Posts Tagged ‘Psycholinguistics’

A man of many language symbols 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).

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Tower of Babel

I don’t think it takes a linguist to notice that the language we speak seems to shape the way we think, and how our brain works. Since the 1960s, though, we have pretty much accepted Chomsky’s idea of a universal grammar, or, to put it briefly, that the human brain is born language-ready, with an in-built program that is able to decipher the common rules underpinning any mother tongue.

Thanks to The virtual linguist, I found this very interesting article on the New Scientist about the ideas being put forward by linguists Nicholas Evans of the Australian National University in Canberra and Stephen Levinson of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. They argue that

the brain of a child does not arrive pre-programmed with abstract linguistic rules. Instead, its initial setting is much simpler: the first job of the brain is to build a more complicated brain. This it does using any input that it gets, including language. This could mean that speakers of very different languages have quite different brains, says Levinson.

This could mean that what Chomsky and others see as “innate” is actually the product of a much simpler and less rigid form of hard-wiring. Evans and Levinson argue that there are no absolute language universals, but rather

a mix of strong and weak tendencies that characterises the “bio-cultural” hybrid we call language.

This means that there is more room for variation than we might expect. A very interesting passage points out how

humans are more diverse than we thought, with our brains having differences depending on the language environment in which we grew up.

I have to admit that Psycholinguistics and Neurolinguistics are two of the most fascinating  fields of research for a language freak like me. But besides the curiosity, I think this kind of research often addresses many interesting points that can be very useful for translators to explain to the general public what translation is and to advance the understanding and recognition of our work. For example, we read that

Work in the past two decades has shown that several languages lack an open adverb class, which means the number of adverbs available is limited. […] More controversially, some linguists argue that a few languages, such as Straits Salish, spoken by indigenous people from north-western regions of North America, do not even have distinct nouns or verbs. Instead they have a single class of words to encompass events, entities and qualities.

This last point, however controversial, allows us to speculate on the implications it would have in terms of translation. How massively would we need to rework a text originally written in such a language, if we were to translate it into English? It’s one of those cases where an extreme example allows us to better understand the translation process and the skills needed in order to carry it out. And there is more. Apparently,

The Kiowa people of North America use a plural marker that means “of unexpected number”. Attached to “leg”, the marker means “one or more than two”. Attached to “stone”, it means “just two”.

Obviously, if we were to translate between Kiowa and English, we would need to enquire further in order to obtain extra information – does that man have one leg or more than two? Information that a Kiowa speaker won’t include in the expression but that is felt as necessary by the English-speaking mind, which won’t be content to know that someone has an “unexpected number” of legs.

The most fascinating example from the New Scientist article, though, is that of

“rawa-dawa”, from the Mundari language of the Indian subcontinent, meaning “the sensation of suddenly realising you can do something reprehensible, and no one is there to witness it”

It is worth pointing out that bridging such fundamental differences between languages is a translator’s daily task, and a perfect example to make people think about the skills needed to overcome the challenges we face in our often underpaid decoding and re-encoding efforts.

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