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Languages and Thought

 
 
Reply Wed 29 Oct, 2003 12:37 pm
Do the languages we speak affect the way our minds work?

I think I read somewhere that the Romance languages are significantly different from the Asian languages (not sure the historic derivations here) in the way they are processed by the human brain.

Unfortunately, I'm not lucky enough to be someone who can speak more than one language fluently, but would be interested in hearing if multi-lingual people feel any difference in perception when thinking in a particular language.

Also, if anyone is familiar with any reasearch in this area and can provide some web reading.

Thanks,
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Craven de Kere
 
  1  
Reply Wed 29 Oct, 2003 12:43 pm
Yes.

Oriental languages have been shown to develop the brain differently. It's been cited as both a bane and a boon as the development is alledgedly enhanced in some ways but at the same time the amount of time spent learning language is reportedly a detriment to other fields of study.

Languages have affected the way I think very much. There are whole concepts that I'd have never entertained without knowing some languages.

Other languages change the way I understand my native labguage.

It makes the world of a difference. Certain languages use structures not seen in English, for example. and there are a multitude of thoughts that can't exist in the English language.
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Setanta
 
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Reply Wed 29 Oct, 2003 12:52 pm
Craven's point is well taken with regard to what can learn about one's own language. Comparison helps, as i have found in French, from which or through which so much of our language derives. I used to be fairly good in Korean (more than 30 years ago, i've forgotten most), and it was informative by contrast. Also, the Koreans have an alphabet, which was a great help to literacy, as before its invention (c. 800 CE), they had to rely on Chinese pictographs, which hindered literacy. I have read that the use of pictographs limits vocabulary use and understanding, although that may have been a expression of European bias--i read that long enough ago not to recall the details well.
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Noddy24
 
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Reply Wed 29 Oct, 2003 01:56 pm
I don't know any Asian languages. I'm limited to English, a bit of high school Latin and college French.

In English you "are" your age. I am x years old.

In French you "have" your age--and I suspect that age is a possession to be proud of rather than ashamed of.
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rufio
 
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Reply Wed 29 Oct, 2003 02:19 pm
Our brains are all fundamentally the same. Just because you don't think about certain things doesn't mean you can't - it just means that you don't. For instance, languages like Chinese have a lot of vowels that English doesn't have - the fact that English doesn't have them doesn't mean that we are prevented from learning how to pronounce them, it just means that we haven't ever tried. Languages don't affect the way that our brains work, just what we excersize and what we don't. Languages are profoundly different from each other in terms of phonetics, phonemics, and structure - but the meanings are all the same, however you pronounce and structure them. If they weren't, we could never learn a language other than the one(s) we were brought up speaking.

Saying that you "have" a certain number of years is just another way of saying how old you are. I don't see what being ashamed really has to do with anything. You have "have" something like a bad name or a black mark, too. Metaphors and idioms are cultural - not merely linguistic, and have nothing to do with structural or phonetic differences.

It's actually really interesting - somewhere else on the languages board I mentioned that in Spanish you tend to use passive constructions more. There's also another thing that's really interesting about Spanish that I've noticed. "Gustar," to like, is not a verb that refers actively to the subject, but rather one that refers passively to the object - that is, more like "to please". You don't say "I like x" you say "x pleases me". You don't say "My head hurts," you say "the head gives me pain." You don't say "I lost my keys," you say "the keys lost themselves to me". In many cases, it's perfectly possible, structurally, to say the active version of sentence - it's just not considered good Spanish. Those types of things are culturally based, not linguistically based.
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Acquiunk
 
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Reply Wed 29 Oct, 2003 02:19 pm
This is the Sapir-Whorff Hypothesis and it has long been discredited. Language however does reflect the way we categorize the world or the way we think about and understand the world.
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rosborne979
 
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Reply Wed 29 Oct, 2003 02:21 pm
Thanks All,

Craven de Kere wrote:
... there are a multitude of thoughts that can't exist in the English language.


This is probably a foolish request, since the only language I am conversant with is English, but can you construct any examples of these thoughts which "don't exist in English"? Smile

Noddy24 wrote:
In English you "are" your age. I am x years old.
In French you "have" your age


Thanks for the example. It's interesting. Do you "have" any others? Smile

Setanta wrote:
I have read that the use of pictographs limits vocabulary use and understanding, although that may have been a expression of European bias--i read that long enough ago not to recall the details well.


I seem to remember reading something along these lines as well.

I tend to think in terms of brains working "differently" rather than "better or worse". Along this line, I wonder if the "hidrance" to vocabulary and understanding (of pictographs) from one perspective, might be a benefit to understanding in another way (a way I can't imagine possibly).

A couple of other recent threads on A2K have talked about race and genetics, and about nature or nurture. It was along these lines that I was reminded of the effects of language (and culture) on the thinking process itself. If language has such a dramatic effect on thought, and so few people have ever been raised without a previously developed language, it makes me wonder just how much of our behavior is a result of human culture(s).

Regards,
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rosborne979
 
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Reply Wed 29 Oct, 2003 02:26 pm
Acquiunk wrote:
This is the Sapir-Whorff Hypothesis and it has long been discredited.


What is the "Sapir-Whorff" hypothesis? The thing I posted, or one of the other posts?

I'll try to look it up on Google. I've never heard of it.
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Acquiunk
 
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Reply Wed 29 Oct, 2003 02:32 pm
Rosborne, try this

http://venus.va.com.au/suggestion/sapir.html
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rosborne979
 
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Reply Wed 29 Oct, 2003 02:50 pm
Yup, got it... First thing on Google Smile

The article differentiates between "strong determinism" which is generally not accepted, and "weak determinism" which generally is.

My original thought/question was posed more in the spirit of "weak" determinism (lucky for me Smile )

[The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as we know it today can be broken down into two basic principles: linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity.

Linguistic Determinism: A Definition
Linguistic Determinism refers to the idea that the language we use to some extent determines the way in which we view and think about the world around us. The concept has generally been divided into two separate groups - 'strong' determinism and 'weak' determinism. Strong determinism is the extreme version of the theory, stating that language actually determines thought, that language and thought are identical. Although this version of the theory would attract few followers today - since it has strong evidence against it, including the possibility of translation between languages - we will see that in the past this has not always been the case. Weak determinism, however, holds that thought is merely affected by or influenced by our language, whatever that language may be. This version of determinism is widely accepted today.]
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patiodog
 
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Reply Wed 29 Oct, 2003 02:59 pm
Seems to me, upon a brief reading of the link (philosophy of language is long behind me, and I was too stoned most of the time to retain it), that what rosborne is talking about is somewhere between the strong and weak versions of the hypothesis -- and probably closer to the weak.

The thing that jumped out most at me was the notion of the "codability" of a language. It stands to reason that a high degree of specificity is necessary to talk with a great degree of subtlety about a particular subject -- as an Eskimo with snow, or the Australian Aboriginal group mentioned with regards to the hole that the goanna makes after emerging from estivation, or whatever it was. And it stands to reason that some languages will have evolved to discuss certain subjects more finely than others -- which would be culturally determined. (i.e., French has plenty of words describing this or that mathematical concept -- words which would probably be absent from, say, one of the many Mi-Wok dialects in California; the Mi-Woks, on the other hand, are going to have the linguistic tools to distinguish quite readily between the many varieties of grass that inhabit, say, the coastal mountain range while a French speaker would probably just call it, "Grass."

So there would be a high degree of relativism in discussing which language might "help" a person and which one might be a "hindrance," because it is highly context-specific. What seems most limiting, then, in terms of thought processes (to say nothing of social interactions across the globe) is knowing only one language, or only two very closely related languages.

(This applies to various scientific disciplines, as well; knowing the lexicon of biology is good; so is knowing the lexicon of physics; but if you know 'em both, you can think about phenomena in more ways, and with finer degrees of subtlety and understanding.)
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patiodog
 
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Reply Wed 29 Oct, 2003 03:00 pm
(redundancies engendered by cross post. ah, well.)
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Acquiunk
 
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Reply Wed 29 Oct, 2003 03:00 pm
This is the LSA's ( Linguistic Society of America)s official position on Sapir-Whorff.

http://www.lsadc.org/

click on: About Linguistic
then: Fields of Linguistics
then: Language and Thought
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Craven de Kere
 
  1  
Reply Wed 29 Oct, 2003 03:05 pm
rosborne,

I might come back with some examples after a nap but the link Acquiunk gave summarizes this well.

You can eventually express just about everything in just about any language. You just might have to trade 20 words where one would do in another language. And to me the translation is not the same and the nuances matter.

Another thing I referenced is how word structure influences thought. some languages have more ridgid structure than others, it's debated very much by linguists but some can be characterized as having a better vocabulary but a less flexible structure or having a more flexible structure but with less range in the vocabulary.

And sometimes the sentence structure is a fundamental one. The verb 'to be' has two very very different meanings. I am hungry. And, I am an American.

Compare that to the romance languages and a much better sense of being is conveyed through the grammar.

Translating Brazilian sex-symbol Tiazinha's name into English would require a paragraph, and all it means is "Little Aunt". But since English doesn't use that kind of diminuitive it's something that would have to be explained.

Anywho, if you really want me to go hog wild I will, language was the topic I most thought about for nearly 5 years and the nuances facinated me.
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dlowan
 
  1  
Reply Wed 29 Oct, 2003 03:07 pm
Go hog wild! It fascinates ME!
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fbaezer
 
  1  
Reply Wed 29 Oct, 2003 03:07 pm
rufio wrote:
There's also another thing that's really interesting about Spanish that I've noticed. "Gustar," to like, is not a verb that refers actively to the subject, but rather one that refers passively to the object - that is, more like "to please". You don't say "I like x" you say "x pleases me". You don't say "My head hurts," you say "the head gives me pain." You don't say "I lost my keys," you say "the keys lost themselves to me". In many cases, it's perfectly possible, structurally, to say the active version of sentence - it's just not considered good Spanish. Those types of things are culturally based, not linguistically based.


Good point, a "good" usage of any language is culturally based.
I wouldn't be caught dead saying "Gusto de K." (I like K.), even if "me gusta K" (K. pleases me). I would sound pretentious.
Everytime my wife says "Mi cabeza me duele" (my head hurts me), which she does, I find it "ugly", tasteless ("mi-me" in the same phrase) even if structurally correct.
But I would easily say "perdí las llaves" (I lost the keys) if I doubt I shall ever find them; if I just misplaced them, then I say "se me perdieron las llaves" ("the keys got lost to me").

When writing or conversing in English or Italian, I think in those languages. Or I think I do.
Yet, if I say "I am hungry" I don't feel hunger as a part of myself. Perhaps, even without translating, I'm thinking in Spanish "tengo hambre" (I have hunger) and consider the "am" as a temporary "have".
Same thing with Italian. I say "sono arrabbiato" (I am angry), but don't feel the anger as a part of myself, but as a temporary stage. I think "estoy enojado" (which could be loosely translated as "I happen to be angry").
So perhaps the difference is what do we consider, in different languages, to be part of ourselves, the temporary or the longlasting features.

Soy un hombre. Sono un uomo. I am a man. -to be, to be, to be-
Estoy contento. Sono contento. I am happy. -to happen to be, to be, to be-
Estoy comiendo. Sto mangiando. I am eating. -to happen to be, to happen to be, to be-
Tengo frío. Ho freddo. I am cold. -to have, to have, to be-
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satt fs
 
  1  
Reply Wed 29 Oct, 2003 04:06 pm
Re: Languages and Thought
At least at the logical level languages affect the way of thinking. Without language of some kind, e.g.,

one cannot imagine that the negation of

"every natural number has the next number"
("if A is a natural number there is a unique immediate successor A+1 of A")

is

"some natural number has no next number"
("there is A such that A is a natural number and there is no successor of A.")

This structure of logic can be translated to any language with sufficient vocabulary, although the translated form might sometimes be awkward.
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patiodog
 
  1  
Reply Wed 29 Oct, 2003 04:27 pm
Mustn't forget that language is also very malleable, and new vocabulary (or new uses for existing vocabulary) is quickly invented when what's already there is insufficient. I wonder if people cut off from human contact start naming things for their own benefit. Where's Greystoke when you need him?
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Setanta
 
  1  
Reply Wed 29 Oct, 2003 04:36 pm
I don't have any information on it, but the Australians have within the last century encountered groups of people in Papua who have never before encountered other groups of people. It would interesting to know what they've learned linguistically.

Sign language is another very interesting concept. The one film clip i saw of an encounter in Papua with a previously unknown tribe showed them using sign language to communicate, and making some progress very quickly. As well, when Amerindians went to Washington, D.C., in the 19th century, there were frequent accounts of them going to Gaullodet (sp?) college and quickly learning to converse with the students in sign language (it is a school for the deaf). That would seem to imply that some concepts are sufficiently universal, as well as some gestures, to allow for a rapidly established mode of communication.
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rosborne979
 
  1  
Reply Wed 29 Oct, 2003 04:40 pm
Acquiunk wrote:
This is the LSA's ( Linguistic Society of America)s official position on Sapir-Whorff.
http://www.lsadc.org/


Thanks. The link above contained the following text, which I found entertaining by way of example to how language affects perception:

"Do you think of red and pink as different colors? If so, you may be under the influence of your language; after all, pink is really just light red."

I do indeed think of pink as a different color, rather than just light red, which, now that I think about it, it must be. Smile

Fun stuff Wink

Thanks.
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