For many years, experts believed language functioned as a sort of mindshaper. Several decades ago, a chemical engineer named Benjamin Lee Whorf was moonlighting as an anthropology lecturer. He claimed that language imposed a reality on the speaker’s mind that is different from our own. Despite a lack of evidence, Whorf’s theories were given credence until their exposure seriously discredited the study of language. For a time, the study of language took on a fringe element in academia.
But times have changed. The New York Time recently allowed linguistics expert Guy Deutscher to report on his new book, “Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages.” Deutscher describes how Whorf insisted Native Americans had an intuitive understanding of Einstein’s theory of time because of how their language treated time. As Whorf noted, “Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.
Ultimately discredited, Whorf nonetheless shaped the study of language with his assumptions. His most basic false conclusion was that people’s “mother tongue” constrained their minds and prevented them from perceiving certain thoughts. In other words, we have a difficult time understanding Einstein’s theories because of our words for time.
Deutscher instead argues that language can indeed influence our perception of the world — but we all perceive the world nonetheless. For example, someone says “Viola!” Even people who have never heard the French word can understand the concept of “Here it is!” with flourish.
Further, Deutscher notes that speakers in different geographic languages seem to have “an almost-superhuman sense of orientation.” He notes the example of Guugu Yimithirr, who speaks in a remote Aboriginal tongue. As Deutscher points out, “Guugu Yimithirr does not use words like 'left' or 'right,' 'in front of' or 'behind,' to describe the position of objects.” Instead, Yimithirr orients himself in the world according to east, west, north and south and consequently has a perfect orientation at all times. Therefore, different languages can make us speak about direction in different ways, though we all ultimately know how to find our way home.
Deutscher also looks at the difference of male and female tenses in various languages. Everyone understands that objects are not male or female. But he shows that grammatical genders can actually shape the speaker’s subtle perception of inanimate objects. He refers to how Spanish speakers see bridges, clocks and violins as “manly” while Germans see them as more “elegant.” And when an objects’ “gender” is reversed, so are the perceptions.
Ultimately, Deutscher proposes that our “habits of the mind” can shape our orientation of the world and even have an impact on our beliefs and values. We may not all think the same way, but we think nonetheless.
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