The other day I was reading The Virtual Linguist and found this post quoting a very interesting Wall Street Journal article by Lera Boroditsky. A while back, in this post, we already talked about the idea that even though the way we think certainly shapes our language, it may also be true that language shapes the way we think. It’s a controversial theory, but the article shows that there is more and more evidence supporting the idea that this could to a certain extent, be true.
In Pormpuraaw, a remote Aboriginal community in Australia, the indigenous languages don’t use terms like “left” and “right.” Instead, everything is talked about in terms of absolute cardinal directions (north, south, east, west), which means you say things like, “There’s an ant on your southwest leg.” To say hello in Pormpuraaw, one asks, “Where are you going?”, and an appropriate response might be, “A long way to the south-southwest. How about you?” If you don’t know which way is which, you literally can’t get past hello.
It’s highly likely that if you’re living a lifestyle based on hunting and gathering, knowing your way would be of the utmost importance and therefore you would be quite preoccupied with it , so this linguistic feature is firstly a product of the way the community lives. But then, every new speaker of that community will learn to perceive space in a way that is shaped by the words he learns to talk about it. Get this:
[we gave] Pormpuraawans sets of pictures that showed temporal progressions (for example, pictures of a man at different ages, or a crocodile growing, or a banana being eaten). Their job was to arrange the shuffled photos on the ground to show the correct temporal order. We tested each person in two separate sittings, each time facing in a different cardinal direction. When asked to do this, English speakers arrange time from left to right. Hebrew speakers do it from right to left (because Hebrew is written from right to left).
Pormpuraawans, we found, arranged time from east to west. That is, seated facing south, time went left to right. When facing north, right to left. When facing east, toward the body, and so on. Of course, we never told any of our participants which direction they faced. The Pormpuraawans not only knew that already, but they also spontaneously used this spatial orientation to construct their representations of time.
The article is full of other examples, and I warmly recommend you make time to read it if you are into this sort of thing. After all, the idea is not new, and a few examples are known to many people already. The most famous one is probably Orwell’s Newspeak, the language from 1984 which would have replaced English:
By 2050—earlier, probably—all real knowledge of Oldspeak will have disappeared. The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare,Milton, Byron—they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually contradictory of what they used to be. Even the literature of the Party will change. Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like “freedom is slavery” when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.
The political use of language and even of knowledge about the relationship between language and thought get some people worried about possible distortions of this idea of “differences” by racists, supremacists, and assorted nut cases. But the point is that nut cases already do use anything they can to further silly theories, and sometimes “science” seems to give them a hand. I read about people claiming that blue-eyed people are smarter and red-haired Scots are part Neanderthal. You name it. Unfortunately, stupidity will always be there, but this is about understanding ourselves. Talking about differences does not imply denying equality. Still, equality of rights does not mean sameness. And our differences, when understood, respected, and combined, often turn out to be our greatest richness.
I have to say that, despite my tendency to be merciless towards anyone taking the Bible literally, this whole new set of data does seem to suggest that the opening “In the beginning was the word” might indeed have a very literal meaning.
Don’t forget to read the whole article here.
PHOTO: A man of many language symbols, by eyesplash Mikul (Flickr).