Mind over … language?

“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
― George Orwell1984

Without doubt one of my favourite books of all time.  The idea that the words you speak, the sounds you mix together to produce language, can create the boundaries of your perception.


I was reading a Ted blog today based on the widely-researched phenomenon of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, such to which 1984 refers.   This topic has become quite the ‘hit’ in the linguistic world in recent times, exploring the extent to which language can affect thought.

I am constantly wondering whether my ego-centric Anglo-Saxon/European language knowledge limits my thoughts to a whole world of knowledge which could be accessible though acquiring new and ‘exotic’ tongues.  However, even through my adventures of obtaining the French language, I can see this hypothesis at play through one key feature: grammatical gender.  Gender neutrality in English already limits us to one, what I think of as, big way of thinking.  Not that necessary, you may be thinking?  Well, think of it in this way.  Gender association even to inanimate objects creates a certain perception about how you would possibly describe an object, therefore how you would relate or feel about that object.  One of my favourite linguistics, Lera Boroditsky (mostly because she exudes a highly intelligent, independent woman kind of aura…) has produced studies that show that languages which use a different gender on an object will produce different descriptions, indicating that native speakers unconsciously provide characteristics of nouns based on grammatical gender.

For example, she tested the word ‘bridge’ which, for example, is feminine in German but masculine in Spanish.  The German group predominately used words such as beautiful and elegant to describe the bridge shown, whilst the Spanish group used descriptive words such as strong and sturdy.  Other languages have also been tested  by Lera; you can read one study here

There is no doubting that language affects the way we think, but to what extent?  We can see the linguistic phenomenon on our own soil in Australia.  Australian Indigenous languages are free of word order, unlike English which enables us only to communicate if we place a subject pronoun first, followed by a verb, then we can add an object … you understand.  I am of opinion that as the Indigenous population don’t communicate in this manner, one could hypothesize that their way of thinking is a lot more ‘free’ than ours, therefore indicating polar ends of perception between an English and Indigenous speaker.  A small linguistic phenomenon contributing to a much greater issue.

So, just as George Orwell teaches us through Newspeak; as one narrows the parameters on language we speak, so does one reduce thought.  And so commences the vicious cycle.

Therefore, let us never underestimate to power of language diversity and constantly endeavour to understand other ways of speaking which could expand our perception.


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