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.