How Your Mother Tongue Changes the Way You See the World

deanna-ritchie-227649-unsplashPhoto by Deanna Ritchie on Unsplash

Imagine a mime performance in London that has an extremely unique audience—every single person in the crowd is the speaker of a unique language, having flown in from far-flung continents to visit the magnificent city. The show commences, advances to a close, and finishes with a triumphantly comical flourish, lighting the viewers’ faces with grinning, satisfied smiles.

Every member of the audience has watched the exact same show, but their differences in language has the potential to affect how they experience it— a phenomenon known as linguistic relativity. This premise states that the structure of a language influences how a person understands and experiences the world, creating the fascinating possibility of the mime performance being interpreted and understood differently to every member of our language-varied audience. Though a language doesn’t determine or restrict your ability to experience the world (a concept known as strong or deterministic linguistic relativity), it does have the power to influence it (weak linguistic relativity).

For the opening of the performance, the mime pulls a golden key from his pocket, using it to open an invisible door that previously refused to budge, despite plenty of zealous exertion. Upon asking an English speaker to describe the key, one might expect neutral terms such as golden, shiny, or tool. But for the German in the audience, the key is described as hard, heavy, jagged, and serratedtypically tough, masculine terms that fit with the male gender assignment for key in the German language. For an olive-skinned Spaniard, the key might be expressed as intricate, little, or lovely, which are generally terms associated with femininity, to match their female assignment for key in Spanish. Conversely, asking the German to describe London’s Tower Bridge, soaring high in the background of the performance, might elicit feminine terms such as beautiful, elegant, pretty and slender, but for the Spaniard, the bridge is experienced as big, dangerous, strong, sturdy and towering.

About halfway through the performance, the mime acts out the illusion of multi-ball juggling, using a single light blue juggling ball, and several invisible ones. If quizzed about the colour of the juggling ball, an English speaker would probably say blue, but a Russian observer—speaking a language that offers greater distinction for blues—would likely offer a more precise answer by declaring that the ball is light blue. Ask a member of the Dani people in New Guinea, and they’d identify the colour as simply dark (mili)due to their language differentiating between only two basic colours—cool/dark shades such as blue, green and black, and warm/light shades like red, yellow and white. This doesn’t mean that they can’t perceive the colour, just that they’d have trouble expressing the difference between two colours from the same group, like green and black. This is odd for us, but perfectly natural for the Dani, who happen to be expert hunters, but abysmal interior decorators.

After the juggling act, the mime lights up an invisible cigarette, accidentally drops it on himself, and starts to frantically run back and forth in panic, due to being on fire. The English speaker would describe his course of direction as right to left, then left to right, but an Australian Aborigine of the north Queensland Guugu Yimithirr tribe would—comically to us—describe the mime as running west to east, then east to west (provided they’re facing north at the time). Spatial awareness is deeply embedded into the Guugu Yimithirr’s language, as a means to better navigate and accurately describe their physical environment, making them skilled at locating and describing objects in an open terrain. If a dangerous spider was on their left leg, they might declare that they have a spider on their south-west leg, before brushing it off. The words left and right have no meaning to a Guugu Yimithirr tribesperson, with directional movement understood in terms of points on a compass. The Thaayorre people—also from Queensland Australia—use similar directional rules in their language. Rather than saying hello, they greet each other by asking “where are you going?”, with a typical response being “north north-east in the far distance”. This constant requirement to state their direction makes them masters of orientation, able to navigate their environment with ease. It also makes their interpretation of the show wonderfully unique.

The mime’s next act includes the selection of ten people from the audience, who he puts into three unique groups—one group with 1 person, another group with 2 people, and another group with 8. As English speakers with a solid number system, we can easily identify the number of people within each group by simply counting, allowing us to quickly make comparisons between groups. For a member of the Pirahã people of Brazil, the groups with 1 and 2 people would both be identified by the single word hoí, but with a difference in tone to distinguish them. The group with 8 people would simply be described as many, because the Pirahã language doesn’t accommodate for numbers higher than 2. They also can’t distinguish between singular and plural. This doesn’t mean that they’re any less intelligent than an English-speaking Westerner, it’s just that up until this point in their history, their culture and language hasn’t required them to count past more than 2, and so anything higher than that naturally falls into the same group. For a member of the Pirahã tribe, there aren’t billions of stars shining in the night sky, there’s simply many of them.

For the mime’s final act, he conjures a 100-ton weight, nonchalantly hoists it into the air, and then accidentally drops it onto his own head, eliciting a burst of applause from the audience. With the concept of responsibility baked into the English language, the English-speaker might declare that the mime killed himself. A Spaniard—whose language tends to use fewer agentive descriptions—might be likelier to say that the mime was killed, removing the need to blame anyone for the deed, and perhaps being a little kinder to the half-witted, deceased mime.

“Learn a new language and get a new soul.”—Czech proverb

It’s incredible to think that despite witnessing the exact same show, every audience member is able to experience it distinctly, due to their languages creating entirely unique cognitive realms. Linguistic relativity causes reality to be defined and categorised in ways that deviate between languages, even with the power to affect how a person feels about something. It seems intuitive to assume that everyone is experiencing everything the same way, but in reality, speaking a different language has the fascinating and awesome effect of diversifying how we encounter the world, painting it with a motley selection of fresh and vibrant colour, and transforming the viewer into a teller of unique and magnificent tales.

The Word is Not the Thing—the Fascinating Trickery of Language

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The word is not the thing—the word “cow” isn’t the cow itself. Photo by Antonio Grosz on Unsplash

Language is a wonderful thing. It allows us to categorise, simplify and describe our complex and confusing universe, applying words to objects and actions that might otherwise remain as unusual blobs of shifting shape and colour, forever unlabelled and elusive. Language brings order, creating a beautiful, intricate structure that we use to create common understanding within our species, paving the way for mastery of our environment.

Language is magnificent, but there’s a downside to this wonderful ability. Language is so deeply embedded in our nature, and used so liberally, that we often forget that its primary function is to describe our world. We confuse the descriptive word that comes out of our mouth with the thing itself, as though the word is more real than the thing we’re describing. A cow isn’t the word cow, but the burly, black and white thing with the nipple-clad, pink undercarriage standing in front of you. The word cow is just a label that we use to identify something, not the thing itself. The word is not the thing.

The confusion between expression and reality was illustrated wonderfully by Belgian artist Rene Magritte, who painted a pipe with the words “this is not a pipe,” cleverly reminding the viewer that the image of the pipe is not an actual pipe, just as the word cow isn’t an actual cow, but simply a useful noise that you’ve made with your mouth.

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Rene Magritte — The Treachery of Images

Another great example is from semantics scholar Alfred Korzybski, who remarked that “the map is not the territory,” highlighting the common confusion between models of reality (the map) with reality itself (the territory). The map is purely a representation of the landscape, just as the word cow is a representation of an enormous, methane-oozing animal that spends its day grazing and mooing.

Confusing the label/representation with the actual thing that is being described can have the regrettable consequence of diminishing our appreciation of it, by reducing it down to nothing but a mere abstraction. The sound that we make when we say “cow” can never be as wonderfully intricate as the actual thing that we’re identifying, and while language is effective at categorising our world, it can have the unfortunate side-effect of removing all sense of depth and curiosity from our observed object. In reality, a cow is a natural marvel that can weigh over 1300kg, has 360-degree panoramic vision, and can smell something from over 6 miles away. The word cow is just a useful abstraction—great for simplification, but with the downside of blinding us to the marvellous minutia of the actual animal itself. As we simplify, so we depreciate.

“Sentences are only an approximation, a net one flings over some sea pearl which may vanish.”

Virginia Woolf

One might say that the glass that I’m currently drinking out of is just a glass, but in reality it’s an invention with an almost 4000-year history, originating in the heat of India, advancing towards Europe to the mighty Roman Empire, and eventuating as a handy drinking receptacle used by billions of people worldwide. It’s much more than just a glass. By reducing something down to a single word, and then confusing the word with the actual thing itself, we’re compelled to forget its rich history and delightful features, and so take it for granted.

Language is not reality. When we realise this, we’re brought closer to reality, being forced to recognise that the sounds that we utter are a mere abstraction, with the real world right before our eyes. Words create an impressive and convincing illusion, in which we come to identify everything in the real world as nothing but a selection of muttered letters—short, compartmentalised, and boring.

“To see the truth you need to step out of the word jungle”

Bharath Gollapudi, Quora

Sam Mendes’ masterpiece American Beauty reminds us of our world’s dazzling intricacy by encouraging us to look closer—an invitation to expand on an all-too-brief, short assessment of a thing, to better understand its hidden beauty.

“It was one of those days when it’s a minute away from snowing and there’s this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it. Right? And this bag was just dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. That’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Video’s a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember… I need to remember… Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.”

Ricky Fitts, American Beauty

There’s an entire life behind things—endless, fascinating detail, which we have better access to if we remind ourselves that the word is not the thing. Even something as seemingly banal as a plastic bag, dancing in the wind, can be heart-wrenchingly beautiful. We just have to look closer.

A similar theme can be found in Alejandro Iñárritu’s impressive film Birdman. During one scene, the protagonist actor Thomson Riggan rages at villainous critic Tabitha Dickinson, accusing her of mistaking words and labels for the reality that they represent:

“Let’s read your fuckin’ review. ‘Callow.’ Callow is a label. It’s just… ‘Lackluster.’ That’s just a label. Margin… marginalia. Are you kidding me? Sounds like you need penicillin to clear that up. That’s a label too. These are all just labels. You just label everything. That’s so fuckin’ lazy… You just… You’re a lazy fucker. You’re a lazy… [picks up a flower] You know what this is? You even know what that is? You don’t, You know why? Because you can’t see this thing if you don’t have to label it. You mistake all those little noises in your head for true knowledge.”

Riggan Thomson, Birdman

For Riggan, the critic who promises to “kill his play” is a fraud, failing to look past her abrupt descriptions to a deeper truth that she is too lazy and complacent to see. As a writer, Dickinson is so immersed in the world of language that she’s unable to separate words from reality, choosing to pigeonhole Riggan and his play before she’s even witnessed it. This is just one small, subtle element of a major theme of the movie—the confusion of fantasy and reality. Though Riggan frequently delves into fantasy himself, undergoing impossible feats such as moving objects with his mind, he’s aware of the beguiling potential of words, even keeping a sign at his dressing room desk that says “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.”

If we want to increase our world’s worth before our eyes, we must remind ourselves that the word is not the thing. This is not to say that we should spend our days wandering from object to object, mouth agape at everything we encounter. We need semantic brevity in order to get shit done. But if we pause from time to time and examine our world a little more closely, our blessed sense of appreciation will be heightened, and we’ll slowly become more grateful for this spectacular, fascinating world that we’re living in.