Social Question

roundsquare's avatar

What are some examples of our language affecting our thinking?

Asked by roundsquare (5512points) June 3rd, 2011

I just got back from an event where someone said “what does it mean to throw something away? Where is away?” It was a good example of us using language to hide an assumption. Any other examples? Doesn’t need to be about any specific topic.

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20 Answers

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

I believe I read somewhere that if you don’t have a word for a color, it’s harder for you to conceptualize of it. For instance, if you have just the word “blue”, it’s harder to distinguish between light blue and dark blue than if you have two separate words in your language for blue. Or by having the words “fuchsia” and “salmon”, you can pick them out of the vast sea of “pink”, whereas it’s harder to do that if it’s all just “pink” to you.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

@MyNewtBoobs For instance, if you have just the word “blue”, it’s harder to distinguish between light blue and dark blue than if you have two separate words in your language for blue. I run into that many times, friends will say “that red car” and there are 3 red cars I can see, when I ask them which red car they think I am yanking their chain. I am seeing it in shades on a pallet, one is Fire Engine Red, one is a Lake Red, the other a Cadmium Red; all they see is “Red”.

Another word is “they”, when you say “they won’t give you a loan” or “They always raise the price in Summer time”, etc. there is not determining who the “they” in they are.

tom_g's avatar

Great question, @roundsquare. I particularly like your example of throwing things away.

Most of the examples I can think of immediately are political and military terms.

I’d be interested to see what our Fluther linguist has to add to this.

poisonedantidote's avatar

I live on Mallorca, in Spain. There is a language here called Mallorquin.

Because of how language works, It’s impossible for me to tease my Mallorquin friends. They don’t have a word for it. I can bother them, annoy them, piss them off, make them angry, make them hot under the collar, etc. But if I started to play keep-away with one of them, They would not say stop teasing me. They would not even feel teased, they would just call you a dick, and there would be no distinction from annoyance to teasing.

Then you have me and my thinking. I speak 5 languages fluently, can read and write in 4 of them. When I say fluent, I mean mother tongue standards, except for the 5th perhaps.

I have found, that from knowing these languages, that I now no longer think in words, The only time a word will enter my mind is times like now, when I have to write something down.

My mind will say to me “hmmm”, or I will get this feeling in my mind of thought, or notion, or realization. It’s hard to explain.

The problem is, my mind will often generate a thought, and then as I try to explain it, I discover there is no word for the thought yet, or that there is no word in the language I’m using at the time.

How do I believe language controls thought?

Put it this way, I think that if you erradicated Spanish from Spain, and you replaced their language over night with English, the very next day you would see some massive changes.

If they spoke English in Spain instead, bull fighting would die out withing days. In Spain we do have words such as pitty, sorrow, abuse, empathy, cruel, and so on. But the structure of the language does not allow for them to be deployed without sounding like a “faggot” (maricon).

I think language controls the entire culture and mentality of those who speak it. I’ll give some examples why:

- In Spanish you dont tend to be “in a hurry” so much, instead you tend to be “arriving late” more. (A minor influence on the layed back life style perhaps?)

- In Spanish you dont “fall to your death” so often, instead you tend to “give your self a good hit and break your self” (a small reason why Spain has poor health and safety practices?)

Anyway… I loooove this topic. But I have to go back to work now. When I get out ill come back and type up a much better thought out answer.

Don’t take anything I say here too literally. If we introduced “Fall to your death” in Spanish, it would not totally fix the health and safety problems. You need to look at the bigger picture, as if you have been born in to it.

Anyway, I have to go to work, “i’m arriving late”.

iamthemob's avatar

I’m not sure, but I think you might be asking about how colloquial structures of language help reinforce certain beliefs, subconsciously for the most part. That seems to be your example – throwing something away allows us to think about something as gone when it’s really still there, we’ve just shifted responsibility for it elsewhere.

I think language plays an essential part in racism and other forms of bigotry. How people you agree with speak of those you don’t often shapes and controls what you think about the beliefs or attitudes of those you don’t agree with (think about the public political debate). Basically, when language starts referring to diverse groups as “them” often enough, even if we don’t consider ourselves prejudice we often find ourselves assuming more and more traits used to describe “them” when we end up coming across “one of them.”

picante's avatar

Great question and great responses! I believe language is immensely powerful and shapes our belief systems in all kinds of ways. @poisenedantidote has an amazing perspective based on multi-lingual, multi-cultural knowledge.

Our word choices and the idioms of our language(s) are the results of cultural biases delivered to us by our parents, our extended families, our teachers and our media: “They said it on CNN, so it must be true!”

Nuanced language arises from the complexities of a culture in which it exists. We live in an age of information (and misinformation) bombardment, an era of “political correctness,” a time of far too many options for far too many things. Our language is now morphing to conform to these pressures and more, and it’s changing at an accelerated pace (Thank you, instant messaging and Twitter!).

I’m a native (American) English speaker, and when I was learning Spanish, the verb “hacer” proved to be particularly vexing, as our English equivalents are “to make” and “to do.” It’s not a stretch to understand that “do” is essentially “to make happen,” and, in that context, the Spanish verb makes more sense to our American mind-ears. But I can remember some students suffering with this concept, and the professor (another native English speaker), closed the discussion by saying, “Well, you’ll just have to make do.” ;-) Beautiful!

I look forward to other responders here, as I’m fascinated by the concept.

morphail's avatar

@poisonedantidote There is some evidence that language nudges thought in certain circumstances, but there is no evidence that language influences thought to the extent you’re talking about. I am extremely skeptical that the use of reflexive verb morphology in Spanish (as in “break yourself”) has any effect at all on Spanish health and safety practices.

I’m also skeptical of claims that language X doesn’t have a word for Y. I mean, this dictionary has a lot of words for “tease”.

Anyway, language is more than a bunch of words. There is a finite number of words, but presumably there is an infinite number of concepts. We can express concepts with periphrasis – putting words together into phrases and clauses. Does English have a single word for “idea that without a word for a concept you cannot talk about that concept”? If there is such a word, no one has used it yet. And yet, we are talking about it with no problems.

efritz's avatar

Not sure how accurate this is, as I vaguely remember hearing it somewhere, sometime in my life, nervous chuckle . . . but I’ve read that subject-centered languages, like English, cause their cultures to be more self-centered; whereas other languages (maybe the example they used was Japanese?) put the verb or subject first, causing their speakers to be more concentrated on the common good and less on the self.

It’s seems a bit simplified, but you get the picture.

morphail's avatar

@efritz If there is a correlation between subject-centred languages and subject-centre cultures, how do we know whether the language is influencing the culture, or the culture influencing the language?

iamthemob's avatar

@efritz – I think @morphail is spot-on on this one. It’s kind of the perfect chicken-or-egg issue.

efritz's avatar

@morphail and @iamthemob – yeah. Like I said, simplified, but food for thought. Be interesting to see how other factors – physical environment (climate, location, etc) and personal experience – play into perception and language. I don’t think it’s a nice linear cause-and-effect chain, though.

iamthemob's avatar

@efritz – I would say that they all act as mutual re-enforcers, generally.

morphail's avatar

I’m not sure exactly what this non-subject-centred language would look like. All languages have subjects. Japanese is a pro-drop language: it doesn’t require pronouns, while English requires pronouns, so for instance “I walk” in Japanese is conveyed by the verb only, without the pronoun. So you might argue that the fact that Japanese doesn’t require subject pronouns influences the culture to be less focused on the self.

I don’t think you can make this connection. I mean, Spanish and Italian are pro-drop languages as well. So do Spanish-speaking and Italian-speaking cultures concentrate on the common good over the self? And how exactly do you measure this?


poisonedantidote's avatar

Ok. i’m back for a little while.

@morphail I did warn to not take my claims too literally.

But, I think you are underestimating the affect language has on people. I think it has to do with the sound of it.

The words “fuck” and “cunt” sound so violent when compared to say “skip” or “flip”, yet they all have just four letters. It’s quite deep in the psyche.

In Spanish, there are a lot more harsh sounding words, its a much more energetic language. English has lots of vowels, “W’s” and “H’s”. Spanish has a lot of “K” sounding “C’s” and other sounds.

In my own personal experience, I am almost two different people when I speak English or Spanish. If around Spanish people, I will be more brutal and direct in my actions.

As for the translations to “tease” that you linked to, none of them would work.

Bromista = Joker

Tomar el pelo = To mock, to “take the piss” to “pull your leg”

Jorobar = To give someone a hunchback, to fuck them.

Molestar = To molest

Atormentar = To torment


I’ll be back later, got stuff to do.

morphail's avatar

@poisonedantidote You talk about “harsh-sounding words” or “energetic language” making you “brutal and direct”. These things are very subjective and language-specific. What sounds harsh to some speakers sounds gentle to others. What is “kaku”? Sounds pretty harsh and violent, right? It’s a Japanese sound effect for “wobbling”.

Translation is never word-for-word. Even if there is no single word in Spanish that translates English “tease”, that doesn’t mean that Spanish speakers don’t understand the concept of teasing. And it doesn’t mean that the lack of a single word-for-word translation for “tease” is preventing the speakers from thinking about teasing. If it’s true that your friends don’t understand teasing, why is this necessarily caused by their language, and not some other cultural factor?

LostInParadise's avatar

I think it is interesting how we express ownership using adjectives. I can talk about my red book, with red and my being properties of the book.

In perceptions, we make the perceiver the subject and the thing being perceived as the object. For example, “I hear the bell.” It is much more the case of the bell acting on me than the other way around.

There are no simple non-curse words for the f word or the s word, although we do have the word rape and the word pee.

There are a number of other cases where there seem to be missing words. What does it mean that we do not have a single word for falling asleep, but we do have the word awaken?

We have become aware recently of the gender bias in English and, I would guess, most other languages. There are no gender neutral pronouns for referring to people (he, hers, etc.). Until recently the universal default was to use male pronouns.

morphail's avatar

@LostInParadise actually “they” has been used as a common gender pronoun since the 1300s. The male pronoun “he” has certainly not been the default.

morphail's avatar

“What does it mean that we do not have a single word for falling asleep, but we do have the word awaken?”

It means nothing. It’s just a historical accident.

morphail's avatar

Re: fall asleep vs awaken… This is a good example. Surely no one would argue that we don’t understand what it means to fall asleep just because we don’t have a word for it.

roundsquare's avatar

Wow, great answers. Thanks all!

I’m not sure it is a chicken-or-egg problem. (By the way, the egg came first). People were acting before they had language. Surely “culture” (at least in the beginning) came before people had consistent sets of sounds to refer to specific objects and/or concepts.

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