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Say Hello in Pormpuraaw

August 2, 2010

Do the languages we speak merely express our thoughts, or do they shape those thoughts behind our backs?

A fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal last week by Stanford psychologist Lera Boroditsky discusses this question and how modern research demonstrates that, yes, if you change how people talk, you can change how they think.

This might seem obvious to you, especially if you speak more than one language, have tried to translate poetry, or work with children. It’s an aspect of our nature that seems to be manipulated in many circumstances, from the military to the family home.

However, it has not been the focus of linguistic research for decades, which instead has sought linguistic universals, such as a universal grammar.

Almost any line of research can be fruitful, even if it’s wrong. The search for universals instead revealed more and more differences among the world’s 7,000 languages.

It is certainly not a given that because people talk differently they think differently, and cognitive scientists have been studying just that. Boroditsky gives some engaging examples.

In Pormpuraaw, an Australian aboriginal community, native speakers don’t use “left” and “right.” One is not oriented to the self but rather to the land, referring instead to north, south, east, and west.

(See Bruce Chatwin’s “Songlines” for a fascinating account of Aboriginal memory and sense of place.)

As Boroditsky explains: “To say hello in Pormpuraaw, one asks, “Where are you going?”, and an appropriate response might be, “A long way to the south-southwest. How about you?” If you don’t know which way is which, you literally can’t get past hello.”

A different comprehension of space is not an isolated aspect of knowing. It cascades through other complex thoughts and representations.

Boroditsky gave Pormpuraawans sets of pictures showing temporal progressions and asked them to arrange the shuffled images in correct order. English speakers arrange time from left to right, Hebrew speakers from right to left.

Pormpuraawans arranged time from east to west. So, if they were facing south, they arranged the pictures from left to right. If facing north, from right to left.

This is fascinating. In our culture, we are very much oriented to the self looking forward rather than our place on the land. (I wonder how this awareness might be different for a person blind from birth.)

In Colorado, with its north-south spine of mountains, it can be easy to “head West.” But we can head into an unfamiliar landscape and find ourselves lost because we don’t have the reflex of orienting ourselves at every moment.

The Piraha in the Amazon don’t use words for numbers but merely terms like few and many, so they can’t count exactly. I know some people like this, who count the world as a little and a lot.

And I’ve known people who would find this intolerable, who count and measure everything, and yet I would not trust them necessarily to judge “too little” or “too much.” There’s more to that judgment than counting.

Different languages can treat agency and causation differently, which can profoundly affect systems of justice. Fundamental relationships in our languages blossom into more complex thoughts of many kinds.

I think translators of poetry have always recognized these profound language differences. Poetry in our own language can reveal surprising habits of thought we hadn’t noticed.

So, mark your calendars now for Arts at the Library: The new Poet Laureate of Colorado, David Mason, will be at the library Sunday, Aug. 15, for a workshop at 2:00 and a reading at 4:00 p.m. in the meeting room at the north corner of the library.

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