I remember, in college, my Spanish professor talking about his wife, who was from Latin America. He said that if he knocked a glass off the table and it broke, then he would slap himself on the forehead and declare, in English: I broke the glass. Yet, his wife would both express and think differently. In Spanish, the verb is reflexive, so in essence, the broken glass on the floor “broke itself.” In English, we have a culpability for the broken glass (whether good or bad); in Spanish, one might say fate plays a role.
Such a story fascinates me, as a writer. It fascinates me because of not only how the action is expressed, but how it affects thought. I’ve read some articles lately disregarding the effect that language has on thought process: the thinking is that human thought is, essentially, the same: language merely expresses the same thing in different ways. I’ve been uncomfortable with this. I believe language actually affects the way we think, from my own observation, from the story about my Spanish professor’s wife.
Lera Boroditsky, a professor at Stanford, agrees.
Language is a uniquely human gift, central to our experience of being human. Appreciating its role in constructing our mental lives brings us one step closer to understanding the very nature of humanity…
Language is so fundamental to our experience, so deeply a part of being human, that it’s hard to imagine life without it. But are languages merely tools for expressing our thoughts, or do they actually shape our thoughts?
Follow me to Pormpuraaw, a small Aboriginal community on the western edge of Cape York, in northern Australia. I came here because of the way the locals, the Kuuk Thaayorre, talk about space. 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. 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…
Simply put, speakers of languages like Kuuk Thaayorre are much better than English speakers at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes or inside unfamiliar buildings. What enables them — in fact, forces them — to do this is their language. Having their attention trained in this way equips them to perform navigational feats once thought beyond human capabilities.
When asked to arrange cards in chronological order (say, of a man growing older), the Kuuk Thaayorre always arranged them from east to west, whether it meant arranging them left to right, right to left, or away from their person. Yet, language affects us even more. Regarding masculine and feminine nouns in other languages:
In one study, we asked German and Spanish speakers to describe objects having opposite gender assignment in those two languages. The descriptions they gave differed in a way predicted by grammatical gender. For example, when asked to describe a “key” — a word that is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish — the 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.” To describe a “bridge,” which is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish, the German speakers said, “beautiful,” “elegant,” “fragile,” “peaceful,” “pretty,” and “slender,” and the Spanish speakers said, “big,” “dangerous,” “long,” “strong,” “sturdy,” and “towering.” This was true even though all testing was done in English, a language without grammatical gender…Apparently even small flukes of grammar, like the seemingly arbitrary assignment of gender to a noun, can have an effect on people’s ideas of concrete objects in the world.
Language affects thought. I rarely think of language as a tool, but it is: a tool with benefits and drawbacks, just like any other tool that humans use. Our very language affects our perceptions of the world around us. The act of writing — of good writing — is really an act of seeing: it is breaking through the cliche, even through the language barrier, to see the bridge or key with new eyes. I think in many ways this is a spiritual act, as it asserts our independence and volition and creativity, our humanity.
Seeing in this way both asserts our humanity and the goodness of the created world, as it refuses to ingest the world based on another’s opinion, but always seeks its own. It foresees the day when we no longer will be constrained by language, when we will experience truly and purely, when we will know fully, even as we are fully known. One day, language will no longer get in our way, but will be transformed and redeemed. The writer, the poet, seeks to begin that transformation today.