Friday, August 14, 2009

How language affects your thoughts

I've found an easy way to avoid getting lost ever again. All you have to do is to learn the Aboriginal language of the Kuuk Thaayorre and you will always know where you are.

Instead of words like "right," "left," "forward," and "back," which, as commonly used in English, define space relative to an observer, the Kuuk Thaayorre, like many other Aboriginal groups, use cardinal-direction terms — north, south, east, and west — to define space. This is done at all scales, which means you have to say things like "There's an ant on your southeast leg" or "Move the cup to the north northwest a little bit." One obvious consequence of speaking such a language is that you have to stay oriented at all times, or else you cannot speak properly. The normal greeting in Kuuk Thaayorre is "Where are you going?" and the answer should be something like " Southsoutheast, in the middle distance." If you don't know which way you're facing, you can't even get past "Hello."

Taken from: HOW DOES OUR LANGUAGE SHAPE THE WAY WE THINK? by Lera Boroditsky which is a fascinating article that explores the effects of language on the perception of time and colour as well as space.

Beats GPS every time.


writtenwyrdd said...

Now that would certainly have a strong influence on culture and social interactions!

I think I have to get that book for ideas. Dose myself with periodic readings to shake my brain loose from it's rut of assumptions!

Sarah Laurenson said...

How fascinating. Something to really chew on.

Adam Heine said...

My wife's first language must have been something like Kuuk Thaayorre. She always knows what direction she's facing.

fairyhedgehog said...

writtenwyrdd, it has fascinating implications for alien languages too.

Sarah, I found it fascinating too.

Adam, that's amazing. I wish I had her talent.

SillyBoy said...

That is fascinating stuff!

Presumably it started out the other way round, with language being shaped by people's ways of thinking.

I wonder what might be achieved through overtly innocent but deviously-planned language reform. Not the brutal pruning of vocabulary in Orwell's 1984, but something more subtle.

I tend to keep track of my orientation. It might stem from being a bit of a map geek. Sometimes I lose track of which way is which, especially during tube journeys, and when I find a landmark to correct my internal sense of direction, it feels like the whole world's turned around.

fairyhedgehog said...

SillyBoy, I'm not sure how effectively you can force language reform. The Académie Française have been trying to keep their language "pure" for years but without notable success.

I suspect that there's a circularity about language and thought where they both influence each other, even now.

I envy you your sense of direction.

Sophie in the Moonlight said...

What a fascinating language!!!! I'm soooo directionally-challenged that I have a hard time remembering my right and left. Seriously. I know which way I want to turn, but it takes me a moment or two to match the word "right" to the intent.

If I was Kuuk Thayyorre, I'd probably be exiled for stupidity. =)

fairyhedgehog said...

I wonder if it's easier or harder to work with a language where the directions are all fixed points. One of the problems with right and left is that if you turn round they're reversed! And there's always the question of "whose right?" and "whose left?"

My sister and my husband both have terrible trouble with right and left. When I give directions to them, I point.

Sarah Laurenson said...

I used to have to think about where my watch was in order to figure out right and left. Not a quick method. And now I don't wear a watch, so I'm fairly screwed in that respect.

I'm pretty good at knowing the cardinal directions except when I've been below ground. When I come out of the train station, I need a bit to orient myself.

fairyhedgehog said...

My sister has a mole on one of the fingers of her left hand and she looks for that to know which is left. It's more permanent than a watch!

What I find interesting is that she always knows which hand to look at for the mole.

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