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Language shapes our understanding of how the world works

Usagiboy7
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Mouse barks at cat

The following article features snapshots of languages with interesting consequences on how language shapes our understanding of how the world works. I've pulled out small summaries of each. Article link below the summaries.

A Language Where You’re Not the Center of the World

English speakers and others are highly egocentric when it comes to orienting themselves in the world. Objects and people exist to the left, right, in front, and to the back of you. You move forward and backward in relation to the direction you are facing. For an aboriginal tribe in Australia called the Guugu Ymithirr, such a “me me me” approach to spatial information makes no sense.

A Language Where Time Flows East to West

[P]ut a sequential series of cards in order—one which showed a man aging, another of a crocodile growing, and of a person eating a banana...
The language you speak just might determine the directions you choose to express time sequence. .

A Language Where Colors Are Metaphors
Where your skin color will be described via parrot.

A Language That Makes You Provide Evidence

“How many apples do you have?”
Are you sure you have that many apples?

A Language That Has No Word for “Two”
I really, really wish they had gone more in depth into this one.

Read about them here.

Which was your favorite language featured and why? Did you think about something you'd never thought before? Personally, I'm always amazed with how carelessly some people use language, and then claim that it has no consequence upon the world. It's a huge assumption and more and more linguists are discovering that language matters more than we ever realized.

3 years ago

23 Comments


https://www.duolingo.com/annika_a
annika_a
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Finnish doesn't have a future tense. I'm not sure what that says about us.

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/AlexisLinguist
AlexisLinguist
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You like to live in the present and don't worry about tomorrow. ;)

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/annika_a
annika_a
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Hmm, doesn't sound much like us. :-) Maybe we're just preoccupied with the past instead?

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/AlexisLinguist
AlexisLinguist
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That's a negative slant, being stuck in the past. :P Maybe just, we live for today. :P

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/annika_a
annika_a
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You have much to learn about the Finnish sielunelämä ("soul life")... :-D

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/AlexisLinguist
AlexisLinguist
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Yeah, I figured that after your first reply. ;) I'm a glass half-full kind of girl. ;)

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/annika_a
annika_a
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I'm a glass half-full kind of girl. ;)

Then you're better off learning a cheerful language (from our point of view...) such as Swedish or Norwegian! :-)

Unless you are tempted to discover the dark side... ;-)

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/AlexisLinguist
AlexisLinguist
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Ha ha, I am learning Norwegian as soon as it comes out, and Swedish sometime after. ;)

It looks neat, I'll have to get Moomingirl and you to teach me some things one day. :)

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Moomingirl
Moomingirl
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@Alexis, you'd be much better off getting Annika to teach you, if you actually want to be right. ;)

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/AlexisLinguist
AlexisLinguist
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@MG: Can't use that excuse anymore, you've been learning Finnish for months now. :P

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/m.tastic
m.tastic
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How do they say things like "I'll be in Mexico tomorrow," if there's no future tense?

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/annika_a
annika_a
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Present tense + something indicating time. In this case "Olen huomenna Meksikossa." (I am tomorrow in Mexico.).

Also, context in general can indicate future, see, for example this: http://forum.wordreference.com/threads/finnish-future-tense.1721086/ and http://www.uusikielemme.fi/future.html.

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/m.tastic
m.tastic
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Cool :)

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/GuillianoTristan

Perhaps they use Present tense and auxiliary verbs like Japanese?

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/scarcerer
scarcerer
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Maybe not as world-changing, but we also don't have a separate verb for having something.

I have a dog - Minulla on koira - On me is a dog

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Rewjeo
Rewjeo
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Irish expresses this much the same way - but with "at" instead of "on."

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/JingF1
JingF1
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The tense (or lack thereof) in a language may influence people's saving behaviors (I'll take this with a grain of salt though): http://www.ted.com/talks/keith_chen_could_your_language_affect_your_ability_to_save_money

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Kippis
Kippis
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Thanks for sharing. The discussion on orientations were of particular interest to me. There are many examples where cardinal directions, orientations and time flow are blended and I'm not sure if it has to do with egocentrism.

One example is from China, where ancient capitals used to be divided into two areas, the eastern part being called left-city and the western part right-city. Why? Because the emperor is supposed to be facing the south. Korea and Japan followed this idea, and even today in Kyoto, the former capital of Japan, the eastern district is called Sakyō (left-city) and the western Ukyō (right-city). Yes, it's confusing for modern Japanese (and foreign tourists alike) who are so much used to looking at maps linking north with above.

A more striking case is Sanskrit, where any word meaning front, behind, right and left can respectively mean east, west, south and north. During rituals, priests usually faced the east, hence this identification. Furthermore, words for "front" or "before" can mean "before" in time, and "behind" can be "after" in time. Therefore the Sanskrit word pūrva can be either east, front or earlier in time.

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/annika_a
annika_a
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This makes me think of the many languages in which "right" (as in the direction opposite left) also means something like "correct", "better", "law", etc.

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/HappyEvilSlosh
HappyEvilSlosh
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A Language That Has No Word for “Two”
I really, really wish they had gone more in depth into this one.

Wikipedia has a little more.

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/GuillianoTristan

Indonesian has no tense. We use auxiliary verbs for that, For example I ate translate to Saya sudah makan which if retranslated become I already ate

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Michal_90
Michal_90
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For example Russian does not use the verb "to have" in the strict meaning. So "I have" would sound in Russian as "u menya est " (у меня есть) which means literally "at me there is"

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/JingF1
JingF1
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Ah, linguistic relativity, a fascinating topic. Here's a video that summarizes some research findings: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NAy-qkRP-vo There are literally thousands of studies in this field, examining the effects of various linguistic features on people's thought and perception. For example, people who speak a language with gender markers tend to perceive objects with the same gender as more similar. Likewise, Chinese has classifiers (they're like "cup" in "two cups of tea", except that a classifier is mandatory between a number and ANY noun), and Chinese speakers tend to perceive objects sharing the same classifier as more similar.

3 years ago