Monday, August 30, 2010

Does Mother Tongue Affect The Way We View Our World?

There is a fascinating article in the New York Times Magazine about how our mother tongue impacts not on how we understand the world necessarily but on what we are obligated to pay attention to and therefore how those details impact on how we view the world.

An example is given of languages such as most European languages that give objects either a masculine or feminine classification. When speaking of these objects they must pay attention to if the objects are masculine or feminine. This seems to affect their perceptions of those objects. This classification is different in different languages. For example a bridge is masculine in Spanish and feminine in German. When study participants were asked to grade various objects, Spanish speakers found bridges to be strong and sturdy while Germans graded them on their elegance.

What I found very interesting was the way we position things in space. I might say it is to my left, or behind me when I say where an object is for example. An Aboriginal tribe in Australia the Guugu Yimithirr, do not have words such as that. Instead everything is related to the cardinal directions. No matter where they are, they are aware of the cardinal directions, from a very young age. They might say the book is on the southwest corner of the bookshelf. For most English speakers such directions would be almost impossible to follow.

The article explains how this way of orientating oneself has an impact on how you see the world. If you are from a language that uses geographical directions, two identical rooms in a hotel which are on opposite sides of a hallway would not be identical at all, unlike for an English speaker.

I thought when I read this about how often seasoned writers advise newbies to write their story, don't copy others since we all have our own unique perspective and maybe this article is another piece of evidence about why this is so important.


CA Heaven said...

Very interesting. Think I need to take a look at that article >:)

Cold As Heaven

Helen Ginger said...

This would be very interesting for writers who have characters from countries or of nationalities they're not very familiar with. I'd never considered this variance, but you'd want to know this if it affected your characters. Thanks.


Elspeth Futcher said...

This is fascinating, Lauri. I was always grateful English was just 'the' instead of the myriad of ways it is in some languages. On the other hand, trying to explain English grammar to a new-to-it speaker made me realize how difficult it is to learn!