Do the words we use frame the thoughts that we have? And, if so, does the language we speak affect how we think?
It turns out that linguists and cognitive scientists have been going back and forth on this issue for years. There is a fascinating article on the subject in last weekend’s New York Times Magazine (which I’m only now getting around to reading). It’s a piece by Guy Deutscher, an honorary research fellow at the School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures at the University of Manchester, and author of a forthcoming book, Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages.
First popularized in the 1940s, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity “seduced a whole generation into believing that our mother tongue restricts what we are able to think.” The lack of a future and past tense in a given language, for example, was supposed to limit some speakers’ ability to comprehend the concepts of future and past.
Although such ethnocentric and romantic aspects of the theory have been totally discredited, new research does suggest that language can have an effect on both thought and perception. For example, it has recently “been demonstrated in a series of ingenious experiments that we even perceive colors through the lens of our mother tongue.” As it turns out, different languages “carve up the spectrum of visible light” in different ways, with, for instance, many languages considering blue and green to be variations of the same color. And, astonishingly, “our brains are trained to exaggerate the distance between shades of color if these have different names in our language.” So, “as strange as it may sound, our experience of a Chagall painting actually depends to some extent on whether our language has a word for blue.”
From the gender properties of objects, to conceptions of spacial relationships – there seems to be a myriad ways that our mother-tongue helps to influence the way we think about the world around us.
Some 50 years ago, the renowned linguist Roman Jakobson pointed out a crucial fact about differences between languages in a pithy maxim: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” This maxim offers us the key to unlocking the real force of the mother tongue: if different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about….
…The habits of mind that our culture has instilled in us from infancy shape our orientation to the world and our emotional responses to the objects we encounter, and their consequences probably go far beyond what has been experimentally demonstrated so far; they may also have a marked impact on our beliefs, values and ideologies.
I can’t think of a better argument for why common schools are so crucial to the health of a democratic society. Without some shared habits of mind – some common language and shared “core knowledge,” as it were – we might be quite literally talking past one another.