In the spirit of Easter, I’ve got another egg-or-chicken-conundrum for you to ponder. What was first, language or culture? Does our thinking, our culture influence our language or does our language shape the way we think?
Life is a journey, not a destination… Right?
I recently read an article on how the language you speak changes your view of the world. It explains an experiment where German-speaking, English-speaking and bilingual participants had to describe what they saw in a number of video clips. All of those videos involved some sort of motion, for example a woman walking toward a car.
When talking about these videos, the English speakers focused on the motion itself (“The woman is walking”), while the German speakers focused on the goal of the motion (“The woman is walking towards the car”). Interestingly, the bilinguals changed their focus depending on the language they were using. Even though they were still the same person, with the same cultural background, they adjusted their thinking process according to the language they were using.
Roses are red, violets are blue.
At least for me, but how about you?
So, does this mean that language governs the way we think? There are many other examples that support this assumption. Let’s think about the concept of color. We all see the same colors of the rainbow but we don’t necessarily categorize them the same way. Did you know that Russian, for example, divides blue into two different categories? They consider light blue (“goluboy”) and dark blue (“siniy”) to be different colors not just different hues of the same color.When asked to discriminate between two different shades of blue, Russians found it easier to discriminate between two blues if they belonged to different categories than when they belonged to the same category (just like you can easily distinguish between blue and green, even when the two shades are fairly close on the color spectrum). English speakers, on the other hand, showed no preferences. Basically, Russians think differently about colors because of their language.
This also works in the opposite direction. Bellonese, the language spoken on the Polynesian atoll Bellona, divides colors into no more than three categories: black, white and red. Everything from a tree, to the ocean and the sky would be called black. All red, yellow and orange hues would be wrapped up in the red category. Only very light colors fall into the white category.
To recap, I think we can all agree that roses are red, but how about violets? How would the color of violets be translated into Russian? Or even worse, how would you know what color a black Bellonese violet actually is? I’ll admit, the chance of someone having to translate the color of violets out of Bellonese is rather small, but curiosities like these exist in every language.
And what about the differences between English and German? Does the sentence “The woman is walking” need a destination in order for it to work in German?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on these questions in the comments.
And if you’re interested to learn more about how languages change our perception of the world, I highly recommend the book “Through the Language Glass – Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages” by Guy Deutscher.