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Interview: Does Language Shape The Way We See The World?

Do you see the bridge strong and sturdy, or sleek and elegant? That may well depend on which gender the language you speak assigns to the word for "bridge."

For years, people have argued that native tongues can affect a person's personality and cultural views. Linguist Guy Deutscher, the author of "Through the Language Glass: Why The World Looks Different In Other Languages," takes such theories a step further, saying languages can affect the way people perceive objects, geography, and even color.

RFE/RL correspondent Daisy Sindelar spoke to Deutscher about some of his findings.

RFE/RL: Let's start with the obvious. How many languages do you speak?

Guy Deutscher:
I spoke Hebrew as a child. I grew up completely monolingual in Israel. I then learned various languages in school, mostly English but also German and Arabic, some Latin. I spent some time as a student in Scandinavia and at some stage I could speak tolerable Danish and Swedish.

Guy Deutscher

Guy Deutscher

The languages I actually specialize in in my academic activity are the languages of ancient Mesopotamia -- languages that haven't been spoken for 4,000 years, in some cases. So I can read them, but I can't speak them. And even if I could, there would be no one to speak it to.

RFE/RL: It's popular to argue that language shapes the way we think because a concept that is easy to convey in one language may be impossible in another, simply because the vocabulary isn't there. Is there any merit to such arguments?

I don't think that our mother tongue prevents us from understanding anything that people of other languages can easily understand. This is one of the main arguments that you hear all over the place, although usually not from linguists, that "speakers of some other language simply can't understand our concept of whatever it might be -- democracy or freedom or this or that -- because they don't have a word for this in their language."

This, I think, is clearly wrong. There's just no evidence whatsoever that people who speak a certain language can't understand something that others understand just because they don't have a simple word for it. There's really nothing that you can't sit down with someone and explain to them in their own language, even if they don't have the readymade labels for all the concepts.

RFE/RL: And yet you argue that our language does affect the way we think, simply because it creates what you call a "habit of mind."

Perhaps the most dramatic example that has come to light is the way different languages describe the space around us. So there are languages that don't use terms like left and right or even in front of me or behind me. Instead, they just use the geographic directions for everything.

Perhaps the most dramatic example that has come to light is the way different languages describe the space around us -- they just use the geographic directions for everything.
I would say now, "I'm speaking to you and I'm standing in front of the telephone." And they would say, "I'm speaking just to the south of the telephone." Or I would say, "There's a cup of tea on my right," and they would say, "There's a cup of tea to the east of me." This sounds quite fantastic to us, but there are languages or societies which actually speak like this all around the world.

RFE/RL: You give an example of how such geographical orientation can fail a person who is suddenly moved from a familiar location.

This is a story about a little boy on the island of Bali in Indonesia who was an extremely good dancer, and a Canadian musicologist in the 1930s who lived on the island arranged for this boy to be brought to a teacher in a different village because there was no suitable teacher in the child's village. He left him there and came back after a few days expecting the child to be engaged in advanced dancing activity.

But he found out when he came that the child couldn't have any lessons at all because he couldn't understand the instructions that the teacher was giving him. And the reason why he couldn't understand was because all these instructions were in geographic directions. So the teacher would say, "Now take one step to the south," or "raise your western hand," or things like that. And whereas the child wouldn't have had the least sort of problem understanding these in his own village because he knew where the directions were, he was disorientated in the different village, because the landscape was different and he just couldn't understand it.

RFE/RL: Some languages, like English, have no gender designation for inanimate objects. But many languages do. Does this awareness of gender have an impact on thought?

If your language forces you to speak about trees and windows and chairs and other inanimate objects as a man or a woman, just this habit alone instills very strong association in your mind of masculinity or femininity regarding these objects. This has now been tested quite thoroughly for quite a lot of languages.

Language doesn't affect logical capacity for thinking, but it can strongly affect things like associations that we have towards the whole world around us.
For example, if a bridge in your language happens to have a feminine gender, like in German, it turns out that speakers of such languages associate more feminine properties with bridges. They would tend to think of them more as slender and slim and elegant and beautiful. Whereas if your language tends to treat a bridge as masculine -- like in Spanish, for example -- then speakers of such languages tend to associate masculine properties with bridges -- strong and sturdy and massive.

Language doesn't affect logical capacity for thinking, but it can strongly affect things like associations that we have towards the whole world around us.

RFE/RL: You also make the argument that there are some languages that force their speakers to see colors in a different way. Can you give an example?

Russian is very interesting because it has two completely separate names for what in English would be dark blue and light blue. So in Russian you have "siny" and "goluboi." They sound completely different, and there is no etymological relation between them. They are essentially treated as two separate colors just as, say, in English, blue and green would be considered different colors.

That doesn't mean that English-speaking people who call both light blue and dark blue by the same name can't see the difference between light blue and dark blue. But it does mean that speakers of Russian -- certainly speakers of Russian as a mother tongue, but it's quite possible that this also applies to people who've grown up with Russian as a dominant second language from an early age and speak it entirely fluently -- have had their brains trained to exaggerate the difference between siny and goluboi -- so between dark blue and light blue -- in the way that English doesn't train us.