Language and Thinking~II

In Pormpuraaw, a small Aboriginal community on the western edge of Cape York in northern Australia, people speak Kuuk Thaayorre language which does not have any words for relative directions like left, right, front or back, but only absolute cardinal directions of north, south, east, west, etc.

Language and Thinking~II

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In Pormpuraaw, a small Aboriginal community on the western edge of Cape York in northern Australia, people speak Kuuk Thaayorre language which does not have any words for relative directions like left, right, front or back, but only absolute cardinal directions of north, south, east, west, etc. Even a child is able to identify these cardinal directions with absolute certainty, which many of us would not be able to do readily. It would appear that while language may not be the determinant of thought, it still moulds our thinking and world views and plays a causal role in shaping our cognition. But overall, modern research on crosslinguistic differences tends to suggest that the relationship operates both ways. There are languages scattered around the world, from Polynesia to Mexico, from Namibia to Bali, which rely primarily on geographical coordinates.

An Australian aboriginal tongue, Guugu Yimithirr, also has no relative directions, but only cardinal directions. To indicate where exactly they left something in the house, they’ll say, “I left it on the southern edge of the western table.” When shown a film on television, if it was facing north and a man on the screen was approaching, they would say that the man was “coming northward.” To be able to think like these people, one needs to have a compass somewhere in the mind all the time. Regardless of visibility conditions and regardless of where they are indoors or outdoors, stationary or moving, they have a spot-on sense of direction, and for this they don’t need to look at the Sun. They simply feel where north, south, west and east are. Guy Deutscher narrated how a speaker of Tzeltal from southern Mexico was blindfolded and spun around more than 20 times in a darkened house, but being blindfolded and dizzy, still pointed the geographic directions accurately.

We cannot conceive how they experience the world, or whether it influences their sense of identity: if a Guugu Yimithirr speaker is pointing at himself, it may be not to draw attention unto himself as we would, but maybe, to point at a cardinal direction behind his back, his own existence being irrelevant. To understand the role of language in thought, let us look at how different languages treat gender, or time. In English, if one says “I dined with my friend”, one need not specify the sex of the friend. This is not the case with French (amie (f) /ami (m)), or German (Freundin(f ) /Freund(m)). But English is particular about the time of dining (dines/dined/ dining/ will dine, etc.), while Chinese, for example, does not oblige its speakers to specify the exact time of the action ~ the same verb form is used for past, present or future actions.


It does not mean that the English do not understand the difference between sexes or that the Chinese do not understand the difference between past, present and future ~ but it does mean that they are not obliged to think about timing while describing an action. Similarly, Matses in Peru want their speakers to be precise about facts they are reporting. A Matses man when asked how many wives he has, unless he can actually see them at that moment, would have to answer in the past tense, like “There were two the last time I saw.” He must 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. When one is obliged to specify certain types of information, it forces one to be attentive to those details. Since such habits of speech are inculcated from childhood, it is only natural that they will become habits of mind that go beyond language and shape experiences and perceptions, feelings and memories. The question is, is it supported by hard evidence?

Mark Twain once mocked the pronoun confusions of “the awful German language” ~ a young girl is an “it” while a turnip is a “she”. Most people, however, treat gender assignment in a language as arbitrary without any cognitive content. But experiments suggest that speakers do indeed, on a subconscious level, form associations between non-living (“neuter”) objects with masculine or feminine properties depending on their gender assignment, as in the 1990s experiment with German and Spanish. A German bridge is feminine (die Brücke), for instance, but el puente is masculine in Spanish and the same is true for clocks, apartments, forks, newspapers, pockets, etc., whereas an apple is masculine for Germans but feminine in Spanish, just like for chairs, brooms, butterflies, keys, mountains, etc. When speakers were asked to grade various objects on a range of characteristics, Spanish speakers deemed bridges, clocks and violins to have more “masculine properties” like strength, but Germans tended to think of them as more slender or elegant.

With objects like mountains or chairs, which are “he” in German but “she” in Spanish, the effect was reversed. When they were asked to assign human voices to various objects, French speakers assigned female voices to a fork (la fourchette), while Spanish speakers, for whom el tenedor is masculine, preferred a male voice. This is not to say that speakers did not know that inanimate objects do not possess biological sex, but to look at the inanimate world through the prism of gender may have some emotional connotation. Deutscher wondered whether the opposite genders of “bridge” in German and Spanish, for example, could have an effect on the design of bridges in Spain and Germany. We really do not know how the “emotional maps imposed by a gender system” affect tastes, habits and preferences. In Mandarin, speakers point past in the front and future at the back with their hand gestures, unlike us whose spatial gestures for the past and the future are just the opposite.

In English, for example, we look forward to the future lying ahead, or look back to the past left behind. But for the Chinese, the past gives the strength to move ahead, while uncertainties of the future are better left behind. The question whether language shapes thought probably goes deeper ~ what do we actually mean by thought? Psychology defines thinking as an activity that goes on in the brain while processing information received through senses and stimuli. Thinking involves memory but goes beyond ~ thinking is involved when we form concepts, feel an emotion or physical pain, engage in problem solving, reasoning or decision making. Can we experience a feeling of a sensation without a corresponding word in our language? Can we experience and identify pain without having a concept of pain in the language? Can there be thought without concept, or concept without language? To a large extent thinking may be language-based, but obviously we can think in images. Experimentally, it has been shown that imagining a physical activity stimulates the same regions in our brain that get activated when we actually perform the action.

Rather than being unidirectional, traffic flows both-ways between language and thinking, both of which are again influenced strongly by culture. As linguist Philip Lieberman says, “there are intimate, complex relationships that hold between biology, culture, language, and thought. Biology sets limits on thought, but culture changes biology, language transmits culture, and culture influences language and thought.” That language is a mirror of culture, and not something inherited by a child in the form of Chomskian Universal Grammar, has been convincingly demonstrated by Daniel Everett based on his study of the Piraha people who inhabit the extremely isolated Amazonian regions of Brazil. The language of the Pirahas does not exhibit one characteristic common to all languages, which is recursion ~ the embedding of clauses within clauses seen in most languages and is regarded as the defining characteristic of any human language.

Everett lived with Pirahas for 86 months and observed that they live a simple life, based on bounties on nature, and live on ‘here and now’ without having any sense or need of the past or the future, recognizing ‘the passage of time through wet and dry seasons’ and using ‘the full moon as a simple calendar’. Consequently, their language has evolved to meet the needs of their values, lifestyle and culture. It has no words for numbers ~ only ‘few’ and ‘many’, no words for colours or for markers of time like a week, month or year ~ only seasons, wet or dry. Their language to them is only a tool to negotiate their life which is lived only in the present and without much complexity. Actually, we are as yet far from understanding how the words that we hear or sentences that we read acquire meaning in our minds ~ how the brain’s neurons translate them into perception and thought.

Given that neurons in our brain are responsible for everything we perceive, think or do, we cannot as yet answer how objects, events, ideas, sensations, or people are encoded in the hardware of the brain by the actions of the hundred billion neurons that are tightly packed inside it. We may have shaped our destiny through innovation and creativity, through the use of increasingly sophisticated tools and language that had set us apart from our primate cousins and given us cognitive flexibility far superior to every other animal, flexibility that has led to the astounding diversity of about 7,000 languages around the globe.

But we are at the infancy of our understanding of the relationship between language and thinking. As Alan Moore said in his Promethea, “The only reality we can ever truly know is that of our perceptions, our own consciousness, while that consciousness, and thus our entire reality, is made of nothing but signs and symbols. Nothing but language. Even God requires language before conceiving the Universe. See Genesis: “In the beginning was the Word.””

(The writer is an author commentator and academic)