Hear Ye! Since 1998.
Please note: This post is at least 3 years old. Links may be broken, information may be out of date, and the views expressed in the post may no longer be held.
May 10

How the language we speak affects our worldview

An article in Stanford Magazine about research on how language shapes how we think and view the world. I’ve always found this issue fascinating:

English is not that precise, but it is true that every time you use a verb in English, you are conveying information about time. Depending on whether something has happened already (I made dinner), is happening now (I am making dinner), or will happen in the future (I will make dinner), the speaker must pick different verb forms. Without the temporal information, the utterance would feel incomplete, ungrammatical. You couldn’t just say I make dinner in all three cases.

Not so in Indonesian. Unlike English, Indonesian verbs never change to express time: Make is always just make. Although Indonesian speakers can add words like already or soon, this is optional. It doesn’t feel incomplete or ungrammatical to just say, I make dinner.

This led to another fascinating experimental result—and to Boroditsky’s opening up a laboratory in Indonesia. A student from Indonesia assured Boroditsky, who was still skeptical, that most Indonesians simply do not bother to mark time when they speak. So she challenged the student to set up an experiment where Indonesian speakers would be shown photographs of the same act in a time progression: a man about to kick a soccer ball, a man kicking a soccer ball, a man who has kicked the ball, which is flying away. Boroditsky and the student made a bet. Is it possible that Indonesian speakers wouldn’t mark time progression? If they did not care about time, what would they pay attention to?

The article has plenty of other interesting examples, such as how time is a “horizontal” concept for English speakers (past is behind, future is ahead) but a “vertical” concept for Mandarin speaker (past is down, future is up).

It’s fascinating how such a fundamental part of being human (communication via a spoken language) manifests itself in completely different ways around the world – to the extent that the way cultures have figured out how to communicate belong to a myriad of systems which are often completely incompatible and require a very different way of thinking to interpret.

  6:47pm  •  Culture  •   •  Tweet This  •  Add a comment