Does Language Shape Thought?

I am a writer.  It follows that I’m obsessed with language. Beyond the questions of le mot juste and my polyglot  understanding of the nuance of idiom, one thing that I am interested in is the way language reflects and perhaps shapes culture.  As linguistic development is such an important part of physiological development and early growth and learning, I wonder, does language impact the way we think?

This is a nature/nurture question to the core, and in some ways it’s also chicken and eggy. I don’t expect to find answers. The deeper I look at this, the more I find …. questions. I welcome you to the rabbit hole. Shall we dive in?

I started this journey with George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s 1980 book Metaphors we Live By. This is not a book for the faint-hearted. I also do not recommend it for pre-caffeine commutes on busy city trains. This is a quiet, studious book, and it deserves a library and a stern expression. Metaphors was essentially a search for philosophical meaning in language.  It reads like the combination of a linguistic text and a philosophy book.

Here’s a taste from page one:

Metaphor is for most people a device of the poetic imagination and the rhetorical flourish — a mater of extraordinary rather than ordinary language. Moreover, metaphor is typically viewed as characteristic of language alone, as a matter of words rather than thought or action.  For this reason, most people think they can get along perfectly well without metaphor. We have found, on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system… is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.

The metaphors that Lakoff and Johnson explore include the following:

  • time is money (spend some time with it)
  • ideas are food (chew on that thought…)

They dig into nested metaphors that are too difficult to summarize in a blog post. What they did for me, though, was open up the idea that language can influence the action and reaction in a situation. If all of our metaphors around arguments are those of war, then a compromise is far more difficult to reach.   If we change the metaphor, or remove the assumptions of winners and losers from the definition of argument, the goal becomes different, does it not?

I started chatting with a Twitter friend, Jason Evan Mihalko, about these ideas. He was the White Rabbit to my Alice, if you will, because then he started sending links.

Correlation is not Causation (I say this a lot in SEO, too)

Two of the articles were about the work of Yale University behavioral economist, Professor Keith Chen. One was a summary of his TED Talk the other was a more financially focused article on his work and spending habits as tied to language.   Chen was looking at the way languages wrap around the concept of the future, and whether that changed saving and spending behaviors.

Most say that there appears to be a correlation between those two possibly related aspects, but it might actually correlate to other cultural norms, modeling, family behaviors and so on. It is very hard to isolate the action of language on a person’s behaviors, scientifically speaking.

The Power of Mnemonics

I can sing all of the prepositions in the German language to two tunes. The tunes are my mnemonics.  “Aus, außer, bei, mit, nach, zeit, von, zu”  is sung to the Blue Danube Waltz.  Does this have any implications when I use them in sentences? Probably not, except for the fact that often the opposites are next to each other. “Von” is from, “Zu” is to. If I could remember one, I could remember its mate.

This is a silly example, but it is a broad idea of what words themselves are.

There are studies that debunk the idea that language impacts the way people think, but that do suggest that language changes how people remember things.  This is similar to the idea that Asian languages name their numbers more clearly so that the math of adding and subtracting is done linguistically by speaking the names of the numbers.   The mnemonic devices surrounding our concepts change the way we mold and shape thought.

What Does Your Language Insist You Consider

This article in the New York Times is perhaps the most comprehensive of the batch. I highly recommend a complete read.

Some 50 years ago, the renowned linguist Roman Jakobson pointed out a crucial fact about differences between languages in a pithy maxim: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” This maxim offers us the key to unlocking the real force of the mother tongue: if different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.

This fascinates me, and I found none of it surprising.

Now, when all of my spoken languages are rusty and underused, I have to use the brain equivalent of a phrase book in order to navigate my literary memory. But back when I was actively speaking, reading and writing all three languages every day, I discovered a new way to conceptualize language. Instead of accessing little books of words that were memorized in my brain, I was finding interconnected webs of associations and concepts.

When I unearthed that web of how things interconnected within the language, I found I could navigate it without having to search for words.  While I was there, I also discovered that I learned more about a group of people by studying language than I did by digging into history, art or culture. I have a more innate understanding of a place if I understand their root words.  Of course, to study a language in depth, you have to start doing insane things like trying to translate poetry – so you end up knee deep in myth and art and metaphor anyway.

Intuitively, I want to say that language shapes thought and action, but then there’s the whole correlation/causation thing. What do you think?   Do you live by metaphors?


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