A recent article from the New York Times, Does Your Language Shape How You Think? talks about how language influences the way you look at the world. The article points out that language doesn’t limit your thoughts; but it does emphasise certain aspects of the world: gender, timing, location, direction, truth, something slighty different in each language. One example is the gendered nature of most European languages: it makes gender an essential part of any communication, something which can’t be ignored or avoided.
The best example, or perhaps just the most amusing, is this:
“For instance, some languages, like Matses in Peru, oblige their speakers, like the finickiest of lawyers, to specify exactly how they came to know about the facts they are reporting. … If a statement is reported with the incorrect “evidentiality,” it is considered a lie. So if, for instance, you ask a Matses man how many wives he has, unless he can actually see his wives at that very moment, he would have to answer in the past tense and would say something like “There were two last time I checked.” After all, given that the wives are not present, he cannot be absolutely certain that one of them hasn’t died or run off with another man since he last saw them, even if this was only five minutes ago.”
The question which all of this raises is: how does this influence people’s actions? With a language emphasis on truth, are Matses-speakers less likely to cheat or commit fraud? Given that bridges are feminine in German and masculine in Spanish, do German-speakers build different-looking bridges than Spanish-speakers? How does language influence the assumptions that underlie culture? Fascinating. The author of the article,Guy Deutscher, has a new book out soon. I might have to add it to my library wish-list.