There seem to be two camps in linguistic circles on the role language has in shaping how we think. I’ve read a number of books by Stephen Pinker, who is of the opinion that the particular language we speak doesn’t shape how we think, that there is a meta-language underneath, common to all of us, that really determines how we think. (I hope I’m interpreting this right, as it is a complex subject and I’m a novice.)
I find Pinker’s arguments very compelling and his writing very clear. What he says makes a lot of sense to me. And he seems very analytical in his arguments, relying on the body of evidence to support his thesis in a very convincing way.
Even so, there is the romantic in me who wants to believe the opposite, that the language we speak does change how we think. Why? Because it makes the diversity of languages that much more interesting. It means that each language represents a unique world view. It means that we should try to save endangered languages since, if they die, a unique perspective of the world around us also dies. And, I want to believe that each language is something special, especially since I like the idea that Basque is special and should be promoted and protected. However, Pinker’s arguments are strong and the evidence he cites simply does not support this romantic notion.
On NPR yesterday, however, there was a segment on the work of Lera Boroditsky. She did a simple experiment, showing German and Spanish speakers a picture of a bridge and asking them what they thought about it. Both languages have genders, and in German, a bridge is feminine and in Spanish masculine. This resulted in German speakers using feminine words to describe the bridge, such as beautiful, elegant, and slender, while the Spanish speakers used masculine words such as strong, sturdy and towering. What does this say? It implies that German and Spanish speakers, because in their language the noun bridge is either feminine or masculine, view bridges differently, assigning different attributes. Similar results were found for other nouns. Boroditsky went even further and invented a language in which nouns were assigned random gender. Again, people who were exposed to the language used different types of adjectives to describe an object depending on if they were told it was feminine or masculine.
Boroditsky’s work suggests that language does indeed shape how we see the world. I only speak English fluently, with a smattering of Spanish and just a small vocabulary of Euskara. I wonder how people who grow up in Euskal Herria with Euskara as one of the primary languages and either Spanish or French as the other view things. Does the way you view the world change even a little bit depending on which language you are thinking in? How about the differences between say Spanish and Euskara, where Spanish has gender and Euskara doesn’t? How do you think of puentes versus zubiak? I’d love to hear from people on this topic.
It seems that the debate on the role of language in shaping thought is still open. Boroditsky’s work suggests that language is important in determining how we see the world. To the extent that this is true, it means that with every language that dies we lose one way of viewing the world, one unique perspective. It gives extra impetuous to saving these languages. I hope that the new government of the Basque Autonomous Community doesn’t ignore this fact.