The Power of Language

Every now and again, you learn something new that challenges your basic assumptions about the world. This happened to me the other day as I was reading Aatish Bhatia’s article on colors. What’s quite fascinating, is that the majority of the world’s languages don’t make a distinction between the colors green and blue.

In other words, they do not have separate terms for green and blue, instead using a cover for both. For example, green traffic lights in Japan are referred to as blue (青). The Korean word 푸르다 (pureuda) can mean either green or blue. Indeed, the Vietnamese don’t distinguish between the color of leaves and the color of the sky.

In fact, other languages have words for colors that we don’t distinguise between in English. The Russians have two words goluboj (голубой) and sinij (синий), which mean light blue and dark blue. They are just as baffled that we refer to them as a single color.

It turns out that just by having words for green and blue makes the perceived difference between the two more vivid (with some caveats). The different names of colors fundamentally changes how we perceive the world. When infants start learning color names, their whole brains rewire themselves, and their ability to distinguish colors transforms.

However, it’s not just words that mold your mind, but the language constructs themselves. For example, just having a gender system in a language dramatically effects the feelings and associations speakers have towards objects around them. Several physiological experiments in the 1990s demonstrated gender’s influence; subjects perceived masculine words with manly traits, and feminine words with more womanly attributes.

A language’s gender even personifies itself in art in the way that abstract entities, such as love and death are presented. For example, German painters are more likely to paint death as a man, whereas Russian painters are more likely to paint death as a woman. Such influences run deep within our culture, and we often aren’t aware of them.

In 1770, as Captain Cook was first exploring Australia, his men came across a small tribe called the Guugu Yimithirr. After various interactions with the tribe, they discovered an astounding thing: whenever these aborigines referenced a direction such as left or right, they would so in terms of points of the compass, such as east or west. They had no words denoting egocentric directions in their language, instead exclusively using cardinal directions.

What was even more interesting though, was that by embedding geographical directions into a language, speakers seemed to have an uncanny sense of direction. Regardless of their surroundings or conditions, whether indoors or outdoors, they always knew where north was. Indeed, whenever the Guugu Yimithirr recalled a situation, they always did so in terms of their direction at the time. To put it another way, geographical locations were embedded in their memories.

Language is critical for higher level thought too. We ‘think’ in a language. For example, infants don’t have spacial awareness, or understand how objects can be relative to each other, until they learn the words for describing relativity. Indeed deaf children, who aren’t taught sign language, are often significantly mentally handicapped.

So, not only does the language you know literally change your vision, it’s also fundamental to everything we think or do. Language might well be the greatest invention mankind has ever come up with.


References:

  1. Life without language
  2. How deaf people think
  3. How does our language shape the way we think?
  4. Anchoring, Iconicity, and Orientation in Guugu Yimithirr Pointing Gestures
  5. Language and Cognition: The Cognitive Consequences of Spatial Description in Guugu Yimithirr
  6. Does Your Language Shape How You Think?
 
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