Saturday, August 14, 2010

the language you speak shapes how you think


Well, duh. But great article about recent research on this here, in the WSJ. Strangely, as my stepdad pointed out, it doesn't mention the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. But still, worth a read.

I recommend the whole thing, but here are some good nuggets:

Take "Humpty Dumpty sat on a..." Even this snippet of a nursery rhyme reveals how much languages can differ from one another. In English, we have to mark the verb for tense; in this case, we say "sat" rather than "sit." In Indonesian you need not (in fact, you can't) change the verb to mark tense.
In Russian, you would have to mark tense and also gender, changing the verb if Mrs. Dumpty did the sitting. You would also have to decide if the sitting event was completed or not. If our ovoid hero sat on the wall for the entire time he was meant to, it would be a different form of the verb than if, say, he had a great fall.

In Turkish, you would have to include in the verb how you acquired this information. For example, if you saw the chubby fellow on the wall with your own eyes, you'd use one form of the verb, but if you had simply read or heard about it, you'd use a different form

...

* Russian speakers, who have more words for light and dark blues, are better able to visually discriminate shades of blue.
* Some indigenous tribes say north, south, east and west, rather than left and right, and as a consequence have great spatial orientation.
* The Piraha, whose language eschews number words in favor of terms like few and many, are not able to keep track of exact quantities.
* In one study, Spanish and Japanese speakers couldn't remember the agents of accidental events as adeptly as English speakers could. Why? In Spanish and Japanese, the agent of causality is dropped: "The vase broke itself," rather than "John broke the vase."
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