Absolutely riveting. Just the sort of thing I like reading on a Sunday night, get my brain into a different kind of gear altogether before I set off into the normal week. Professor Boroditsky seeks to resolve an age-old question: Does language play any part in the way we view things, analyse things, think about things? Are linguistic differences alone enough to drive a difference in the way we are?
As is often the case with such questions, we’ve had people come up with angels-dancing-on-heads-of-pins answers forever and a day; there’s been no shortage of hypotheses, the problem is with proof. Or, more precisely, the lack of proof. In that respect, the empirical tests devised by Professor Boroditsky and her team are fascinating in their simplicity and elegance: the tests appear to concentrate on how a particular language deals with descriptions of space and of time.
The case of the Kuuk Thaayorre, briefly detailed in the essay, struck me as wonderful. It’s interesting enough to have a community that speaks of direction strictly on a north-south-east-west basis, as in the case of “There’s an ant on your south-east leg”. What makes it move from interesting to spellbinding is when they apply the same principle when describing time. They show temporal motion on an east-west basis, so much so that the “direction” of time depends on the way they are facing at that particular instant. Fascinating.
Read the rest of the essay, it’s worth it. I’m elated because I’ve found one more thing to interest me, one more thing to delve deeper into.
Instinctively I think that while space and time are valuable starting positions for such analysis, there are actually two more. Relationships. And food.
On a strictly amateur basis, I’ve been consistently intrigued by how different languages describe relationships. For example, in many Indian languages, there isn’t a word for “uncle”. Well, there isn’t one word for “uncle”. Instead, you have words that describe “father’s younger brother”, “mother’s elder brother” and so on. So you don’t just say uncle, the word you use describes the position of the person in the family pecking order. I’ve just given a couple of examples, the entire spectrum of relationship is covered in terms of age and sex.
I tend to think that the detailing of the relationship in this way is indicative of something deep within the culture and represented by the language, similar to the way Eskimos have 12-20 words for snow. Why 12-20? Because Steven Pinker says so and I trust his work in this regard. In fact it was through reading Steven Pinker that I first started dabbling in this question of language and thinking.
Space and direction. Time. Relationships. And food.
Why food? I think that the words for food quite often show themselves to be singular or plural, to be individual or shareable. Like there’s a difference between “stew” and “chops” when it comes to lamb. Stew you can share easily, just add water or some vegetables. Chops you can’t, they’re designed to be counted out. The language of food used by a community quite often shows whether the basis of the community is an individual or a group. My gut tells me that a person’s ability to share or not-share is itself a cultural thing. Language is often a window into culture and values, so much so it can shape them. There’s a Chandler’s Law in there somewhere, in terms of the relationship between language and culture.
There’s probably a line to be drawn into Chomskyist debate at this stage, but I’m not going to go there. Not yet anyway. Nor am I ready to walk the Lakoff plank as yet, despite its obvious relevance. For now, I just want to play around with my instinctive reaction, to add “relationships” and “food” to the “space” and “time” put forward by Professor Boroditsky, whom I must thank for waking me up this evening.