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.


BitterGrace said...

It makes perfect sense to me that language shapes thought--it certainly orders thought. For instance, I find that if I am obsessing about something, one of the best things I can do is write about it, because invariably there will be a revelation in the written word. It doesn't matter how many hours I spend mulling over a problem--I will see something new when I clothe my thoughts in proper sentences.

I studied Russian for 3 school years. That was just long enough to get a slight intuitive sense of the directness and immediacy of Russian as compared to English. I always thought of Russian as a language that engaged the gut along with the head and the heart. I wonder if native or fluent speakers have that sense.

Julie H. Rose said...

Nika should answer that question. Nika?

I studied Russian, too. Why did you choose it?

I've studied and forgotten Russian, Ancient Greek, Chinese, and Japanese. I learned some French, and that I've remembered, and it now just seems like extra words in my vocabulary.

Julie H. Rose said...

I really envy multilingual people.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I'm a bit late for this discussion. I was just thinking of these things today, talk about synchronicity!
I find it very curious that both of you have studied Russian in the past, somehow it makes perfect sense to me:) Could that explain why I feel affinity with your writing?
Maria, your observation about Russian language engaging "your gut along with your head" is spot on.
To me, learning any language in depth is thrilling, it's all about making those connections in your brain. I experience it as the satisfaction of things clicking, something turning in my head and all of sudden seeing things in a different light. I don't describe it very well, but would be happy to elaborate if you ask more concrete questions.

Julie H. Rose said...

Nika, I think you've described "it" very well.

I think the larger one's vocabulary is, the larger our world is.

I just deleted what amounted to an entire post. I have so much to say on this subject! Nika, once again, I invite you to do a guest post, on being bilingual. Maybe you know more than two languges - I don't know.

Dick also studied Russian.

As far as having an affinity for our writing because of this, in my case, my knowledge of Russian was so poor, I can't believe that would be the case, but maybe my attraction to the language holds some key.

I have wanted to know more languages so I didn't have to read books, especially poetry, in translation. But, I'd need a couple more lifetimes in order to learn what I want to!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Julie,
I'd love to talk about it in depth and do a guest post, just give me a bit of time to organize my thoughts.
Dick also studied Russian, that's amazing!
I know a little of very basic Italian and want to learn more, it seems very natural and easy flowing to me and sometimes I feel I just want to"relax" into it and absorb it like a sponge:)

Julie H. Rose said...

Nika has agreed to do a guest post. I'm looking forward to it!

Anonymous said...

My father, who was Italian, said his thoughts were in Italian though he had lived in the U.S. for many years. I guess since he was an adult in his late 30's when he learned English, his native language was dominant.