Friday, July 17, 2009
Language shapes thought, thought shapes language
I've been convinced for years that our thought is affected by what language we speak, and often constricted by it. There has been an argument about this idea for decades in academia; those who contend language shapes thought and those who assert we all think alike. This is an example of why I have sometimes little patience for academia; why does it always have to be an either/or proposition? The answer always seems to be only that a thesis or study must be about proof of one proposition. In this way, I could say that academia shapes our understanding of things, even if we're not academics; we see reality as a series of yes/no ideas. If you believe language shapes thought, one can't also believe that we all think alike, too.
The process of thinking in its most abstract sense is universal, but intuitively, I've always felt that language does shape the way we see and think about the world. I'm pleased to see new studies that prove this to be so. This week's Newsweek has a short, but very good article on the subject, and here is a link to a more in-depth article.
As a practitioner of Zen Buddhism, it has always seemed plainly obvious that language shapes ones' understanding of the world. The English language does get in the way of expressing many Buddhist concepts. Our language is inherently concrete as opposed to Chinese, where Zen first flourished. While Americans struggle with concepts that involve the oneness of all things and of time being non-linear, in Chinese these concepts are already built into the language. For instance, the characters for "thought" itself are many, and none of them are thought alone. The most-used character for thought is a combination of the characters for heart and mind. While we tend to intellectualize, try to think without including what's in our feelings, in Chinese that's nearly impossible right from the get-go, for these concepts are inextricably bound together. How could that not affect the way one thinks?
Another Chinese character for thought is one that implies thinking about the past. One does not say "I'm thinking about a bowl that I once had", but simply "I'm thinking about a bowl", and the listener, hearing the different word for thought, simply gets it without all the extraneous words. Speaking of bowls, it's interesting to me that we say "S/he broke the bowl" when a person accidentally breaks something by banging into it, but in Chinese and Japanese one would say something akin to "the bowl broke itself." Studies show that English speakers think back on these events and attach blame. Asians look back on the same events and think of the broken bowl, tending to forget "who" broke it.
I had mentioned just yesterday that I had a problem with attaching gender to objects, such as calling a boat "she". One person said that they always did, and that made sense, for their native language is Russian, where even verbs take on gender. Italian speakers think of keys, for instance, as feminine and pretty, and French speakers think of keys are masculine and strong. I think "key", and I wonder what key to think of. Gendered keys? Not in my mind.
For a good part of my childhood, my closest friends were the neighbor's children, who spoke English, Spanish, and some Portugese. I always wondered what language they thought in, and asked about it many times. Remembering this, I can see that language has always fascinated me, as has the process of thought. I had fantasies of a science fiction interface between brain and computer, where ones' thoughts could be read perfectly and projected onto a screen or made instantly into words or music. I used to walk home from elementary school conducting imaginary classical compositions in my mind while singing, but I could only play the cello, and not that well. I felt a strong sense of my brain holding all sorts of things that would remain forever only mine, locked away, unused, and never to be heard, all because I lacked the skills to translate them from my own inner dialogues and sound to some finished product that was impossible to produce without too many skill sets.
I also wondered if our thoughts were determined by what we saw. Now, this new study about thought and language shows that our very seeing may also be determined by language. It appears that we can see more color distinctions simply by naming them. In English, most people know only light blue and blue, whereas there are separate words for both of these in Russian. Russian speakers (and now one can say Russian thinkers) can identify these colors faster than Americans. No one has tested artists, but this leads me to think that artists will recognize an even larger array of colors. When I think see or think "blue", there is cornflower blue, azure blue, ultramarine blue, baby blue, royal blue, Prussian blue, and many more (but notice that the word blue never changes, but is only modified).
This is a rich topic. Can you name something that you know your own thinking about may be affected by your language? If you have a second language, or studied one, do you think it has added to your understanding of the world? I'd love to hear your thoughts (no matter how constrained they are by English!)
Photo note: Decadent Fibers yarn.