Have you ever wondered – while talking to a person who has different views than yours – what makes them think in a given way? Have their opinions been shaped by their ethnic or cultural background, religious beliefs, economic situation, or maybe… the language they speak?
There is no clear-cut answer to the question posed above. It is obvious that our views and opinions are affected by each of the aforementioned factors. However, we would like to take a look at how our perception of the world affects the language we speak.
Theory vs. practice
The theory of linguistic relativity described in the first half of the twentieth century by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf – American linguists and anthropologists, has also been acknowledged by contemporary language researchers. Current research confirms the existence of a relationship between language and the way we think and perceive the world. Lara Boroditsky, a professor of cognitive psychology at Stanford University, points to some areas which can be affected by linguistic relativity, and have not been discussed in this context so far: time, space, causality of events, gender perception and relationships between people.
In our mother tongue, there is a clear distinction between the present and the future. What is going to happen is perceived by us in a completely different category than that what has already taken place, whereas the Chinese use the same grammatical forms to talk about both the present and the future. The example presented above can be perceived as a curiosity, but it turns out that language is connected not only with the perception of time, but also with… our ability to save.
An economist Keith Chen has shown in his research that people who use a “timeless” language (e.g. Chinese) are able to save up to 30% more money per year than those whose language distinguished between the present and the future.
This is due to the fact that when we perceive the future as something distant and uncertain, it is more difficult for us to get motivated to put money aside.
Lera Broditsky, mentioned above, was researching language in a small Aboriginal community settled in Pormpuraaw, Australia. In their language (called Kuuk Thaayorre), there are no such words as “left” or “right”, but the location of each object is specified using the directions of the world. People from Pormpuraaw have also an extraordinary ability to specify the direction, and thus they have no problems with orientation in any, even unfamiliar, place. Their language somehow forces them to have this skill, which is why people from Pormpuraaw have mastered it to the greatest extent unseen anywhere else.
It turns out that language (or in this case the alphabet) affects our perception of space and time at the same time. What will you do if someone gives you cards with drawings depicting some event and tells you to organize them from the earliest to the latest one? As Polish speaking people you will put them from the left to the right – which would seem to you a natural and the only right way to organize them. You would be surprised to see a Hebrew speaking person putting the cards from the right to the left (in the way the Hebrew alphabet is read). What will a person from Pormpuraaw do? They will first determine the direction which they are currently facing to put the cards from the east to the west. So if they stand facing to the north – they will put the cards from the right to the left, if they are facing to the east, the card starting the sequence will be put several dozen centimeters away from their bodies, and each subsequent card will be placed closer to the participant of the experiment…
You will find more examples supporting the linguistic relativity theory in our next article. Don’t miss it!