Does Your Language Shape How You Think?
September 9, 2015 11:38 AM   Subscribe

 
Important point here (several paragraphs in):

Whorf, we now know, made many mistakes. The most serious one was to assume that our mother tongue constrains our minds and prevents us from being able to think certain thoughts.

Orwell made the same mistake in 1984.
posted by Nevin at 11:47 AM on September 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Orwell made the same mistake in 1984.

He did? I don't think Orwell was advocating for Newspeak or saying that it would be effective.
posted by zixyer at 11:49 AM on September 9, 2015 [6 favorites]


Do the emotional maps imposed by a gender system have higher-level behavioral consequences for our everyday life? Do they shape tastes, fashions, habits and preferences in the societies concerned? At the current state of our knowledge about the brain, this is not something that can be easily measured in a psychology lab. But it would be surprising if they didn’t.
I was surprised not to see more about the basic gender issue in language the whole "You can use he generically" assertion. Lots of linguistic studies find that, like the guy who saw a fork and did a female voice for it, people don't interpret he generically and yet there was a decades-long argument, still slowly wrapping up, about what you were supposed to do about that. I think some of the other discussions surrounding sex and gender in the last decade or so have had more to do with seeing useful language change (people choosing their own pronouns) than attempts at prescription even if it's based on true facts. Great article, thanks.
posted by jessamyn at 11:57 AM on September 9, 2015 [4 favorites]


I have always held that I am basically a distinct person when I am speaking in Farsi than when I speak English. One thing missing in English that is obligatory in Farsi is the hierarchy of the speakers. I don't to do anything in English when speaking with someone who is 'above my station', but I do in Farsi. There's also the whole ta'arof rigamarole which is more cultural than linguistic but is reflected in tone and word choice. The result is that I am a charming, mellifluous ass-kisser in Farsi but a get-to-the-point straight-talker in English.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 12:07 PM on September 9, 2015 [59 favorites]


When I was a cultural/linguisitic anthro student I argued hard against sapir-whorf fans (which abounded at the time) who infuriated me. As a computer programmer though there are some things I just need a functional programming language to think about clearly much less actually write (actually I can write them in other languages just fine as long as I've thought them through in something else).
posted by Perfectibilist at 12:07 PM on September 9, 2015 [7 favorites]


No.

 
posted by Herodios at 12:13 PM on September 9, 2015


I think it was Douglas Hofstadter who made the point that when there is a male term for a thing it is also the generic term, and the female version applies only to the specifically female subset, and that whatever sociolinguistic force causes that is still in force inasmuch as we use gay to mean male or female gay persons, but lesbian only for female ones.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:18 PM on September 9, 2015 [7 favorites]


One thing missing in English that is obligatory in Farsi is the hierarchy of the speakers. I don't to do anything in English when speaking with someone who is 'above my station', but I do in Farsi.

My mother tongue is Russian and yeah in that language I can speak both far more friendly/casually and far more politely/deferentially than I can in English, which can really set the tone for a conversation in a way you can't do in English.

I was at a mostly-Russian-speaking medical office at one point, and one of the receptionists was basically yelling at the top of her lungs in incredibly gruff tones at a particularly difficult old lady she was dealing with. Not knowing the language you might think they were having a drag-out fight but what she was actually yelling was SWEETHEART PLEASE JUST COME DOWN TO THE OFFICE AND WE'LL SORT IT OUT AND THERE WON'T BE A PROBLEM.
posted by griphus at 12:21 PM on September 9, 2015 [51 favorites]


There are certainly ideas that I can express in Danish but not English, and vice versa. There are words for things where the very concept is inexpressible (at least to me) in the other language because there isn't a referent word for the concept, and no meaningful way to explain it with the vocabulary the language in question provides. Consequently, I inflict a handful of Danish words on the English speakers around me, and use a handful of English words when speaking Danish. I reckon most people who aren't conversant in both languages will never really understand me properly, though a few people like my partner are starting to grasp a few things, slowly, after many years.

If someone has a meaningful way of talking about hygge in the abstract in English, or an equivalent to the Norwegian harry, or some way to talk about being able to overskue tasks or having overskud for them (the whole spoon theory thing is perhaps an attempt at grasping at the same concepts but always feels intensely limiting to me) I'd love to hear it.
posted by Dysk at 12:22 PM on September 9, 2015 [4 favorites]


Also probably one of my single favorite jokes on Arrested Development was Buster trying to explain an Arabic word as "it means 'laundry,' but like a child's laundry," just because I've had so many similar conversations trying to translate things for people.
posted by griphus at 12:24 PM on September 9, 2015 [21 favorites]


I'd like to see this kind of article and research done by natural born bilinguals (or trilinguals/quadringuals as tends to be the case in many other continents)
posted by infini at 12:27 PM on September 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


No.

People have made some pretty broad claims around the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but saying that language has no effect whatsoever on thought process I think is just another extreme.
posted by zixyer at 12:27 PM on September 9, 2015 [20 favorites]


it does mean that they do not have to consider the sexes of neighbors, friends, teachers and a host of other persons each time they come up in a conversation, whereas speakers of some languages are obliged to do so.
What? We use grammatical genders in pronouns all the time. You don't need to use it to mention the word "neighbour", sure, but unless you are going to deliberately keep saying "my neighbour" again and again (which is typically done with deliberation to obscure this information), you're eventually going to say he/her/theirs.
posted by jeather at 12:34 PM on September 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


Whenever we would use the egocentric system, the Guugu Yimithirr rely on cardinal directions. If they want you to move over on the car seat to make room, they’ll say “move a bit to the east.” To tell you where exactly they left something in your house, they’ll say, “I left it on the southern edge of the western table.” Or they would warn you to “look out for that big ant just north of your foot.”

In this culture, pranking someone by setting a magnet next to their compass is punishable by death.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:39 PM on September 9, 2015 [5 favorites]


You don't need to use it to mention the word "neighbour", sure, but unless you are going to deliberately keep saying "my neighbour" again and again (which is typically done with deliberation to obscure this information), you're eventually going to say he/her/theirs.

The fact that we can choose not to - in contrast to in some other languages - is significant, even if it becomes increasingly difficult if you stay on the subject.
posted by Dysk at 12:40 PM on September 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


What? We use grammatical genders in pronouns all the time. You don't need to use it to mention the word "neighbour"

Yeah; that's all he saying-- in English, you can casually mention a neighbor, friend, cousin, relative, etc., once in a conversation without reference to their gender; in other languages, even if you only mention them once, you need to say their gender. Deutscher isn't saying that it never comes up in English or that gender wouldn't come up later in the conversation; just that it's not obligatory every time.
posted by damayanti at 12:40 PM on September 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


... speaker of Tzeltal from southern Mexico was blindfolded and spun around more than 20 times in a darkened house. Still blindfolded and dizzy, he pointed without hesitation at the geographic directions.
World champions of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey.
posted by MtDewd at 12:41 PM on September 9, 2015 [7 favorites]


in English, you can casually mention a neighbor, friend, cousin, relative, etc., once in a conversation without reference to their gender

We can (for some relatives, and increasingly more job titles), but I would like a little more proof that this means it doesn't cross our minds when we say 'my cousin' or whatever then just "we don't have grammatical gender for proper nouns therefore we don't think about gender when referring to people".
posted by jeather at 12:52 PM on September 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


Great article, though I was secretly hoping they'd mention mauka/makai (mountain-ward/ocean-ward directionality used in Hawaii) or other terms originating in island geographies. Like, I'm 100% comfortable with cardinal directions inside of buildings, but somehow the idea that people could use mauka/makai while indoors completely blew my mind.
posted by unknowncommand at 1:04 PM on September 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


What? We use grammatical genders in pronouns all the time.

I'd found myself saying "You guys" way to much and wanted to de-gender so I ended up adopting "y'all."
posted by drezdn at 1:09 PM on September 9, 2015 [11 favorites]


Whenever we would use the egocentric system, the Guugu Yimithirr rely on cardinal directions. If they want you to move over on the car seat to make room, they’ll say “move a bit to the east.” To tell you where exactly they left something in your house, they’ll say, “I left it on the southern edge of the western table.” Or they would warn you to “look out for that big ant just north of your foot.”

Better late than never...
posted by notsnot at 1:09 PM on September 9, 2015


I'd found myself saying "You guys" way to much and wanted to de-gender so I ended up adopting "y'all."

I did this when working retail in NYC in a shop where my boss insisted we say 'hi' to everyone who comes in and regularly had clientele who would likely not appreciate being referred to as a part of 'guys'. One time I did it while my friend (also from Brooklyn) was hanging out in the store and he gaped at me like I had just clicked my heels and saluted them or something equally unexpected.
posted by griphus at 1:12 PM on September 9, 2015 [8 favorites]


Some thoughts:

Noun declension seems to be a kind of entropy reduction in language (e.g. increases prediction accuracy -- lots of papers on this). So the gender marker is serving a useful purpose.

When people talk about using gender inclusive language -- I wonder how seriously they are really taken outside of the potentially genderless world of English.
posted by smidgen at 1:15 PM on September 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


and he gaped at me

Just use "yous" instead.
posted by smidgen at 1:16 PM on September 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


This isn't really "new research" if it came out five years ago :-(
posted by Small Dollar at 1:26 PM on September 9, 2015


Noun declension seems to be a kind of entropy reduction in language (e.g. increases prediction accuracy -- lots of papers on this). So the gender marker is serving a useful purpose.
smidgen

Can you expand a little on this?

What prediction accuracy or useful purpose is given, to use some examples from the article, by referring to beards or turnips as feminine rather than without gender?
posted by Sangermaine at 1:31 PM on September 9, 2015


And how it relates to languages such as Suomi/Finnish which don't have gender at all?
posted by infini at 1:34 PM on September 9, 2015


entropy reduction in language

I swear I read somewhere that languages (and dialects) will average this out -- simplifying things for speakers tends to make them more complex for listeners, so if you reduce entropy in one area, you will increase it in the other or vice versa.

ISTR one example given was AAVE, which simplified some noun clusters compared to SAE but also changed vowels that SAE pronounced as schwas into full vowels (like in 'police'). There were other examples, but I can't seem to think of the right search terms.
posted by jeather at 1:35 PM on September 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


griphus - I speak/read some russian/czech/polish....poorly. All those shades and graduations of diminuitives and perjoratives and formal/informal and when you use MbI , etc (plus aspect which is like"holy fuck this breaks my anglo brain" trying to explain the difference between "I walked to work yesterday" as something unusual that I did and took the train home after is clearly different from "I walked to work yesterday" because I live down the street and walked home, etc which is crystal clear in russian but so vague in english, etc) is one of the many reasons russian novels seem to bloat up in translation. I was amazed when I (tried to) read War and Peace or whatever in Russian how small the books were in comparison to my translated versions. Chekov especially knew how to work that. Tiny jewel like stories turning into big lumpy masses during translation. And definitely a good language for constructive/polite yelling as well as the good old fashioned 'death threats' yelling that we have in English.
posted by Perfectibilist at 1:38 PM on September 9, 2015 [11 favorites]


I experienced this directly for about a month sometime after I had moved to London in '96. It was rather confusing and unsettling but also deeply profound and fun to explore.

What happened was that I began to shift from thinking in German, my first language, to thinking in English and during that month it was sort of a 50/50 split where I would find myself thinking about the same thing in one and then the other language. That in itself wasn't confusing... it was that I arrived at similar but subtly different conclusions depending on the language used. Not in terms of hard logic but in terms of my emotional response to things and in terms of my decision making based on that emotion response. I started paying more attention to it and began to consciously experiment. For example it seemed to me that words for the same thing or concept might have a slightly more positive feel in one language vs a slightly more negative feel in the other.

I remember thinking about the word "chair" and realized it felt subtly brighter/happier than its German counterpart "Stuhl". And it wasn't just positive/negative but a whole range of axes on which the effects of words would vary however subtly.

The anecdotal experience obviously didn't allow me to separate my individual responses from possibly shared ones but it seems entirely plausible to me that shared responses can end up encoded in language and affect users to varying degrees.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 1:38 PM on September 9, 2015 [21 favorites]


Can you expand a little on this?

Here's one example. But there are other papers (this was not the paper I was thinking of when I wrote that (which was also about German), but I can't find it at the moment)

One simple example is if you happen to be taking about beards and turnips, you can use pronouns later on with no confusion.

I swear I read somewhere that languages (and dialects) will average this out -

Yeah, total reduction I guess is the wrong idea -- you're kind of flattening it out...
posted by smidgen at 1:51 PM on September 9, 2015


this is pretty old. Has this not already come up a number of times?

By GUY DEUTSCHER
AUG. 26, 2010
posted by mary8nne at 1:54 PM on September 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


I was hoping for more on gender in comparison to other classification systems of nouns, like Chinese measure words, Bantu prefixes, or Austronesian noun classes. Things with handles, including chairs. Large furniture, including cetacean mammals. Women, fire, and dangerous things.
posted by bile and syntax at 1:57 PM on September 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


I also learned my Russian mostly from soviet era text books and my classmates were american military guys (you guys!) who were trained to translate intercepted soviet messages and then were out of a job when the wall came down. Combined with having studied some German my accent is horrible "Boris Badenov but if he was from Lake Baikal" craziness and I tend to refer to people as "comrades" in ways that make them feel uncomfortable and bungle Tui/Bui (also we didn't have computers for our classes so I never learned to type in Russian properly and end up using some Volapuk nonsense that no one has used for decades. 043N TT^0XA :( ) etc etc etc. I will say that Russian was easier for me to pick up because the cyrillic alphabet matches the language better than shoe horning latin characters onto a slavic language, even with the extra bits czech and polish only make what little sense they do to me when I mentally transliterate them into cyrillic. Often with hilarious mistakes along the way when I try to read p's as r's when they are really p's. etc mostly I can mutilate the languages well enough that someone will try to dredge up whatever English they might know so I will stop molesting their otherwise quite lovely language, which in general beats the "speak English loudly and slowly as if everyone knew it" approach while traveling in my experience)
posted by Perfectibilist at 2:01 PM on September 9, 2015 [6 favorites]


Cool Papa Bell: In this culture, pranking someone by setting a magnet next to their compass is punishable by death.

From the article:
They don’t look at the sun and pause for a moment of calculation before they say, “There’s an ant just north of your foot.” They simply feel where north, south, west and east are, just as people with perfect pitch feel what each note is without having to calculate intervals.
American military personnel who speak English as their first language are also prone to speaking in terms of north, south, east and west for a great many things. So this doesn't have to be an either/or thing or just a language thing. It can be a cultural subset with particular personal experiences.
posted by Michele in California at 2:05 PM on September 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


I was hoping for more on gender in comparison to other classification systems of nouns, like Chinese measure words, Bantu prefixes, or Austronesian noun classes. Things with handles, including chairs. Large furniture, including cetacean mammals. Women, fire, and dangerous things.

Borges.
posted by aught at 2:07 PM on September 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


The thing about island geography informing language is interesting. The city of Kōbe, Japan, is built all along the coast of a mountain range that bumps right up against the sea, so even on things like department store signage, you'll see reference to "mountain exit" and "ocean exit" instead of "north exit" and "south exit," though this is admittedly a local culture thing rather than actually linguistic.

The town of University Park, Pennsylvania, on the other hand, recognizes five different cardinal directions: north, south, east, west, and pollock.
posted by DoctorFedora at 2:13 PM on September 9, 2015 [4 favorites]


The anecdotal experience obviously didn't allow me to separate my individual responses from possibly shared ones but it seems entirely plausible to me that shared responses can end up encoded in language and affect users to varying degrees.

Thank you for sharing that, Hairy Lobster. It encourages me to add my favourite comparison in language juggling.

Sharm/Sharam in my mother tongue (which isn't my first language for reasons) can mean shy, embarrassed, ashamed, modesty, honour (in a woman), badly behaved in the negative bay (without) sharam i.e. shameless (which actually doesn't mean what baysharam means even though its the exact translation)

tl;dr - a plethora of emotion and meaning lost in the single word shame - and the wider variety of nuance in in the continuum from positive to negative connotations embodied by sharam that shame doesn't really manage to capture.

English cripples me emotionally yet I'm crippled by my expat childhood which truncates my vocabulary in my mother's tongue (Hindi, from a Hindu family) to around 250 words commonly used with her, as a child.
posted by infini at 2:16 PM on September 9, 2015 [5 favorites]


The delicacy and nuance of emotional responses as a feminine being are lost in translation.
posted by infini at 2:19 PM on September 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


Perhaps relevant, Paul Kingsnorth's The Wake was just released in the US and is written in a "shadow language" resembling Old English because he felt like he couldn't express the character and his world and thought in modern English (especially with all its Frenchy Latinates), and I thought it would be really gimmicky, but I think it works, it puts you much more completely into Buccmeister's mind and world than modern English would.

(I'm only 1/5 of the way through, though, it's slow -- but fascinating! -- reading.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:28 PM on September 9, 2015 [8 favorites]


Eyebrows McGee- My wife got an advance copy of that at BEA and she read it and liked it, so it's now in my ever growing 'to be read' stack. I'm mostly familiar with Paul Kingsnorth from the Dark Mountain Project so I'm willing to give him a shot at something I would be other wise dubious about investing that much energy in
posted by Perfectibilist at 2:43 PM on September 9, 2015


I love this kind of stuff and think about it frequently. My mother tongue is Norwegian, but I lived in Spain the first 3 years of my life so Spanish was my first language, and now English is my primary language of fluency (dream in it, count in it etc). I've also studied a bunch of different languages as well.

I absolutely feel that language shapes how we perceive the world. When I moved to the US at 14, I feel like I developed a distinctive split personality - the Norwegian one and the American one. In each, I had a different first name, a completely different handwriting, and a subtly different way of thinking.

I ordered the book and look forward to reading more in depth about it. Like I said, this stuff fascinates me.
posted by widdershins at 2:46 PM on September 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


So this doesn't have to be an either/or thing or just a language thing. It can be a cultural subset with particular personal experiences.

Which is all well and good right up until the moment I blindfold you, spin you around and around and then tell you I've hidden your car keys in the southwest corner.

Just kidding. I think the cardinal direction thing is fascinating. It reminds me of Bunny Colvin from The Wire insisting that his police officers always know exactly where they are in terms of precise, cardinal directions, so they can accurately call for back-up.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:49 PM on September 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


I think it was Douglas Hofstadter who made the point that when there is a male term for a thing it is also the generic term

In English. And not always even there, as singular 'they' shows.

It's an easy inference that linguistic gender reflects or reinforces sexism. But once you get beyond English this isn't so clear at all.

Start with the languages, such as Turkish and Chinese, which have a single spoken form for 'he'/'she'. Are their speakers less sexist? Historically, quite the reverse.

If you read a Romance language, you'll find it's common to refer to males as la personne or la victime. When everything is gendered, it's also pretty obvious how much unpredictable arbitrariness is in the system. Even the body isn't properly sorted out: le vagin is masculine, la verge ('cock') is feminine. In English, feminists fought to eliminate gendered terms like 'actress'; in French, feminists introduced new ones, like chercheuse 'researcher'.

The default gender for a mixed group or an unknown person is not always masculine— in a number of languages, such as Maasai, it's feminine. Polish uses the neuter. Zande has a special pronoun for persons of unknown gender. In Dyirbal you use the feminine for a mixed group if it's mostly women, or the oldest members are women.

The English gender system, which only applies to pronouns, is actually rather rare in the world. (Most languages have no gender, or a different set of genders, or apply gender to nouns as well.)
posted by zompist at 2:54 PM on September 9, 2015 [15 favorites]


smidgen: When people talk about using gender inclusive language -- I wonder how seriously they are really taken outside of the potentially genderless world of English.

In Swedish a new genderless pronoun, hen, has gained wide acceptance in recent years. Swedish is a language without masculine or feminine genders, however, except in pronouns.

In the gendered Icelandic language, there's been a long-running debate about using gender-free language to refer to refer to the Christian God (the word is masculine in Icelandic). And another about not using "maður" (man, masculine in gender) as an indefinite pronoun.
posted by Kattullus at 3:36 PM on September 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


zompist: When everything is gendered, it's also pretty obvious how much unpredictable arbitrariness is in the system.

Grown, sober adults can get really worked up about the grammatical genders assigned by their language to non-living objects.
posted by Kattullus at 3:41 PM on September 9, 2015


I think the cardinal directions thing has to do with your life setting. I use them a lot and am a native if idiosyncratic English speaker. If you live between two huge sets of hills running North-South you pretty much always know the cardinal direction, then this sort of attention to cardinality in my experience can be amplified if one routinely needs to wayfind cross-country on foot.
posted by Matt Oneiros at 3:47 PM on September 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm a native Dutch speaker. The Dutch language uses A LOT of diminutives. It's sometimes difficult to explain to non-speakers that we're not always literally talking about small versions of things (although a "biertje" most often is in fact a small beer) but that it functions very much as a way to express familiarity, togetherness, and comfort. I think it's connected to that untranslatable word "gezelligheid", which denotes a very similar sentiment.

I'm not implying that Dutch or any other language can express things other languages can't, but that languages definitely influence the way one looks at the world.
posted by monospace at 4:28 PM on September 9, 2015 [4 favorites]


Noun declension seems to be a kind of entropy reduction in language (e.g. increases prediction accuracy -- lots of papers on this). So the gender marker is serving a useful purpose.


Ish. conditional entropy; see this Ackerman and Malouf paper, the central thesis is, basically, you can have as complicated a morphological system as you want in terms of what sorts of things you mark (# of genders/classes, number of tenses, aspectual markings, etc., etc.), as long as those systems are relatively predictable (i.e., if your genitive form is this, your nominative form is this).

OTOH, slightly contrary to your claim, their hypothesis is merely that languages generally all have low conditional entropy, so it's not necessarily the case that, e.g., more declension classes = lower conditional entropy.

I swear I read somewhere that languages (and dialects) will average this out -- simplifying things for speakers tends to make them more complex for listeners, so if you reduce entropy in one area, you will increase it in the other or vice versa.


I've looked into this a bit, and Hockett says something along those lines: if you have a lot of complexity in one area of language (say, morphology), you'll have things simpler in another area (say, syntax). The idea is appealing, but it turns out, it's kind of hard to test (How do you measure "complexity", exactly?)
posted by damayanti at 4:31 PM on September 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


Kattullus: "there's been a long-running debate about using gender-free language to refer to refer to the Christian God (the word is masculine in Icelandic)."

When I was in seminary in the US, it was standard not to use pronouns when referring to God at all -- "God calls God's people to Godself," sort of thing. Not only was it considered more inclusive, but more accurate (helping to avoid gendering/anthropomorphizing God) and more respectful. More permissive professors would let you get away with "He" in weekly short papers, but by God Godself you'd better not use pronouns in your semester-long theses.

I do think it made people less-lazy about metaphors but I think part of it was also that you had to slow down and think through your sentences more carefully because it wasn't as natural a syntax.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:46 PM on September 9, 2015 [6 favorites]


>Orwell made the same mistake in 1984.

He did? I don't think Orwell was advocating for Newspeak or saying that it would be effective.


It's been a while since I read 1984, but I always got the sense that Orwell was arguing that you can change how people think by restricting their vocabulary. That was the whole point of Winston Smith's existence - to "refine" Newspeak in order to control thought.
posted by Nevin at 5:18 PM on September 9, 2015


. hat in itself wasn't confusing... it was that I arrived at similar but subtly different conclusions depending on the language used. Not in terms of hard logic but in terms of my emotional response to things and in terms of my decision making based on that emotion response.

There's some recent work I've seen showing that working in a second language results in less emotional involvement and more rational processing, because you are doing more intellectual work to produce and understand the language and engaging those systems more. This could explain your experience, rather than it being "English made me think differently"
posted by the agents of KAOS at 5:20 PM on September 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


It's really interesting that most of the anecdotes in this thread relate to people not being able to express something in English that they can express in other languages. I'd be interested in hearing the reverse. What words or ways of speaking are unique to English that are hard to replicate in other languages? After all, it's not like English is just uniquely bereft of its own distinguishing characteristics. My guess is that whether or not it is our "mother tongue", we (the people in this thread that is) use English so much that it is effectively our native language. It's the "default" language to which we compare other languages. Similar to how you don't think you (or the people you grow up around) have an accent.

Apart from English (which is my native language), I speak Russian and Chinese fairly well. Off the top of my head, I think English is unique in the way it phrases requests. In English, when we ask somebody to do something, we typically prefix it with "Can you", "Could you", etc. even if it is a command (we don't expect them to answer yes or no). Even our entire language around commands "ask somebody to do something", "a request" phrases them as if they are actually requests and not imperatives. In contrast, in both Russian and Chinese, requests (polite or not) are typically phrased as commands. It is possible to phrase them in the English style ("Could you/can you") but this sounds awkward.

English requests also often avoid commanding anyone in particular and are phrased in a passive way, e.g. "Could I get some more water?"(in other words, "Please bring me some more water.") This way of speaking would definitely sound really awkward in Russian or Chinese. However, when making requests in either of these two languages, I often find myself thinking I sound more rude than when I am speaking English, even though I'm not being rude - the linguistic constructs around requests are just different.
posted by pravit at 5:26 PM on September 9, 2015 [9 favorites]


Newspeak wasn't a prediction; it was a commentary on two things. First, it was a parody of Charles Ogden's Basic English, an attempt to create an "international" English by restricting vocabulary and relying very heavily on phrases. Rather infamously, the famous phrase of Churchill's (who promoted Basic English as an idea) would have been rendered as "blood, work, eye water, and face water." Second, it was a reaction to the jargon-riddled political writing of the period. Both were targets of Politics and the English Language as well. The more you read of Orwell, the more you realize 1984 was a commentary rather than a prophecy.
posted by graymouser at 5:36 PM on September 9, 2015 [6 favorites]


There's also the whole ta'arof rigamarole which is more cultural than linguistic but is reflected in tone and word choice.

English got to me too fast or something, because I am super bad at ta'arof. I'm bad at the whole ta'arof rigmarole of offering it and graciously accepting it and graciously refusing it, just all of it. PLEASE JUST SAY WHAT YOU MEAN, I DON'T HAVE THE PATIENCE FOR NAVIGATING TA'AROF. My mother despairs of me.

Persian has really ingrained a desire for a T-V distinction in English for me though, to the point where I'll want to use the singular they over he or she in English in an attempt to maintain formality. I think I mostly only do this when I'm speaking in English to fellow family members? But I definitely use the singular they way more than native English speakers, it feels a lot more natural to me than my other options. That lack of gendered pronouns in Persian really dug in deep for me, I guess.
posted by yasaman at 5:40 PM on September 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Spanish has this gender distinction where the masculine/feminine contrast will indicate size. But it seems to be random:

A "charco" is a puddle, but a "charca" is a pond. Does this mean that masculine equals small, and feminine equals big? Nope:

A "barco" is a ship, while a "barca" is a boat.

A "bolsa" is a bag, but a "bolso" is a handbag, typically a woman's. So you can be carrying three bags, one of them being a plastic supermarket bag with your shopping (a "bolsa"), another one your travel bag with your clothes (another "bolsa") and your handbag (a "bolso"). The bolso will be the smallest one, but of course that's not the semantics of the gender switch. Because gender doesn't indicate just size, but also other semantics.

A "manzana" is an apple, but a "manzano" is an apple tree.

It seems to the uninformed me that speakers of Spanish took hold of a distinction existing in the grammar and used it for meaning, often without regard to any perceived masculinity or femininity of the significant. Is a puddle more masculine than a pond? Is a boat more feminine than a ship? ¿Qué es más macho, "pineapple" or "knife"?

Another quirk that has always made me think about the semantic role of grammatical gender is the gender of body parts.

For instance, in Spanish "rodilla" (knee) is feminine. In French, "génou" is masculine. This is true for many other body parts: the words for backs, noses, ears are feminine in Spanish, masculine in French. Given that both men and women have knees and ears, we don´t tend to think of these body parts as more masculine or more feminine. I mean, do French speakers, male or female, think that heads (feminine "tête") are intrinsically more feminine than knees, but Spanish speakers think that "cabezas" and "rodillas" are equally feminine?

My guess would be that sometimes we just need to put things in grammatical slots, and the assignment is essentially random. It would appear that not always: we would think it's not a coincidence that the formal words for vagina and penis are, respectively, feminine and masculine in both languages.

However... slang terms for both body parts are gender-switched without native speakers feeling they are being transgressive, either about sexuality or about grammar. I can speak about "coño" (pussy, cunt, masculine) and "polla" (penis, dick, feminine) and I feel the grammatical gender is as appropriate, or as weird, as when I speak about knees and heads. As a datapoint, when I speak in languages where those genders are reversed (like French) or non-existant (like in English), I don't feel any kind of cultural weirdness.

However... and this is interesting to me as a speaker. The fact that in German "Sun" is feminine ("die Sonne") but "Moon" is masculine ("der Mond") while in Spanish they are reversed ("el Sol", "la Luna") always surprises me, and I've known this fact for over 20 years. Maybe it's because they are often personified, like in children's stories, and the subject of myths and legends. It's also remarkable (to me, privately) when, reading English language children's books, the moon is depicted as a man. Because "la Luna" somehow *has* to be a woman, otherwise it would be "el Luna".

In summary, grammatical gender and its relationship to the phisical world's sex/gender spectrum is a land of contrasts. Sometimes it maps it, but sometimes it very clearly doesn't.
posted by kandinski at 5:49 PM on September 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm no professional linguist, but the pop-linguisitic stuff that I've read (Steven Pinker, John McWhorter) doesn't seem to give much weight to these studies trying to find the weakest of Whorfian effects. So Russians can pick out light blue from dark blue milliseconds faster than English speakers...so what? This article doesn't seem to point to any new, particularly ground-breaking study.
posted by alidarbac at 5:53 PM on September 9, 2015


I'd found myself saying "You guys" way to much and wanted to de-gender so I ended up adopting "y'all."

I consciously use "you all" to refer to groups in a gender-neutral second-person fashion. I would love to just use "y'all", but I am all too aware of how inappropriate that would sound coming out of my Northeast Philadelphian Jewish mouth. Not only would it sound incongruous, but it would feel like some kind of weird cultural appropriation.
posted by panama joe at 5:55 PM on September 9, 2015


The more you read of Orwell, the more you realize 1984 was a commentary rather than a prophecy.

Glad you caught that too.
posted by Nevin at 5:58 PM on September 9, 2015


I would love to just use "y'all". . . Not only would it sound incongruous, but it would feel like some kind of weird cultural appropriation.

Me, I just do it. We need a gender-neutral second person plural in English, and "y'all" sounds less unnatural and contrived in the average North American mouth than the other obvious, homegrown option, "youze."

No one has ever given me significant grief for it.

I also feel that both "you guys" and "dude" are ripe for gender neutralization.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 6:04 PM on September 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


I find the geographic language part really interesting. When you work at an archaeological site, it's really, really common for everything to be set up on a north-south grid. After a week or two of digging at a site, you suddenly realize you always have a grasp of where north is and you're giving directions using NSEW without thinking about it. (Until a random tourist comes by and asks for directions and is super confused when you tell them to head west.) Obviously you don't give up on prepositions , but it's surprisingly easy to pick up and use geographic directions when you have to learn them for other things.
posted by raeka at 6:08 PM on September 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


What words or ways of speaking are unique to English that are hard to replicate in other languages?

I've often stumbled over the fact that Spanish has no word for "home." "Casa" is house. "Hogar" is household. But there's no real equivalent to home.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 6:14 PM on September 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


palmcorder_yajna: "I also feel that both "you guys" and "dude" are ripe for gender neutralization."

I have noticed that American children (at least near me) under about six years old use "guy" gender-neutrally. When he was four, my older son asked me, "Mommy, why are some guys girls and some guys boys?" This is about par for the course among their classmates -- you hear them saying, "Miss Jane, there is a guy at the door!" when an obviously-feminine mother comes to drop off snack, or "What is that guy's name?" indiscriminately for men and women, boys and girls. The gender-neutral usage seems to be slowly trickling up and I feel like I'm hearing it more.

(Personally I've considered "dude" gender-neutral since about 1996.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:20 PM on September 9, 2015 [7 favorites]


If I only had a penguin:

I've often stumbled over the fact that Spanish has no word for "home." "Casa" is house. "Hogar" is household. But there's no real equivalent to home.

You can use the definite article for distinguishing between "house" and "home". "Estoy en la casa" (I'm in the house) vs "Estoy en casa" (I'm at home).

That's why, or rather how, Spaniards can use "casa" also when they live in an apartment/flat. "Voy a casa de Juan" (I'm going to Juan's [home]) vs "Vamos a limpiar el piso de Juan" (We're going to clean Juan's flat).
posted by kandinski at 6:48 PM on September 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Here's a special feature of English, compared to Chinese.

In English, it's possible to express subjunctive statements without a counterfactual, for example:
"Why didn't you do it?!"
"I would've!" (...but there is some reason the speaker did not, which he/she has not stated)

I'm pretty sure you can't do this in Chinese. You can say something like, "if ___, then I would have", but you can't just express the subjunctive without a counterfactual. I have no idea how you would translate "shoulda coulda woulda" into Chinese, if it's even possible.
posted by pravit at 6:54 PM on September 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


You can use the definite article for distinguishing between "house" and "home". "Estoy en la casa" (I'm in the house) vs "Estoy en casa" (I'm at home). That's why, or rather how, Spaniards can use "casa" also when they live in an apartment/flat. "Voy a casa de Juan" (I'm going to Juan's [home]) vs "Vamos a limpiar el piso de Juan" (We're going to clean Juan's flat).


Yes, but even that use just means "the place where I live." Home is more than "the place where I live." Think of home in the sense that its used in "homegoing service" or when you say that even though you've lived in a place for 10 years, it still doesn't feel like "home." Cities and countries can be "home." There's no word in Spanish that captures the word "home" with the connotations related to the way one feels about a place, rather than just the place's function (one lives there).
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 6:56 PM on September 9, 2015


You can use the definite article for distinguishing between "house" and "home".

But how do you say things like, "New York is my home" or "I'm going home tomorrow"(not specifically meaning returning to your actual house, but just returning to your home country or home city)?
posted by pravit at 6:56 PM on September 9, 2015


The English gender system, which only applies to pronouns, is actually rather rare in the world

Japanese has it too. (Basic "he" and "she" pronouns, and instead of a gender-neutral "they" it also has gendered "they" pronouns. In general, a mixed group will use the male group pronouns). But no gendered nouns/etc.

There is a lot of "gendered by convention" usage, however. In addition to the standard forms for addressing self/others ("watashi" for I, "anata" for you), there are variants used mostly by men: "boku" or "ore" (variants of I) or "kimi" (variant of you) [there are a few others but these ones are common]. Which pronouns you use is related to personality and gender. Honorifics are gendered by convention as well (I rarely if ever see an adult male called -chan, but its common for women to refer to their friends that way). And of course like English and many other languages, certain expressions or usages are considered feminine or masculine.

That said, Japanese uses pronouns much less than English, for two reasons : the subject and/or object is often omitted from sentences, and also it is more common to use a name than a pronoun when addressing another person. So where in English its common to only use a person's name occasionally and to say "you" often, the opposite is true in Japanese.
posted by thefoxgod at 7:14 PM on September 9, 2015


Japanese has a fun one with ambiguity: you can't say "brother" or "sister." The words for brother are omouto and ani, and the words for sister are itouto and ane. The thing is, omouto refers specifically to a younger brother, and ani (commonly in the honorific form oniisan) is only for older brothers. Same with itouto / ane - younger and older sister, respectively. So you can't say "her sister" without knowing relative ages of the two.

But then, Japanese is a language where you use different verb endings – and sometimes different verbs entirely – depending on what level of politeness and deference you are showing, and you wouldn't use the word "you" with out-group people at all.
posted by graymouser at 7:34 PM on September 9, 2015


speaker of Tzeltal from southern Mexico was blindfolded and spun around more than 20 times in a darkened house. Still blindfolded and dizzy, he pointed without hesitation at the geographic directions.

If anyone else is as amazed by this as I am, here is the actual paper where the anecdote came from (page 52). I only skimmed through the paper, but the gist of it was that the Tzeltal live in a very steeply sloped area and their language refers to "uphill", "downhill", and "traverse." In the specific test, the speaker was able to point at "true downhill." More generally, the Tzeltals speakers describe being able to distinguish "uphill" from "downhill" due to geographic features.

While still impressive, that's much more believable than some kind of superhuman that can just somehow always sense the cardinal directions without the aid of a reference point, the sun, or geographic features.
posted by pravit at 7:39 PM on September 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


"I also feel that both "you guys" and "dude" are ripe for gender neutralization."

I just asked my son (15) what he thinks about "you guys" (we're a bilingual Eng/French household) and he said "maybe" in English, but definitely not in French.

--

re: geographic location:

We have some older friends who live in rural Ireland. In their town, people would ask, "Where is so and so?" and be told "Above in the village." Or if we were inside, "below in the bedroom". They don't have a basement or lower floor.
posted by sneebler at 7:41 PM on September 9, 2015


pravit: "What words or ways of speaking are unique to English that are hard to replicate in other languages? "

English has an unusual quantity of synonyms (because of the rifling pockets for vocabulary, etc.) ... thesauruses aren't nearly as common in most languages, and most countries aren't like "hey 10-year-olds learn to use a thesaurus" in school. I'm sure that choosing among many slightly different connotative meanings to pick the right synonym affects how people think in English.

The helper verb "do" is weird ("Do you have some jam?"), although I don't know what it'd be like to think without it. Use of articles is a little unusual and can be hard for non-native speakers to learn: "I am a woman - I am the woman - I am that woman - I am woman - I am one woman" sort of thing.

My impression is that English is a little bit unusual (not unique, but interesting) in the large gulf in vocabulary between high formal speech (Latinate) and low vernacular speech (Anglo-Saxon), and the size of the shift between the two registers a native speaker can accomplish without having to switch to slang or "incorrect" grammar or construction. The way non-native speakers mix Latinate and Anglo-Saxon words in English is often noticeable, because it's not quite the same choices native speakers would make to preserve a particular register, if that makes sense.

Here's a prior ask about English words that don't travel.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:28 PM on September 9, 2015 [6 favorites]


... speaker of Tzeltal from southern Mexico was blindfolded and spun around more than 20 times in a darkened house. Still blindfolded and dizzy, he pointed without hesitation at the geographic directions.

... some scientists at California Institute of Technology discovered that humans possess a tiny, shiny crystal of magnetite in the ethmoid bone (pink bone to the image on your right), located between your eyes, just behind the nose…"
posted by sebastienbailard at 8:46 PM on September 9, 2015 [5 favorites]


Japanese has a fun one with ambiguity: you can't say "brother" or "sister."

The same for Chinese! Traditionally, hierrachy (by age, by gender, by generation) is very important, and so are familial bonds. So there are separate terms for older and younger brothers, sisters, uncles on the father's side, uncles on the mother's sides, ditto for aunts, grandparents on either sides etc...

The moment a Chinese references a relative, you can usually immediately tell a few things: whether the person referenced is from the mother's family (usually prefaced with a 表)or father's family (usually prefaced with a 堂), whether he/she is older or younger than the speaker, whether they are of the same generation, what gender they are, sometimes where they are in the hierrachy of siblings. E.g. my 大表姐 is my older female cousin on my mother's side, and she is the eldest in that generation.

While English is my "default" language, my mother tongue has affected my social outlook to a great extent. Speaking Teochew to my older relatives and reading and speaking Mandarin makes me think differently than when I speak English. I am way more deferential in Mandarin, and I feel a strong difference between my father's side of the family (who share the same surname as me) and my mother's side of the family.

My reading preferences also change when I read in Chinese, rather than English. I am not a fan of Jane Austen, but I love reading period fiction about how concubines and wives battle for supremacy in Chinese.
posted by Alnedra at 8:50 PM on September 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


Piping up to represent the gender-neutral Austronesian languages, specifically Malay. I don't really think about how genderless it is until years ago when I was following a local gay blogger, who blogged in English, but used 'dia' (he/she/it) whenever referring to his partner. 'Dia' is a way to also say a special someone in the context, and it's a blessing that he could access it and be able to talk about his life openly (while pseudonymously) while protecting himself from legal and social repercussions of homophobia in my country. And recently I was listening to Amina Wadud (an American Muslim scholar) talking about her experience as a Muslim when she was in Malaysia and Indonesia, and how novel the ability to describe God as Dia or Nya without having to gender the experience. We do have gendered nouns now, as a consequence of borrowing from Sanskrit and Arabic, but I do wonder how deeply it's interlinked with earlier anthro/sociological observations about how native cultures in the region are very much bilateral in gender relations and expectations.

It's actually interesting to see how this idea of 'obliging oneself to think of certain concepts' expresses itself in fluently multilingual societies, because I can see it as a force that shapes certain patois or creolization choices. For example, in Malay, we don't think of plural and singular units so constantly - it can be specified but often elided especially in speech. (as a result, Malay speakers often have the darndest time in English when they have to remember plural or singular nouns, and also verb tenses - verbs are time-modified by adding another word in Malay) So in everyday speech, I have heard the English -s added to Malay words to quickly indicate a plural noun. At the same time, there's a concept of 'something that happened that wasn't by direct intention or action' in Malay that's expressed in the prefix ter-[verb], and I've seen it used added on to English words just so to indicate that it happened, kind of by accident but certainly not intentionally.

Japanese has a fun one with ambiguity: you can't say "brother" or "sister." The words for brother are omouto and ani, and the words for sister are itouto and ane. The thing is, omouto refers specifically to a younger brother, and ani (commonly in the honorific form oniisan) is only for older brothers. Same with itouto / ane - younger and older sister, respectively. So you can't say "her sister" without knowing relative ages of the two.

Graymouser, don't you mean 'otouto' (younger brother) and 'imouto' (younger sister)?
posted by cendawanita at 9:37 PM on September 9, 2015 [4 favorites]


My main complaint with this article (other than it's not very recent information) is that I don't find it very significant. Assigning a slightly feminine voice to a car, being a little quicker to name a shade of blue? So what? I don't see those as defining characteristics of the human condition or anything. The mapping thing is kind of neat, and maybe might lead to something important. Maybe. It just seems like a ton of research for very little significance. I wish more effort were being spent on documenting the 90% of our languages that will be extinct by the end of the century.
(I'm not saying these people shouldn't focus on whatever they want. They find it interesting? Ok. Research it. But I can wish.The clock is ticking.)
posted by greermahoney at 9:39 PM on September 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


All Hebrew nouns are gendered (although some of them have both genders). This caused great hilarity when innocent little me observed that nouns are female if you can put something inside ...

Verbs and pronouns are inflected for gender. This causes a problem for people who don't want to be identified as male or female; it also looks weird when someone notices a man in a mostly-female audience: suddenly all the inflections change to masculine to accommodate him.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:39 PM on September 9, 2015


"Japanese has a fun one with ambiguity: you can't say "brother" or "sister." The words for brother are omouto and ani, and the words for sister are itouto and ane. The thing is, omouto refers specifically to a younger brother, and ani (commonly in the honorific form oniisan) is only for older brothers. Same with itouto / ane - younger and older sister, respectively. So you can't say "her sister" without knowing relative ages of the two.
"

In Korean, dongsaeng is both "younger brother" and "younger sister."
posted by klangklangston at 11:53 PM on September 9, 2015


Not to be That Picky Guy, but Japanese does have a non-age specific word for brother ("kyodai") and for sister ("shimai"). However, you only really use them when you don't know whether "oniisan" (older brother) or "ototo" (younger brother) are correct. So, like, on a census form you might very well see it, but if you're talking to your friend and you say "Is that your CD or your brother's?" you wouldn't use "kyodai", instead choosing either "oniisan" or "ototo", as appropriate (ditto with sisters).
posted by Bugbread at 12:11 AM on September 10, 2015


To be Even Pickier Guy, Japanese doesn't even technically have pronouns (few of the rules that define pronouns in European languages apply to Japanese pseudopronouns). When you'd demote a noun to a pronoun in English, you ordinarily just omit it from the sentence entirely in Japanese.

pravit: "What words or ways of speaking are unique to English that are hard to replicate in other languages?"

I've had a hell of a time trying to figure out a way to express "X makes sense" in Japanese. I've found a couple of case-specific options (like 納得です for when you're acknowledging that you understand an explanation for why a thing is how it is) but there's nothing that really nails the English nuance of internal logic and consistency.
posted by DoctorFedora at 12:18 AM on September 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


oh also basically the entirety of the flavor of any dialogue in any American movie is lost entirely when subtitled in Japanese,* because there's not a whole lot of sense of speaking in a slangy sort of way overall, because Flappers and Jazz didn't happen to Japan

*Something like "We gotta blow this joint!" routinely becomes "Get out!" or "Let's go!"
posted by DoctorFedora at 12:21 AM on September 10, 2015


But surely every language has its set of informal idiom that can be somewhat mapped to the American idiom? E.g. in Chinese one might say 赶紧闪人!or 快开溜! instead of just 快走! to bring over that flavour of "blow this joint".
posted by Alnedra at 12:33 AM on September 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


This is a very tricky subject, and I hope not too many people here are assuming that their personal, singular, experiences, tells us something scientific about language. As others have pointed out, it's not that these differences don't necessarily exist, it's just that it's not clear if they're significant.

When I want to explain this point, I usually compare language to race. Are there genetic differences between black people and white people? Absolutely! That's why we look different. However, if you start applying your intellectual resources to understanding all the tiny ways in which this is measurable, then the differences will start to seem significant where they weren't before.

More importantly, as with language, race is highly correlated with culture, and in my opinion, it's the cultural differences that people really want to identify, and they want to do it through race and language. The thing is that you can't, and though I see no reason to think that the writer of this article is racist, as far as I can tell, they do seem to want to conflate language with culture in order to make linguistic differences seem more important than they are.

Similarly, just because you feel differently when expressing yourself in different languages doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the languages themselves. The context within which you learn a language is going to determine your relationship with the language, and because the environment that you learn each language is probably radically different, comparing the way you speak the languages is much more about comparing how you learned them, then the languages themselves.
posted by Alex404 at 12:35 AM on September 10, 2015 [3 favorites]


Alnedra, that was just meant to be one sort of fairly generic and clichéd sort of example. I can't even begin to imagine how, say, Zaphod Beeblebrox would speak in Japanese.
posted by DoctorFedora at 12:36 AM on September 10, 2015


Whenever an article about linguistic determinism begins making the rounds, I feel the urge to send a bottle of Excedrin to my linguist friends to help them through dinner party conversations for the next few months.
posted by duffell at 3:58 AM on September 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


alex404, a great study would be to consider the experiences of African children adopted by Nordic parents - a reasonable population size that may offer some rich insights.
posted by infini at 4:18 AM on September 10, 2015


So does being raised in the Roman Catholic faith during the time when the Mass was in Latin have an effect? I could argue that it does, and that the change to the vernacular Mass was disturbing not only because change is not an easy thing, but that also the Latin itself provided a context missing from the vernacular.
posted by CINDERELLEN at 7:47 AM on September 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


Whenever an article about linguistic determinism begins making the rounds, I feel the urge to send a bottle of Excedrin to my linguist friends to help them through dinner party conversations for the next few months.

Thank you.

Do I take the tablets or throw the bottle?
 
posted by Herodios at 9:01 AM on September 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


I am a native Spanish speaker and didn't learn English until I was already 15. Spanish has the formal and informal ways of addressing someone (usted vs tú) , and English does have a more formal form of "you" (thou, which is practically obsolete). When I learned that English did not have a formal address, I adopted a more deferential form of speaking to compensate for this difference, which lead to me being a completely different person depending on which language I speak.
posted by cobain_angel at 12:02 PM on September 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


"and English does have a more formal form of "you" (thou, which is practically obsolete)."

That's reversed. "Thou" is informal; "you" is formal. It's a bit of nuance for the King James Bible — you're always addressing God as "thou" to imply an intimate relationship. That "thou" is archaic means that it's misused a lot in anachronistic media.
posted by klangklangston at 12:25 PM on September 10, 2015 [3 favorites]


English does have a more formal form of "you" (thou, which is practically obsolete)

Archaic English actually was comparable to French in its T-V distinction. Thou was the informal form, ye was both the formal and plural form. So thou was similar to French tu, and ye to French vous. The objective forms were thee and you. (Objective is the case that "me" is in relative to the nominative "I".) Thou went out of common use, and the form "you" displaced "ye" so it is now the same in both the nominative and objective cases.

There is a misconception about "thou," which comes from its frequent use in the King James Version of the Bible. In the KJV the translators used "thou" for singular and "ye" for plural to match the singular and plural pronouns in Greek, which had no status distinction. This causes modern people to think that "thou" indicates a higher or more formal register of speech, especially because the KJV version of the Lord's Prayer is particularly widespread. But it is a misconception, and "thou" is actually more like "tú" while "you" is like "usted."
posted by graymouser at 12:26 PM on September 10, 2015 [6 favorites]


"n the KJV the translators used "thou" for singular and "ye" for plural to match the singular and plural pronouns in Greek, which had no status distinction."

Huh, that's interesting. I had always heard that the "thou" was an intentional choice; I hadn't realized that it was an artifact of translation that didn't have a significance in terms of formality.
posted by klangklangston at 12:45 PM on September 10, 2015


I am also a native Spanish speaker (studied English in school, but actually got to use it in everyday life from my early 20s, when I moved to the US).

I still miss having a "respectful" way to address people. It feels uncomfortably casual to speak to my elders/superiors using the same pronouns I would use to speak to my "equals". In general, English feels like such an informal language to me.

I also wonder if the effect goes both ways, as in yes, native language might influence the way we think, but the way we think (the way our culture sees the world) also influences our language.

What comes to mind is for example how some tribes in the Amazon see the past as something "in front" of them, and the future as "behind", and their language reflects this. Or how some people in the Andes don't value punctuality as much as others do, and so their words for time are just estimations on how long it takes you to chew a bunch of coca leaves (one cocada is roughly 45 minutes)
posted by Tarumba at 12:49 PM on September 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


What comes to mind is for example how some tribes in the Amazon see the past as something "in front" of them, and the future as "behind", and their language reflects this.

I read somewhere a long time ago about a native American tribe who had a saying "We walk backwards into the future"
posted by infini at 1:01 PM on September 10, 2015


Traditional Chinese saw time in a similar way. There is a phrase 前无古人,后无来者. which means someone you have never seen the likes of in history, and will never see the likes of in the future. In the phrase, the past is in front of us, and the future is behind us.

DoctorFedora, I think my point was that certain cultural idioms or speaking fashions might be mapped across cultures. Naturally there are many that cannot; formal Chinese speech would sound obsequious and hilarious if translated, but the obsequies are just considered parts of speech as determined by the social hierarchy in Chinese.
posted by Alnedra at 5:06 PM on September 10, 2015


One common insight that seems to be emerging in this thread is the sense that English (if its not the dominant language in your geolocation and/or culture of origin) is more informal and actually may feel "rude" or "presumptious" to those whose other language/s may have embedded forms of dealing with social roles and hierarchies and courtesies.

I know I speak with my Father and Mother in different versions of the same language yet in English I must use the same words. I understand what many have said about being more deferential in English as compensation and I wonder how this reflects upon our own character and personality (to third parties unaware of this ongoing compensation, for instance) in the context of the English dominant setting.

Regardless of its lack of scientific rigour and method, this thread has been immensely helpful. Thank you all for sharing these nuances.
posted by infini at 10:04 PM on September 10, 2015


One common insight that seems to be emerging in this thread is the sense that English (if its not the dominant language in your geolocation and/or culture of origin) is more informal and actually may feel "rude" or "presumptious" to those whose other language/s may have embedded forms of dealing with social roles and hierarchies and courtesies.

Being bilingual Danish-English, I have the opposite experience. English is made of courtesy and politeness, something that is almost invariably handled with tone, body language, and potentially phrasing in Danish. There is no word for 'please' in Danish, and passive phrasing (like "could I have a coffee" for example) sound very odd in a most contexts.

Combine this with the British ritual of pleases and thankyous for any shop or similar non-personal interaction, and I feel weird when I end up at the bar or in a shop in Denmark, and all I can really do is say "I want a beer" or "give me a beer, thanks".
posted by Dysk at 1:18 AM on September 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


On English expressions that are hard to translate:
"Oh my god!!" when surprised/shocked.
"Bless you" when someone sneezes.
posted by Bugbread at 4:00 AM on September 11, 2015


On English expressions that are hard to translate:
"Oh my god!!" when surprised/shocked.
"Bless you" when someone sneezes.


"Herregud!!"/"Mein Gott!!"

With respect to the second, does it have any particular meanings (in that contextual usage of the phrase) that aren't captured by other languages' responses to sneezing?
posted by Dysk at 4:09 AM on September 11, 2015


Sorry, I should have said "hard to translate into Japanese". And, if you look at that chart, it says "Note, however, that it is very rare for anyone to acknowledge a sneeze in Japan and it is customary not to say anything at all." I can only imagine you would say "odaiji ni" to someone who sneezed if they were obviously sick (you were visiting them in a hospital, they sneezed while calling you to say that they were taking the day off work because they had the flu, etc.). I've never personally heard anyone in Japan say anything to someone when they sneezed.
posted by Bugbread at 4:26 AM on September 11, 2015 [2 favorites]


And, yeah, that's a common thread. There are few to no features in a language that are entirely unique. Instead, you get things where an expression has parallels in languages A, B, and C, but has no parallels in languages D, E, or F.
posted by Bugbread at 4:48 AM on September 11, 2015 [2 favorites]


"Bless you" when someone sneezes

I am from Cincincincinnati, so I say "gesundheit", not "bless you". From this we are constrained to conclude that my language shapes me into:
a) An atheist
b) A doctor
c) A German
d) Some combination of the above
e) Mu

other languages' responses to sneezing . . . in Japan . . . it is customary not to say anything at all.

Quoting myself in a very old thread:
'S a funny ol' world, ain't it:
  • When you belch, courtesy requires that you say something.
  • When you sneeze, courtesy requires that I say something.
  • When you fart, courtesy requires that we both pretend the dog did it.
For specific cultural values of 'you', 'me', and 'the dog', of course.
posted by Herodios at 6:05 AM on September 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


Bugbread: "There are few to no features in a language that are entirely unique. "

Yeah and I feel like it basically doesn't count when something "unique" to English also appears in German. THEY'RE FRATERNAL TWINS. It's still unique to the language family!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:42 AM on September 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


Sigh... Ay dios mio
posted by smidgen at 12:15 PM on September 11, 2015


« Older Proving that "One Day More" from Les Miserables is...   |   "I feel like I grew up around wood - it's in my... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments