There was a fascinating story on NPR’s Morning Edition on Monday, and I’d love it if you would check it out. Both the audio recording and a written article are available; if you have to choose one, may I suggest the audio version? It will give you a better sense of the languages the article mentions. If you have a moment, though, do check them both out.
The researcher mentioned in the article claims there is a connection between the grammar of a language and the way its speakers perceive certain objects.
We cannot help some of the cultural biases we grow up with; if you grow up in place where Jesus Christ is a profanity, it can be difficult for you also to see it as the name of a benevolent, loving teacher, and perhaps impossible to understand it as the name of a savior. However, what the Morning Edition article suggests is completely different.
In some languages, nouns are given masculine or feminine designations, and the designations (if I understand correctly) have nothing to do with gender or sex and everything to do with linguistics. Feminine nouns take feminine articles, for example, ‘though there may be nothing feminine about the object itself. What we are seeing here, if the research is valid, is the suggestion that there doesn’t have to be any connection at all between an object and its grammatical gender. It is the linguistic connection itself that seems to make the difference, and this connection all by itself shapes the speaker’s perception of the object.
The implications for this are huge. Let us remove ourselves from the bridges and keys mentioned in the article and consider that language and cognition (that is, thinking) are inseparable. Thinking about stuff does not have to be limited by language; many of our best thoughts are made up only of images or senses. However, when we think through something, as when we solve problems or when we try to remember something important, we use words whether we ever utter them or not.
Watch a young child tie her shoelaces when she is still learning to do so, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Shoelace-tying is a complicated procedure, and the youngster still trying to grasp it will very often talk herself through the steps. You did the same thing yourself, probably very recently, when you couldn’t find your keys and you verbally replayed your trip from the car to your living room. This is not just noise-making here: you are witnessing a very important concept at work. There is a link between the way we think and learn and the way we use language.
This is why I so vigilantly guard against the degradation of the English language, ‘though I am sure I hypocritically contribute to that very degradation. If our language becomes less and less specific, we lose degrees of meaning in our ability to communicate, and then we lose them in our ability to think and learn. Taken to an extreme, if we only have one word to describe the color blue, not only does communicating about colors become more difficult, but THINKING about colors and LEARNING about colors becomes more difficult. It’s the old example about the Eskimos and all their names for snow.
The more diverse and robust your language is, the more diverse and robust your thinking and learning can be. This is why it matters. I poke all sorts of fun at people’s erroneous use of the language, but this is serious business here, and it’s why I keep doing this.