31 May 2013

Does Language Affect Our World View?

The question of where language comes from has been an interesting, yet controversial issue for many centuries. There are two dominant theories on how different languages lead their speakers to contrasting thoughts and perceptions:

Noam Chomsky, the renowned linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, logician and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, proposed the theory that all languages share the same universal grammar, the same underlying concepts, the same degree of systematic complexity. This means that – apparently – most of the grammar of all human languages is innate and these rules are coded in our DNA. Most academics agree with this view today and are the so called ‘nativists’. They believe that grammar reflects the universal human nature and that any differences between the grammatical structures of languages are of little consequence and superficial.

In contrast, the minority group of the culturalists, including Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist, linguist and experimental psychologist and professor at the Harvard University, and Guy Deutscher, author of Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in other Languages, disagree. Deutscher argues in his book that ‘there is scant evidence to show that any specific rules of grammar are prewired in the brain and there is no need to invoke genes in order to account for grammatical structures, because these can be explained more simply and more plausibly as the product of cultural evolution and as a response to the exigencies of efficient communication’.

Three examples of how languages can differ even when dealing with basic concepts

1. ‘Arm’, ‘hand’ and ‘fingers’ are one concept in Hawaiian

Many languages have no difference between the three distinct English parts ‘arm’, ‘hand’ and ‘fingers’. In Hawaiian, speakers only use one concept. Similarly, Hebrew speakers do not have a distinction between ‘arm’ and ‘hand’ (they only use the word yad), but the English word ‘neck’ is expressed with two different words: oref refers to ‘the back of the neck’ and tsavar means ‘the front of neck’. This suggests that it depends on the culture you grew up in on how you view your body.

2. Tagalog speakers and the pronoun ‘we’

Tagalog speakers in the Philippines have three distinct words for the pronoun ‘we’: kita, meaning ‘just the two of us, me and you’, tayo, which means ‘me and you and someone else’ and kami, which can be translated as ‘me and someone else, but not you’.

3. To take the blame in English, Spanish and Japanese

If a vase breaks, English speakers often say that someone broke it, even if it was an accident. However, Spanish and Japanese speakers say that the vase broke itself. Stanford psychology professor Lera Boroditsky conducted a study in which English speakers were much more likely to remember who accidentally broke eggs, spilled drinks or popped balloons in a video than Spanish or Japanese speakers.


We would like to hear your opinion on wether you think all languages have a universal grammar or if you believe that language can indeed influence our world view.


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