Does Your Language Influence Your Outlook? (Linguistic Determinism)

Does Your Native Language Influence Your Thought?

Culturally, people across the world see things differently, and this is certainly expected.  In America, for example, when someone sneezes, you say something akin to “Bless you;” in Germany, it’s “Gesundheit.”  In China, however, the sneezing act is culturally ignored.  Different foods disgust different people for different reasons, and deep roots in religion give rise to many notions of how the world should work.

With all the diversity, it’s inevitable that we all think differently.  Some argue, though, that your native language impacts your world view.  Let’s explore a few ways this may be true, and you can decide for yourself!

Numbers – You do the Math

Dating back to the Mayans, numbers quickly became a core attribute to any language – identifying currencies, keeping score, tracking time.  When performing calculations, it is only natural to revert to the original language where you learned your numbers.  No matter how good you might be at a second language, the tendency to calculate or think in your original number system is markedly stronger because it is how you’ve built relationships among things growing up.  This phenomenon, not surprisingly, holds true of every one of my friends who speaks English as a second language.  In college, I would hear my friend muttering in German as we finished our chemistry homework together.  My friend from China slipped into Mandarin to perform housing cost calculations and salaries before responding again in English, “Wow, that’s expensive!”

And to that note, it is interesting to understand that some cultures express numbers in different ways.  Chinese speaking countries have a single word for “10 Thousand” and nothing higher, so 1 Million is referred to as One Hundred 10 Thousands.  In English, one Billion used to mean 1 Million Millions, but now it more commonly refers to only 1 Thousand Millions.

Grouping words – What do a Dragon and a River have in Common?

Before I learned any Mandarin Chinese, I may not have believed there is a relationship between a dragon and a street.  But in Asian languages, Chinese especially, there are specific terms that underlie characteristics of objects.  Example: long, thin, potentially windy things are grouped within the word tiao:

Yi tiao long – A dragon (yi – one, tiao – grouping word, long – dragon)

Yi tiao jie – A street          (yi – one, tiao – grouping word, jie –street)

Yi tiao he – A river            (he – river)

This phenomenon causes many folks of Chinese descent, to group and therefore see, objects differently than westerners.  So the next time you think there is no relationship between two things, take a look at the underlying characteristics and see if you’re missing something.

Vocabulary – Many Words for the Same Thing

It is contested that some Inuit languages have a variety of distinct, meaningful words for the single English word “snow”:  falling snow, snow on the ground, snow packed like ice, etc.  Whether or not the grammatical structure of Inuit language allows for word-compounding to create these distinct meanings, the interesting fact is that these words exist in Inuit, and not in English, to represent several states of snow.

Often, when a language does not have a distinct word for an activity, an object, or a concept, its users create one (table-tennis anyone?) to express the idea initially.  This noun-extension occurs in German and Chinese, among many other languages (including English), essentially allowing the speaker to create a new noun – and when used enough, it becomes commonplace in the language to be semantically understood and incorporated.

Masculine and Feminine Objects – Who Knew a Fork was Male?

Learning Spanish, it was difficult for me to get masculine and feminine articles correct in front of nouns, or use the right object when conjugating verbs because there are no such distinctions in English.  In college, my friend from Germany could clearly identify whether something was masculine or feminine, even if it was something new.  And while Asian languages and English do not have gender distinctions for objects, Chinese does hint at distinction in written characters, where there may be an underlying feminine symbol or masculine character embedded in a larger word.  Finally, others languages distinguish gender based on animate/inanimate status.

There are many practical reasons for imparting grammatical gender, as it can be used to disambiguate certain objects, and it is easier to use pronoun references.  An interesting upshot, though, is that speakers of many western/romance languages carry these undertones with them for life.  And not all gender assignments are the same.  There is a common study indicating that German folks described a (female) “bridge” with much more flowery language than Spanish counterparts describing the same (male) “bridge.”  So in essence, gender assignment impacts the way certain people view objects in the world around them.

You Decide – Does Your Language Influence Your Outlook?

Think about your language and the assumptions you make because of it.  Take some of the examples above and see if they apply to how you or your friends view the world.  You might find something interesting.

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