Linguists say English has more negative words than other languages by far. This claim has been backed up with research like this study, using Twitter as a corpus, where negative sentiment dominates about 2–1 in English language tweets. Does this mean that English speakers are more negative in general, or is the language they speak somehow influencing English speakers to be more cynical? Surely the classic British sardonic wit and pessimistic sense of humor doesn’t come from nowhere.
The language you speak governs what you can say and how you can say it. Most people assume their native language has the ability to express any concept in the world in an unbiased way, but this simply isn’t true. For example, many languages have no future or past tense, so these speakers will have to use other methods of expressing their hopes for the future. Could this affect these speakers’ ability to formulate hopes, dreams, and plans?
Some languages force nouns into grammatical genders, surely changing speaker perceptions of these words. “The moon is a woman,” a Spanish friend insists. Even in English, we call ocean ships “she.” This must affect one’s perception of gender, right?
Japanese forces its speakers to peg their conversation partner into certain categories, based on prestige, power dynamics, relationship status, socioeconomic status, age, and sometimes gender. How could this not lend a feeling of “I’m less important than you” to the speakers of this language (unless you’re the emperor)?
Colors are classified in many different kinds of ways in the world’s languages. Russian, for example, has two different words for light hues of blue and dark hues, and studies have shown they classify blue shades more quickly than other language groups. In English, there are many words, but all shades of blue could also be described as “blue.” Does this change the way Russian artists conceive of artworks by the likes of Mark Rothko?
American linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf were ensconced in linguistic academia during a heady time in the 20th century, the time that modern linguistics was just finding its way. This was a time when researchers and scholars could take risks and explore the far sides of personal hunches. Out of this experimental time in linguistics came the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or the concept of linguistic relativity.
Basically the hypothesis is that there are hidden but powerful influences from the language you speak that changes how you perceive the world. Your language is a lens that can influence assumptions and biases that can affect your world view in sometimes profound ways. Sapir and Whorf argued that language isn’t just a tool, but a perspective, like a pair of glasses that changes how you see and how you interpret what you see. They said that language governs our experience of reality, and it can determine certain outcomes, which is why it is now often referred to as linguistic determinism.
Whorf’s initial research focused on comparing English and various Native American languages, focusing on the differences with how each language expressed the same concept in the lexicon. This is where the “Inuits have 500 words for snow” falsehood came from, which has very little to do with linguistic relativity and a lot to do with selective data. You see, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is notoriously challenging to test, since it is so difficult to design experiments to separate what is due to language influence from what is caused by other cultural influences and individual actions. Nevertheless, the diversity of the world’s 7,000 languages has continued to provide a rich laboratory for researchers to try to prove the idea that language determines thought, not the other way around.
“Human beings are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group.” — Edward Sapir
1. Savings Accounts
Depending on which language you speak, you’re more or less likely to save money for the future. English is a language that requires a future marker to describe an event that has not yet happened. In the sentence, “It will rain tomorrow,” the modal verb “will” tells us that this speaker is talking about the future (although English has a few other ways of marking the future tense, and the “tomorrow” helps, too). However, a language like German, for example, does not require the future marker, such as in “morgen regnet es” or “tomorrow it rains.” A study by economics professor Keith Chen of Yale found that people whose native languages do not require future markers, like German, make less distinction between past and present. In other words, the future is less differentiated from the present in a grammatical sense. In studies, these no-future-marker speakers tend to save more money per capita. And in languages with distinct future tenses, like English, it seems that its speakers can somehow divide the present from the future, which influences them to save less. Hey, the future is separate from my present. Why save for it?
2. Numberless & Colorless?
A Brazilian tribal language known as Pirahã provides another interesting conjecture into linguistic relativity. This language, which is spoken by a small little contacted tribe in the northern rainforests of Brazil, has about 400 native speakers. Their language is thought to be one of the most basic languages on earth, both in terms of grammar and phonology, or sound system, with Pirahã thought to contain less than ten phonemes, whereas a language like Taa, which is an indigenous language spoken in Botswana, contains many hundreds of phonemes. Pirahã contains only two numbers, with words for ‘one’ (hói) and ‘two’ (hoí), distinguished only by tone, so essentially the same word spoken two different ways. There is no distinction between singular and plural, even in pronouns, and there are no terms for describing colors beyond “light” and “dark,” although they to sometimes employ color phrases, for example, “like blood” for red. Lastly, the language does not allow recursion, which is the linguistic process that allows a sentence in English to go on, theoretically, forever, a theory posited by American linguist Noam Chomsky. So, for example, a sentence in English could be, “The woman liked watermelons because they were delicious to her and she had an order from her doctor to eat more fruit because of a diagnosis of high blood pressure that was caused by…” and on and on and on. Basically the sentence length is only limited by the speaker’s imagination and the time they have to form it. In application, this means that the Pirahã cannot say, “John’s brother’s house” but must say, “John has a brother. This brother has a house” in two separate sentences.
Here’s the controversial aspect of this. Because of this simplicity, lack of lexicon, and lack of recursion in the language, linguists in the 1960s proposed that the language was holding these people back. They hypothesized that part of the reason for them living in the forest in a primitive fashion was the simplicity of their language. They can’t count, they can’t express time, nor even colors, linguists argued, how would they be able to join the liberal capitalist world? Well perhaps they don’t want to.
Another example comes from the Native American language known as Wintu, which is an extinct language that was spoken along the rivers of the Shasta and Trinity Mountains of Northern California before European settlement. In most of the world’s languages, time factors heavily into verb conjugation. In English, you have to include this temporal information, such as in, “Aaron went fishing,” which includes information about this being in the past, or, “The teacher had liked to teach, but now she doesn’t,” which includes both tense (when) and aspect (how). Wintu verbs askew information about tense and aspect, instead focusing on whether the speaker personally witnessed the action they are speaking about, called evidentiality. Wintu verbs include such information as whether they saw an event, whether they heard about it, whether someone told you, whether it was reasonable to assume it, or whether it apparently happened. For Wintu speakers, the legitimacy of the event is far more important than when it happened.
Turkish also contains evidential grammar markers. For example, in English it is necessary to mark the verb to indicate the time of occurrence of an event you are speaking about: It’s raining; It rained; and so forth. In Turkish, however, it is impossible to simply say, ‘It rained last night’. This language, like Wintu, has more than one past tense, depending on one’s source of knowledge of the event. In Turkish, there are two past tenses — one to report direct experience and the other to report events that you know about only by inference or hearsay. Thus, if you were out in the rain last night, you will say, ‘It rained last night’ using the past-tense form that indicates that you were a witness to the rain; but if you wake up in the morning and see the wet street and garden, you are obliged to use the other past-tense form — the one that indicates that you were not a witness to the rain itself.
You have to wonder how this evidence based system affects its speakers perspective on lying or exaggerating. When the facts of how you witnessed an event are in the grammar itself, would it make lying more difficult. Would you be less likely to say, “I’m sorry I’m late, I got caught in a rain storm,” as a white lie, when you have to change your verb conjugation to do so?
Respect for one’s elders and superiors is also reflected in certain languages to a large degree, as it in in Japanese, and this seems to bolster the whole respect system by reinforcing relationship power structures with verb conjugation and pronoun use. This is called honorific speech, a concept that does have some remnants in Romance languages, for example knowing when to use “tu” and when to use the more formal “usted” in Spanish, which does affect the verb form.
But Japanese takes honorifics to a whole other level, from how you greet the honored person to how to say goodbye, affecting virtually every word form or choice along the way. For example, “San” is a general honorific grammar that is used as a sign of respect between equals of any age. “Sama” is a more respectful form, used with people who have higher rank than you. “Kun” is the form higher ranking people use with lower ranking people. “Chan” is used for endearment, as with a child or close grandparent. “Senpai” is used for higher ranking people at school or work. “Sensai” is for very high ranking individuals, such as famous doctors, politicians, professors, and authority figures. You can even use honorifics with inanimate objects. Using the prefix “o” turns a regular garden into an exalted one. Can you image what all this does to your sense of equality?
5. A Socialist Language?
Chinese is a much more egalitarian language, and it is a bit easier to learn than most people assume. This is partly because it has no verb conjugation to distinguish for number or for past/present/future. Additionally, there are no noun declensions for gender or number. Speakers have to make this information known by context and association. This has led some linguists to question whether this more general type of speech has led the Chinese to more poetry, philosophy, and theory than speakers of other languages. Chinese grammar, because it changes less, leaves more up to interpretation of the listener or reader. Everything’s not so black and white and the boundaries between past, present and future, and concerning gender, number, and power structures, gives the language an almost socialist sheen. Did Mandarin contribute to the development of communism in China? We may never know, but on the surface of things, it does seem like the structure and style of the language wouldn’t hurt.
6. Hopi Time
Hopi is a “timeless” language, with a verbal system that lacks tenses. Its assessment of time is different from European languages’ linear temporal view of past, present, and future. This varies with each observer:
The timeless Hopi verb does not distinguish between the present, past and future of the event itself but must always indicate what type of validity the speaker intends the statement to have.
Hopi time is non-dimensional and cannot be counted or measured in a way European languages measure it. For example, the Hopi will not say “I stayed six days,” but “I left on the sixth day.” What is crucial in their perception of time is whether an event can be warranted to have occurred, or to be occurring, or to be expected to occur. Hopi grammatical categories signify their view of the world as an ongoing process, where time is not divided into fixed segments so that certain things recur, such as minutes, evenings, or days. The linguistic structure of European languages, on the other hand, gives its speakers a more fixed, objectified and measurable understanding of time and space, where they distinguish between countable and uncountable objects and view time as a linear sequence of past, present, and future.
Research done by linguist Lera Boroditsky found that grammatical gender reinforces gender stereotypes in the languages that use this system, such as Spanish and German (German also has neuter words, of which “girl” is one strangely.)
Boroditsky’s research found that in German, the word for bridge — die Brücke — is classified as grammatically feminine. When German speakers were asked to describe a bridge, they were more likely to use typically feminine language. They used words such as “beautiful” and “elegant.”
But in Spanish, bridge is “el puente,” which is masculine. When asked to describe a bridge, Spanish speakers more often used words such as “strong” and “long,” which can certainly be viewed to be more masculine in nature.
Of course linguistic relativity is notoriously difficult to prove, because there are so many other cultural factors to take into account when comparing different languages.
Guy Deutscher, who wrote the fabulously readable Through the Language Glass, writes about the Aboriginal Australian speakers of Guugu Yimithirr, who, for example, would never advise a motorist to take the second left because all their conversation is in exquisitely precise geographic coordinates. They even dream in cardinal directions, and their traditional greeting is to ask, “Which way are you heading?” for which a normal reply would be something like, “North-Northeast then turning Southeast.” But this doesn’t mean that they all grow up to be cartographers.
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