What is this blog?

"Words and sounds carry histories with them. Not only their own histories, but those of people who have uttered those words."- Me aka Yash.
I pay attention to people speaking. Their choice of words, their choice of pronunciation. And whenever I do hear something which I do not use, I feel obliged to attribute this different choice of words or sounds to history.

This blog is a linguistic record of my world, the sounds I hear and the letters I read, from all the languages I come across.

PS: I am a high school student, and not a linguist, so take what I have to say with a grain of salt.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Just a small note

I haven't ever written a post without any linguistics related matter until today, and I don't want to either but I wanted to tell all my readers (who are not in large numbers) that I am terribly sorry for the long intervals between multiple posts and this will continue until the 1st of June, when I have my SATs. But since I like sprinkling the bad news with the good news, I want to add that you should expect a lot of posts in the week after my SAT because that is the time I will be in Mumbai attending the Orientation-cum-Selection Camp for the International Linguistics Olympiad. So this blog and I are both looking forward to an interesting post-SAT week. 

Thursday, 9 May 2013

You think what you speak

Hi, it's been a long time since I posted. What with final exams, and school fest, and ten million essays to write and the laziness following all of this, I think I can be excused. Anyway, the important thing is here I am with a new post. Have a look.

I recently came across an article, which I found rather interesting and worth sharing with you all. You can find the link to the original article at the bottom of the page. The article talks about how speakers of different languages think differently. Yes, you read it right. If I speak Greek, I think Greek. If I speak Japanese, I think Japanese. 

To understand this, we have to firstly appreciate that languages are different. While this may seem obvious, the point I am trying to highlight is that suppose you switch from Turkish to Tamil, you wouldn't simply be substituting every word for another. Rather, you will have to change all your ideas about nouns and verbs, and all the other words, about how their forms vary, and about how all these words in their different forms must combine with each other to form a complete sentence. Thus, it is clear that when we switch from one language to another, we switch our way of thinking about sounds, words and sentences. So far, so good.

But what if I were to tell you that speakers of different languages not only think differently about processes associated with languages, but also with respect to various objects? What if Spanish speakers think of bridges differently from what German speakers think of bridges? That indeed seems to be the case. 

In a study described in the aforementioned link, German speakers described bridges as 'elegant', 'pretty' and 'beautiful', whereas Spanish speakers described them as 'strong' and 'sturdy'. If you notice carefully, German speakers tended to stick with words generally reserved for all things feminine, while Spanish speakers with 'masculine' words. Now, if you know a thing or two about these languages, you probably know that both of them put nouns into genders. And guess what? Bridges are masculine in Spanish and feminine in German. Thus, these imaginary genders of words, which is often an unnecessary inconvenience to learners of these language, affect how speakers of these languages think of these words. Also, I might add that in the same experiment, a key, which was masculine in German and feminine in Spanish was described by 'masculine' adjective by German speakers and 'feminine' adjectives by Spanish speakers. 

So much for genders. But languages don't just make us think of objects in different ways. In fact, different languages give us a different idea of space and direction. Let us consider the Kuuk Thaayorre people in northern Australia. They are a group of Aborginal people who always, always use cardinal direction terms (like north, south etc.) instead of direction words which are used in reference to a certain person/object (like right, left etc.) This means, that these people, unlike English speakers always remain oriented. They always know which direction is north, and which is south, which may not be true for English speakers. Thus, the language they speak forces them to think of direction in a particular way.

This difference is not limited to languages which use cardinal direction instead of reference directions, but also to languages whose writing scripts run from right to left, or from top to bottom. For example, an experiment was carried out where participants were asked to arrange pictures of a man ageing in temporal order. They weren't asked to do so in a particular direction. It was found that English speakers arranged the pictures from left to right, while Hebrew speakers did so from right to left. It cannot be a mere coincidence that English is written from left to right, and Hebrew from right to left. Also, just in case you might be interested, the Kuuk Thaayorre participants arranged it from east to west, no matter which direction they were facing. 

This idea of direction also extends to time. For example, when English speakers talk about time using space metaphors, they always use horizontal ones. In English, bad times lie ahead of us; those days are behind us. But for Mandarin speakers, the next month is down month, and the previous month is the up month i.e.  a vertical metaphor is being used to describe time. And I know you've guessed/known it before, but I should add that Mandarin is written vertically from top to bottom. 

It's scary how much the language we speak affects how we think. It shapes the world around us, gives imaginary genders to objects, gives us a sense of direction. After knowing all this, I feel that in some ways, languages can limit our abilities to think about the world. Monolingual speakers see the world in one perspective. Maybe there are more advantages to being multilingual than we think, especially when the languages we speak are not closely related. Obviously, if you speak what you think, the more ways you speak, the more ways you think. 

And here is the link to the original article: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/boroditsky09/boroditsky09_index.html