Thursday, August 13, 2009

Women, fire and other dangerous things

When we look at a sweeping landscapes, gory accidents or even a common object like a desk or a chair or a key, does the language we speak matter? I stumbled upon a very interesting article on EDGE that seems to think so. For years famed linguists like Chomsky and Co. were like, “Dude, no way!” and I daresay that’s still pretty much their stance in the matter, but after years of being swept under the rug, the question is being aired again by a Stanford professor Lera Boroditsky.

One day, Lera packed her bags and travelled to Australia, to Cape York to meet a small, interesting Aboroginal community – the Kuuk Thaayorre.

Instead of words like "right," "left," "forward," and "back," which, as commonly used in English, define space relative to an observer, the Kuuk Thaayorre, like many other Aboriginal groups, use cardinal-direction terms — north, south, east, and west — to define space.1 This is done at all scales, which means you have to say things like "There's an ant on your southeast leg" or "Move the cup to the north northwest a little bit." One obvious consequence of speaking such a language is that you have to stay oriented at all times, or else you cannot speak properly.

As BigGeek reads this, I am sure he is Googling (or Binging) to enroll me in a Kuuk Thaayorre class. But jokes apart, when they put the Kuuk Thaayorre on unknown streets and unfamiliar buildings, they did not go “Huh?” as I would definitely go, but had a keen sense of direction, just like a compass, and far, far more impressive then the your usual Joe. Amazing or what? So tuned into space they were that when asked to order cards like a baby growing older or man eating a banana, they ordered it not left-to-right as we would, but east to west while facing south, west to east while facing north and so on. And while in a closed room.

Note to Garmin: Don’t even try and sell GPSes in Cape York.

Lera and her team also tested people speaking other languages by doing this experiment. They chose objects that had different genders in different languages. For e.g. “key” is llaves in Spanish and is feminine but masculine in German (what is it called in German?) And here is what they found-

German speakers were more likely to use words like "hard," "heavy," "jagged," "metal," "serrated," and "useful," whereas Spanish speakers were more likely to say "golden," "intricate," "little," "lovely," "shiny," and "tiny."

Key is also feminine in Marathi, and I would definitely jot use jagged and heavy to describe it. Actually, if you ask me, a key is intelligent and elegant :-) There are other aboriginal languages where they don’t have 2 or 3 genders for nouns, but like 16 (at this level, we should call them classes or bins, right? Calling them genders is a bit creepy). They have separate genders for totally arbitrary stuff (arbitrary to us, ok to me, at least)

For example, some Australian Aboriginal languages have up to sixteen genders, including classes of hunting weapons, canines, things that are shiny, or, in the phrase made famous by cognitive linguist George Lakoff, "women, fire, and dangerous things."

Other interesting points – in Turkish, a verb form HAS to have information about actuality. In a sentence like “He drank water”, the verb “drank”, if it were in Turkish would have a different form if you actually saw the action, another form if it were hearsay/second-hand information. Or in Spanish, where “to be” has two forms – one for long term, one for short term. So if I say “Soy contenta” it means I am a happy, have always been one and will be in future – in short, I am a happy person. Now, if I say “Estoy contenta”, it means I am happy at this minute, no telling how I was in the past or will be in the future. Does thinking of “being” in short term or long term or looking at events to see if they actually happened or someone just said they did, not in abstract terms, but as an essential part of language that is a must to communicate – does communicating like this impact how we “see” the world?

Would you start looking at the world differently if you picked a new language?

The only language I have somewhat learnt in adulthood is Spanish and I must say, I do miss the Soy and the Estoy bit in English/Marathi/Hindi. It’s just so convenient, you know? But another question that popped into the aging mind was this – Why did the Spaniards in the first place feel the need to have two forms of “to be”? Why didn’t English, Germans and Maharastrians didn’t feel that need? Why did the Turkish feel the need to add information about if an event actually happened/it is second hand information in their grammar? Why is “key” masculine in German but feminine in Spanish? Are these things arbitrary or is there more than meets the eye?


dipali said...

I like the title! If only I could be as dangerous as that:)
Jokes apart, language and its development and its effects on a cultures thought patterns is a fascinating field. The simplest act of translation from one language to another, even in relatively similar/related cultures, can be difficult to do to the satisfaction of the native speaker of the language that is translated.
This post was fascinating- in our urban world we are lucky if we know which way the sun rises relative to our home!

Vinita said...

A great post. I did not know about edge at all.. so I am glad I have it on my bookmark now. You actually made it more fun and intersting to read than the original.

Penguin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Penguin said...

Wow, such an interesting post! I wonder if that means if we learn 3-4 different languages as kids (like we do growing up in India), we have more holistic experiences?

Anonymous said...

I have been awake since 4 a/m and am now officially in Lalaland

Note to self, come back when mind can leave a more intelligent comment

eve's lungs said...

Very nice post Dottie . Im googling Kuuk Thaayore as I write this .

L said...

Nice post!! Key is der Schluessel in German!!


choxbox said...

Interesting post dottie!

Have a linguist friend who's doing her post-doc - conversations with her are always fun! This reminds me of her.

Anonymous said...

This was interesting.My 3 year old assigns gender to stuff- like bathtub is a boy but potty is a girl.
TV is a girl, chair is a boy.
She starts with telling me 'Mamma I am a girl' and then proceeds to enlighten me with the gender of everything else in the house.
I will ask her what a 'key' is in her world and let you know.

DotThoughts said...

dipali: words have such different shades of meaning in different languages!

Vinita: EDGE publishes these articles in a book. Not all of them catch my fancy, but some are quite interesting. They are alls mall 2-3 pages at most, so perfect bedtime reading material.

penguin: I dunno abou that :)

asaaan: :)

eve's lungs : thanks!

L: thanks for that bit of info!!

choxie: such fun friends you have!!!

tearsndreams: how interesting. pls doo write abcka nd let me know how she assigns key :)

Anonymous said...

:-) Key was a boy yesterday. I will have to check back to see if these assignments change with time. And I have checked for other things, she is not assigning these by the sound of the names.
I think its an experiment worth repeating to older kids who can tell us what the though process is. She is not 3 yet so doesn't really understand gender, I think she is assigning genders on a whim.

Suki said...

Would you start looking at the world differently if you picked a new language?

Yes, yes and yes.

I was talking to someone one day, and ended up using the Hindi word "Nyochaavar" to express something. Upon being asked to translate that, I simply could not pick one single word. There were nuances that only that word, in that language, could describe.
Lacan, the psychoanalyst, says quite categorically that "the unconscious is structured like a language". While I don't understand exactly what THAT means, I do realize that language conditions us far more than most people choose to admit. The French, it may be argued, are forced to use the exaggerated body language they are (in)famous for, since words in the French language are not easy to differentiate from other words.

I'm not sure if language influences culture or the other way round - I think both take place, and it's a chicken-and-egg situation if we try to place either one as the point of origin.

DotThoughts said...

tearsndreams: A boy? hmmmm... but yes.. a 3 year old will do everything on a whim

suki: such great points you have written. especially about the french and their gestures. Your lasta para hit the bulls eye though. do write a post on it!