual cortex.

By the way, most "green" traffic lights aren't just green, damn it. They have an appreciable blue component.
posted by Jpfed at 7:54 PM on December 15, 2010


"The wine-dark sea."
"The deep blue sea."
"Sea green."

Color influences perception. It's ludicrous to think of the ocean as purple - less ludicrous if the linguistic barrier between blue, black and purple was not as strong as it is in English. The sea itself is changeable... in Daytona Beach, it's clearly green. In Palm Beach, it's clearly blue. These are constructs of our language - someone from medieval Japan would only see shades of ao.

"The sky was the color of television tuned to a dead channel..."

In 1984, this meant grey. In 2010, this means bright blue.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:09 PM on December 15, 2010 [10 favorites]


It's the same color in the way turquoise is blue and teal is green, and it completely alters the way the speakers think and talk about color.

If our colour words were different, we'd speak about colour differently? Well, sure, we wouldn't fight if one tealy aquamariney turquoise shirt is really blue or really green, or think about whether the ocean is bluer or greener, but we'd fight about whether the grass is bluegreen or yellowgreen, and if we were given tasks about categorising colours we'd group things a bit differently, but we could still see all the same distinctions (though we'd think different ones were important when choosing words).

I have very little trouble in seeing teal as a type of green, but not the categorical green (which is grass green), and being more similar to the bluey turquoise than the greeny lime.
posted by jeather at 8:14 PM on December 15, 2010


But doesn't everyone see colors as seamlessly blending into one another? Surely I don't see colors as part of a three-dimensional continuum just because I've learned to express them as RGB triplets or whatever. It would seriously floor me if people naturally had some kind of quantized perception of color dependent on the language they grew up with- at the very least, continuous color information is available at the primary visual cortex.

When I look at the color wheel, the "standard" colors aren't equally spread out. I mean there is as much cyan in there as there is yellow. And there are far more english speakers who know what yellow is than know what cyan is. The best we get is the crayola blue-green, green-blue. Usually it is just light blue.

Leading to what might be my point: the lack of precision in languages must mean something and must work its way into (or out of, really) someone's thought processes. If there aren't enough tenses to accurately tell a story, a culture will find some other way of settling those matters. They will invent a new tense ("what had happened was"), or they might just map some social norm onto it and solve it that way. Blame the gods, get into a fistfight or just offer them some tea and forget it all.

Why do the Dutch have that cozy/warm/familiar/quaint word? Is that a concept that is missing in English, or is English more precise in that arena and Dutch lacks the precision. I don't know.

In other words, the cultures that had the same word for shit as they did food probably didn't last very long.
posted by gjc at 8:29 PM on December 15, 2010




If a word exists in another language to express a concept, it's often adopted by the English language if it doesn't already have one. Schadenfreude, assassin, and kowtow for instance.

I'm surprised no one has mentioned how thought crimes were being made impossible in George Orwell's 1984 by eliminating the words to express the concepts.
posted by Daddy-O at 9:01 PM on December 15, 2010


In their book Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson suggest yes:

"Metaphor is more than a device of poetic imagination and the rhetorical flourish … metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action.”

To give some idea of what it could mean for a concept to be metaphorical and for such a concept to structure an everyday activity, let us start with the concept ARGUMENT and the conceptual metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR.

Examples: Your claims are indefensible. He attacked every weak point in my argument. His criticisms were right on target. I demolished his argument.

It’s important to see we don’t just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments. Try to imagine a culture where arguments are not viewed in terms of war, where no one wins or loses, where there is no sense of attacking or defending, gaining or losing ground. Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. In such a culture, people would view arguments differently, and talk about them differently."

It's pretty intriguing so far (I'm only half way through) and I'd recommend it. It's my first linguistics book but it might compel me to dig in a bit more.

For some political fun: "I got tired of cursing the newspaper every morning. I got tired of seeing what was going wrong and not being able to do anything about it." So Lakoff tells how conservatives use language to dominate politics.
posted by mapinduzi at 9:11 PM on December 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


Since this is basically the "I speak Japanese too" thread (we get lots of those on MeFi, don't we?) I figured I'd add my two cents. My girlfriend and I (both white Americans) both live in Japan and speak fairly good (her) and quite good (me) Japanese. At a bare minimum, we find ourselves code-switching our vocabulary at times when we want to express something that's more succinctly describable in Japanese in a certain way (e.g. あっさり and こってり for flavors, or 田舎 as a non-judgmental way of saying "rural" minus the baggage it brings with it in English, or any of the hundreds of thousands of XYXY-structured sensation-words like ぽかぽか or かちかち).

I also find that at work, where I am speaking primarily Japanese to coworkers, I generally become more polite and all that other stuff that white people who work in Japan say happens to them. Part of this is just a matter of its being pretty easy to make adding けれども to the ends of your sentences as a polite verbal tic. Part of it is that there are requests you'd make in English that, if you try to translate them literally, just get awkward and unwieldy (though none come to mind immediately).

I'd argue, though, that there's definitely a degree of different thinking involved when you speak a language that draws distinctions that your own doesn't, at a bare minimum. If nothing else, it makes you pay attention to whether you're saying that the ambient temperature is cold to you (寒い) or if something is cold to the touch (冷たい).
posted by DoctorFedora at 9:35 PM on December 15, 2010


Her name is Lera.
posted by cogneuro at 9:40 PM on December 15, 2010


But doesn't everyone see colors as seamlessly blending into one another? Surely I don't see colors as part of a three-dimensional continuum just because I've learned to express them as RGB triplets or whatever. It would seriously floor me if people naturally had some kind of quantized perception of color dependent on the language they grew up with- at the very least, continuous color information is available at the primary visual cortex.

Really, are you sure? As a kid, you didn't think of colors as "peach", "apricot", "chartreuse," and whatever else was in the Crayola 64-pack? Because that part of art training is about ditching the linguistic framework for conceptualizing color (as much as possible) and actually developing a model. I remember having a quantized perception of color pretty clearly!
posted by furiousthought at 9:57 PM on December 15, 2010


Wittgenstein: ""the limits of my language mean the limits of my world." Wittgenstein is still ahead of his time; it's only now that we're catching up to him.

Speaking with an academic physicist some years ago, he told me that he had an idea about language acquisition, and how it impacted thought and mathematical problem solving. He said that his Western students, when stumped on a problem, would continue to attack the problam "frontally"; his Asian students, when stumped, would "circle the problem". He explained himself by saying that he thought the abstract pictographic nature of Chinese and other Asian scripts fourced people to think more in 3 dimensions than Western alphabetic representation. He said he had no proof of his theory, but had seen this in action over years of working with mixed race students )he taught in San Francisco). He said that neither approach was superior, but that both had their different merits, and disadvantages.
posted by Vibrissae at 10:14 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


There is the Piraha tribe in the Amazon. They can't learn to count, their language doesn't have the numbers, and they can't seem to acquire the numbers from other peoples. They also seem to lack reflexive grammar and a real concept of the past or the future. They don't do art either.

On the subject of untranslatable words, I found an old AskMe thread that was awesome
posted by humanfont at 10:21 PM on December 15, 2010


sapir-whorf, son of moog
posted by oonh at 10:26 PM on December 15, 2010


He explained himself by saying that he thought the abstract pictographic nature of Chinese and other Asian scripts fourced people to think more in 3 dimensions than Western alphabetic representation.

Those inscrutable Asians!
posted by DoctorFedora at 11:15 PM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm a professional translator of Japanese into English. And I will echo the thoughts of others upthread in saying the following.

To answer the question in the thread title, "Does the language we speak shape our thoughts", it is necessary to define, as best we can, what we mean by the word "shape".

If that means "exerts an influence on", I think the answer is an unequivocal "yes". If that word means "constrains and defines", then I think the answer is "no".

It's a phenomenally complex topic to get into. Language is, in many senses, the most important thing we humans possess, use, and create. We live within it, and everything we do is filtered through it. There can be no science without language. No religion. Certainly no Metafilter.

To think that it doesn't exert an influence on the way we view the world seems to me, ludicrous.

Then again, all is illusion.

よろしく
posted by jet_manifesto at 2:44 AM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


The best example I ever heard about how a culture was made of language comes down to fucking.

There's no non-stigmatized, non-slang word that means what "fuck" means, and so fucking becomes something dirty and low, because there's no elevated or celebratory way to say that you want to fuck or be fucked or fuck someone. There's "intercourse," but you can't really use it in a titillating conversation without coming across as a sort of hypercharged schoolmarm—"Yeah, hon, I'd love it if you'd intercourse me tonight," or "I'm going to intercourse the heck outta that big furry backside of yours after I finish washing the dishes," or "man, everytime that brute with the toolbelt and shoulders as broad as the Mississippi comes to work on the elevator, I just wanna intercourse like nobody's business."

The language sets up the expectation of dirty, uncouth, forbiddenness, and fails to provide an alternative system of metaphor and meaning that conveys the electric, celestial, joyous qualities of, well, fucking, and conflates fucking with being fucked [over], being fucked [up], or just being fucked [unredeemably busted]. You can be modern, be liberated, and retake control of your language to be positive and celebratory about sex, wresting control of the word in a limited way to make it something wonderful, but there's always that broad cultural condemnation out there to mash it back down, and press it back into the dark and hairy little recesses of the social arena.

As we use it, the word contains the milky seed of power, too, and a statement of who's in control. People get "fucked in the ass" when their control is mooted by a more dominant oppressive force. The direction of implied power is in the discretion of the fuck-er, and the fuck-ee is merely a vessel or a victim. There's no component of mutal energy, activity, and agency in fucking—it's coded into popular usage that it's one person in control of the other, regardless of whether that loss of control is desired, enjoyed, or even real. In our biology, women have this ability to land on this ecstatic plateau of orgasm and just hang there, indefinitely, while the fireworks go off, a state achieved with focus, control, and an indefinable knack for it, but there's not a word for that, for the way this glittering blinking panting shuddering whirling mothership of physiological transcendence through the troughs and waves of repeated orgasm can land on a lucky partner like a UFO descending on a lone cow in cartoon landscape.

You can get sophisticated and grow up, and you can alter your language with scaffolding and wheatpasted signs and wonders and layers of stuccoed-on detail, but it's still just "fuck" under there, a cultural assumption that you can amend, but not eliminate. New language has to emerge, borne from and carried along by cultural changes that can't really happen without new language, but too many of these creation events fail, leaving us with phrases like "yeah, we were balling in the back of the microbus" that serve as little time machines, hurling us back into a world wreathed in pot smoke.

In the meantime, we keep on fucking, and wondering why our culture is so fucking fucked-up about fucking, and so we beat off, boats against the word, borne ceaselessly back into shame.
posted by sonascope at 4:03 AM on December 16, 2010 [6 favorites]


"There is the Piraha tribe in the Amazon. They can't learn to count, their language doesn't have the numbers, and they can't seem to acquire the numbers from other peoples. They also seem to lack reflexive grammar and a real concept of the past or the future. They don't do art either. "

I swear that this is the new words-for-snow myth. It's so wrong it's not even right. I'm not sure where to begin, but other than maybe to start here ... A claim like "they can't learn to..." suggests that somehow Pirah̃a brains are different from the rest of the world's brains, incapable of learning the concepts that we so clearly see are different and more limited versions of our own (presumably because of our superior brains).*

I think that if we limit ourselves to defining what a language can and can't do (and therefore what is possible to even conceive by its speakers) primarily by what is grammaticalised or what is lexicalised in that particular language, then we can say all sorts of ridiculous things. I got one in the hopper now: English has no grammaticalised future tense (no future marker/morpheme). Therefore, according to "Pirah̃a logic", we can't really think about the future! How on Earth do we ever make any plans!?! Also, English has no (lexicalized or grammaticalized) way to express the concept "mouth shaped like a crushed box" (Zapotec does, however). But oh shit, I just did.

*Now I assume that that's not what you meant with those statements. But I don't think you're thinking critically enough about what those statements actually imply and presuppose, with respect to how whole groups of people may or may not think (or be capable of thinking).
posted by iamkimiam at 4:29 AM on December 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


Ugh. Threads like this drive me crazy. I resisted clicking through for a while, but finally gave in and my fears (that it would contain a lot of non-scientific speculation by users who haven't read the content of the links in the post) were indeed justified. So I'll make a few points.

First of all, the claim is that the specific language you speak influences your though, not that "language" influences thought. This distinction is important. Boroditsky is a psychologist, and Liberman is a linguist, and they're going back and forth about where the line should be drawn: is it a "nudge" (Liberman) or something more influential (Boroditsky)?

Next up, color: Boroditsky does in fact claim that native speakers of Russian cognitively perceive colors differently than native speakers of English (Winawer, J., Witthoft, N., Frank, M., Wu, L., Wade, A., and Boroditsky, L. (2007). Russian blues reveal effects of language on color discrimination; pdf here). This is what linguistic relativity means, and why color discrimination tasks are a good way to test the hypothesis. Testing differences on more culturally-influenced factors is extremely difficult (how can you separate the culture from the language?) and thus hasn't been done much, and any speculation (see: this thread) is just that. The lexical items used to describe colors in human languages follow a partial ordering that is universal, and corresponds to the physiology of the visual system. No human language has a word for brown without having a word for red.

And finally, semantic extension. Different human languages chunk up meanings in different ways. Many Native American languages can express in one or two words what it might take ten words to express in English. Here's a word from an Aleutian language: angyaghllangyugtuq that means "he would like a big boat." Should speakers of that language assume that we have difficulty with the concept expressed by that word because it takes us 600% more words to express it? All human languages are equally expressive. This is not to say that the number of words it takes to express the idea is the same in each language, but if you're tempted to believe that there's something really "untranslatable" then consider whether it's really a cultural difference you're focusing on and not a linguistic one.
posted by tractorfeed at 5:06 AM on December 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


Sometimes it just seems like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is a big confluence of confusing causation and correlation. Does the language we speak influence the ideas we have, or do we influence our language by way of the ideas? In English, it seems like the latter, since a sufficiently important idea will force its way into the English language either by borrowing (schadenfreude) or invention (portmanteau, any number of Shakespearean words).

Behind the scenes, though, is culture. How you are raised, what your culture dictates, will influence the ideas you have and the words you use. If your culture dictates that expression of emotions is verboten and a sign of weakness, your language will probably lack variety of emotional vocabulary. When we look at people who speak this language, we'll note that they have difficulty in expressing emotion, but it's probably due to cultural upbringing.

Reading the entry about gegelligheid, it didn't seem confusing or foreign as a concept. We don't have one all-encompassing word to mean that in English, but I get it, and it doesn't seem like that much of a stretch that an apartment, a couch, and a visit to Grandma's could all be gegellig.

The point about "arguments" being discussed in terms of war? The hypothetical culture in which "arguments" are seen more as a dance than a fight? We have that in English, too. We call them "discussions."
posted by explosion at 5:27 AM on December 16, 2010


I can't speak for anyone else's thought, but my study of a native-American language taught me that the way in which a culture understands the world influences the content and structure of the language.

Think about verb forms for example, in a worldview in which -some- objects are thought of as -animate-. It's hard to destroy those parts of nature which are considered equal to or superior to the human speaker. Hence the extreme shock of people who watched the buffalo (deliberately) destroyed before their very eyes. Someone might argue that's not about language, but I dare you to suggest how to separate someone's language from their religion, philosophy and cultural byways without destroying one of them.

I find it amazing that anyone who's been privileged to study more than one language could beging to take any other position. Even within our culture; does anyone doubt C.P. Snow's "Two Cultures"? Notice how different the language of science/technology is from that of the literature/arts??

It may be harder to make this assertion than it once was, due to cultural contamination. Swiss psychologist Carl Jung asserted that native Africans (which he spent quite a bit of time with) -could not see- some objects because the objects did not fit into their view of the world. I very much doubt that's a problem any more. Are there any 'cargo cults' left?
posted by Twang at 5:29 AM on December 16, 2010


P.S. This example ought to be more convincing: how long do you think you'd keep your $200,000/year job at one of those $100million/year public relations firms if you didn't think that the language we speak shape our thoughts???

Or, ask George Orwell.
posted by Twang at 5:41 AM on December 16, 2010


There's no non-stigmatized, non-slang word that means what "fuck" means, and so fucking becomes something dirty and low, because there's no elevated or celebratory way to say that you want to fuck or be fucked or fuck someone.

You mean, coitus?
posted by moonbiter at 7:29 AM on December 16, 2010


More seriously, language is a tool. If you don't have a chisel, you must either develop a chisel, use a different (perhaps more difficult) way to shape stone, or perhaps simply not shape stone at all.
posted by moonbiter at 7:40 AM on December 16, 2010


A good example of this, with a kissing-cousin language to English (Dutch) is gegelligheid.

Almost. We tend to spell it gezelligheid. (Gegeligheid could theoretically be understood as making-yellow-ness, but I doubt it has ever come up in any conversation.)

Gezelligheid is also not a very good example. The concept can be expressed in english simply by using the word fun most of the time. In most other cases something like homely will do. As such, gezelligheid is not a concept, but more a term for a collection of concepts which could be expressed individually, but often aren't because using the collective term is just easier. The listener can deduce from the context whether homely or fun is meant, if the distinction is important. In other words: nothing that can't be expressed in english is expressed.
posted by Sourisnoire at 8:05 AM on December 16, 2010


I don't see colors as part of a three-dimensional continuum just because I've learned to express them as RGB triplets

Funny, my experience is different. Ever since I learned the HSV system, I think of color as a three-dimensional continuum. It was a revelation when I learned the words for 'chroma' or 'saturation,' because I'd had that concept in my mind before, but couldn't work with it well because I didn't have a good definition. Having the words to describe color has made me much better working with it.

I definitely don't think in RGB, though, that would be really awkward.
posted by echo target at 8:21 AM on December 16, 2010


田舎 as a non-judgmental way of saying "rural" minus the baggage it brings with it in English

I wasn't aware that "rural" had baggage or stigma?
posted by gjc at 8:30 AM on December 16, 2010


Interesting thing I picked up from the link to the other thread about this. The lack of two different "know" words for knowledge and belief makes political discourse muddy. When someone says they "know that guy is a pinko commie", which form would they use in a language with that distinction? *Is* there a distinction in their minds? What form does a translator pick when they are translating?

For example:

Diplomat: I know you guys are enriching uranium!
Translation1: I have evidence you guys are enriching uranium!
Translation2: I feel like you guys are enriching uranium!

Depending on how it is translated would seem to make all the difference between the adversary thinking "crap, they got us" versus "screw you for mistrusting us!"

Noun gender: I always attributed the reasoning for it to be simplicity and convenience. If the word ends in a letter that sounds better with the female pronouns, it gets the female gender. And that (possibly) the concept of gender is further up the tree, linguistically, than actual gender. Gender A is called female because that is the gender that the word for female happens to be a member of. I'm not learned enough to even try to prove it, but I'd bet that the le/la differentiation happened before anyone called linguistic genders.
posted by gjc at 8:52 AM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


FWIW the FPP is decent, but it definitely shows a bias in the debate in the way it was constructed

edgeways... I agree. If I'd had more time to work on my post, I would have gathered more materials for the other POV. But FWIW, the hypothesis that language does shape thought in important ways is very interesting, whereas the converse is more a case of "move along now, nothing to see here".

Basically you need to think a hypothesis is interesting and credible before it even matters that there are counter-arguments. And I'd like to think people that care enough by that point will check out the counter-arguments for themselves.

But in the end, it's a matter of how much time I had to look over the materials, plus not wanting to inundate people with links.
posted by philipy at 10:18 AM on December 16, 2010


Btw, remember that the main link in the FPP is to an online debate that is happening right this week. Today the debaters are engaged in rebuttals of what has been offered so far.

If you want to learn more, put forward your ideas, or interact with the researchers involved, you have a great opportunity to do that. The debate is pretty nuanced and many of the points raised on Mefi have been well addressed there.
posted by philipy at 10:48 AM on December 16, 2010


Fifty years from now these debates will be continuing. Only they will have people saying that the nature of South-Saharan African languages make the speakers inherently better at engineering than Westerners or Asians. This will explain to the Chinese why all their electronics and domestic products are being made in Africa.
posted by happyroach at 11:27 AM on December 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


'The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.' -Wittgenstein
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:32 AM on December 16, 2010


I believe that the ways in which this is true are unremarkable and the ways it which it might be remarkable are not true.

If you speak a different language you will interact with different people and this broadens or changes your views. Also the sounds and motor skills are different and there is a substantial compartmentalization of personality: people generally (automatically?) associate a different (more interesting?) personality with their non-native language. They behave as they think they should behave, and this in turn affects how people treat you. So yeah, clearly you will experience the world in a different way, just as if you grew up in the tropics or on the Artic circle.

But it doesn't give you a shortcut to invaluable insights that reveal some hitherto hidden facet of the nature of world, or some such, which is why I think people cling to this idea: the promise of hidden treasure in some faraway land.
posted by eeeeeez at 12:04 PM on December 16, 2010


When someone says they "know that guy is a pinko commie", which form would they use in a language with that distinction? *Is* there a distinction in their minds? What form does a translator pick when they are translating?

In German, one of the languages cited as having two forms of "know," you would only use the one form for that meaning "wissen." The other form, "kennen" would make absolutely no sense in that context. As far as I know (and I'm not a native speaker, I just live here) the difference between the two words is not as profound as you think it might be.
posted by moonbiter at 1:03 PM on December 16, 2010


Alas, "coitus" suffers from the same issues as "intercourse," in that you can't use them as a verb without some degree of silliness, and they're both awfully clinical. I suppose one could say "darlin', you got me so hot and bothered I can hardly wait to get home to coitus you," but you'd really have to be a certain kind of person to answer, "shit yeah, let's coitus our intercoursing brains out, babydoll!"
posted by sonascope at 2:49 PM on December 16, 2010


“Previous research has established a causal role of language ability in the development of false-belief understanding in children. Our study examined this relationship into adulthood, and revealed that language is indeed a necessary prerequisite, one that cannot be replaced by even 25 years of social experience. Adults who had no congenital cognitive deficits, but whose language was incomplete, failed to fully understand the beliefs of others. With mental-state vocabulary as our language measure, and age as our index of social experience, the pattern is clear: Language, not just social experience, is a prerequisite for the acquisition of false-belief understanding.”
Jennie E. Pyers & Ann Senghas, Language Promotes False-Belief Understanding: Evidence From Learners of a New Sign Language, available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2884962/
posted by prefpara at 4:22 PM on December 16, 2010


furiousthought: Really, are you sure? As a kid, you didn't think of colors as "peach", "apricot", "chartreuse," and whatever else was in the Crayola 64-pack?

A big problem I had as a kid was "I have these thoughts, now how do I verbalize them?", although that quote was not the thought itself, but a verbal encoding of the thought generated just now. In the case of crayons, drawing entailed finding the appropriate crayon for the color in my head, and there were certainly occasions in which the appropriate crayon did not exist. I still remember the frustration of trying to get a good flesh tone and thinking "'peach' is way too vibrant" and though I did not know the words, I remember the feeling and can put words to it now that "peach" was too saturated to represent the skin tones I wanted to draw.

echo target: Ever since I learned the HSV system, I think of color as a three-dimensional continuum.

Hey, I'm down with HSV, too (learning that came later for me, though it also feels more natural for me nowadays). I meant that my perception of color as a three-dimensional continuum exists independently of my having learned to express it that way (regardless of the specific 3 dimensions chosen). I always saw color as continuous.

Incidentally, by the time color signals are leaving our thalamus and headed towards the primary visual cortex, they're essentially encoded as LAB, but HSV still feels more natural in terms of consciously expressing and representing color.
posted by Jpfed at 3:58 AM on December 17, 2010


I'd say there's pretty good evidence for how we regard colors as being lexically separate having an effect on how we view the world. I used to think that it was weird that "light blue" and "dark blue" were two entirely separate words (and thus colors) in Russian until it was pointed out to me that pink is just light red.
posted by DoctorFedora at 6:30 AM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


« Older Get Out of the Van!   |   Papal gymnasticis Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post