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Do Different Languages Equal Different Realities?

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We usually assume words are just a way of expressing ideas already in our heads. But what if it's the other way around? Some linguists say the languages we speak fundamentally alter the way we think, and even perceive reality.

The New York Times explores the implications of world-altering linguistics, and how we can learn about the complexities of both speech and speaker. Linguist Guy Deutscher argues that, rather than forbidding us from understanding certain concepts (as in, if you don't have a word for it, you don't know what it is), languages force us to think certain ways.

For example, while English doesn't use genders when talking about persons, places, and things, plenty of languages do—and the difference isn't just an extra headache for high school French students. Gendered languages force their speakers to, even unconsciously, consider forks, tables, trees, and sandwiches to have genders. This sounds obvious, and maybe even trivial, but research shows that these properties affect the way Spanish speakers, for instance, view their environments. "Once gender connotations have been imposed on impressionable young minds," explains Deutscher, "they lead those with a gendered mother tongue to see the inanimate world through lenses tinted with associations and emotional responses that English speakers - stuck in their monochrome desert of "its" - are entirely oblivious to."


Deutscher also raises the fascinating example of obscure regional languages that have no conception of person-oriented direction. That is to say, there's no my left, or your left. There's no left at all. If a soccer ball lands next to you, Australia's aboriginal Guugu Yimithirr speakers will tell you to reach to your east to pick it up. As a consequence of mapping compass directions across personal since childhood, speakers of such languages have almost superhuman sense of orientation, able to discern north and south as most of us would be able to intuitively "know" front and back.

The intersection between mind and word is still a fuzzy one for science, and much work remains to be done. But linguistics offers to arrange the world in a way that makes better sense, and, even if we can't always sit at the same table and chat (or even possess a word for table), make the world a less strange place. [NY Times]
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