When I was majoring in linguistics in the early 1970s, I remember learning that language influences thought. Different languages and cultures express colors differently, but it has been found that even among speakers of languages where there is only one word to express what we think of as “blue” and “green,” the majority of people can distinguish the difference between the colors.
In the Inuit (Eskimo) language, there are many ways to describe snow. Even here in the northern part of the United States, we distinguish between wet snow and powder (dry) snow. It’s not that Southerners couldn’t distinguish it if they wanted to, but the fact is that they don’t have to, so they don’t. It’s not that we couldn’t distinguish the types of snow that the Inuit do, but we have no reason to, so we don’t.
In Chinese and a number of other languages, you use a simple present tense verb to express ongoing action in the present, action done on a regular basis, and action that will be done in the future. If you want to be specific, you have to put a time expression into the sentence, or else it will just be understood in the context of what you are saying. In English, we can use the simple present for action on a regular basis (I go), present progressive (I am going) for ongoing action in the present or future (I will go) for actions that will be done at a later date.
In a number of languages, if you say “you go,” a person has to distinguish whether “you” refers to one person or a group of people. A different pronoun “you” and a different verb form are used. In Arabic, if the speaker wants to refer to a group of people (“you guys” or “they”), he has to distinguish whether the group is all male, all female, or a mixed-gender group. In Japanese, a speaker has to determine the relative social status of the listener relative to himself before deciding to use “otaku” for someone of a higher rank, “anata” for someone of the same rank, “kimi” for someone of a lower rank, such as a child or <gasp!> a woman, or “omae” for someone of a much lower rank. Then, too, women rarely use “omae” and when it comes to addressing superiors, you aren’t really supposed to use “you” very often, anyway. And it’s considered self-centered to use the term “I” very much, as well. And yes, there are several ways of saying “I,” such as “wagahai” for the Emperor, “watakushi” (old-fashioned now, and very formal), “watashi” (more normal, a little effeminate, and still formal), “boku” (male, informal) and “ore” (male, very informal). What a mess!
In Arabic, there is also a form for every verb that has the connotation of “if it is the will of Allah.” In Japanese, if you use certain verbs in the passive voice, it is either extremely polite (describing the actions of a superior) or it has the connotation that you are experiencing some difficulty because of the action. For example, a Japanese can say, “I was cried by the baby,” meaning “The baby cried and I suffered because of it.”
Most people know that in certain languages, objects have a gender, masculine or feminine, at least grammatically, but an item that is feminine in one language is not always feminine in another language. Then there’s German, which has a separate, “neuter” category for nouns. In languages that have gender designations for nouns, there are separate words for “cousin” or “neighbor” or “friend,” depending on whether the person is male or female.
Some languages, such as Chinese, require speakers to use an exact relationship term, so the word for “uncle” depends on whether the man is your mother’s brother or your father’s brother. In Japanese, you use different words for saying “older brother” and “younger brother.” You also use different words for “your husband” and “my husband” or “your wife” and “my wife” – also for “your mother and “my mother,” etc.
There are certain languages in the world where all relative geographical expressions are stated in terms of the directions north, south, east and west. An Australian Aborigine might tell you to look out for the little animal directly north of your foot (rather than in front of). When he points to himself, he is not indicating himself, but something behind him, as if he isn’t even there. In Bali, there was once a young boy who showed a talent for dance, but as there was no teacher in his village, he was taken to another village for instruction. There, he had trouble following the teacher’s direction, because he was disoriented in the teacher’s village. When told to take “three steps west” or “bend southeast,” he didn’t know what to do.
In Peru, an indigenous person who speaks Matses must tell how they came to know what they are telling you. In other words, they must specify whether they know it by direct experience, inference, conjecture, or heresy, and this is all woven into the fabric of the language by means of verb form. If you ask a Matses speaker how many wives he has, he might tell you, “There were two, the last time I checked.” For him, there is no way to know whether one has died or run off with somebody else, and until he has a chance to check, he can only tell you what he knew earlier in the day.
Linguistic researcher Keith Chan says that languages can be grouped into two types: those that have a formal “future tense” and those that do now. He calls them “futured” languages and “futureless” languages. He has come up with some interesting conclusions about “habits of mind” on the part of speakers of these two types of languages on the basis of some studies. Speakers of “futured” languages, such as English, tend to save much less money for the future and plan for retirement much less because they put more priority on the present than on the future. They are less likely to use birth control, and more likely to smoke, be sedentary, and be obese than people from areas where “futureless” languages are spoken. Speakers of “futureless” languages, such as Chinese, tend to save more money, are less likely to smoke and are more likely to be active nonsmokers. The Chinese have taken birth control to ridiculous lengths.
Does all this mean that our minds are prisoners of the language we are taught to speak as children? Not necessarily. Although it’s true that certain habits of mind are more common among speakers of some languages than others, the human mind is capable of recognizing, conceptualizing and distinguishing anything in our physical world, as well as many things in the spiritual realm. As Roman Jakobson noted, “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey, not what they may convey.” (Italics are mine.) In other words, although it may be difficult for us to think the same way as a speaker of another language, it is at least possible, and this is a powerful bit of information. The key is recognizing that these differences exist and being on the lookout for them, then seeking to understand them and taking them into consideration when we communicate with those of another language and cultural background.
It boggles the mind to realize that there are some 7,000 languages spoken in the world, and the top 25 languages account for only half of all the speakers in the world. (By the way, English is in third place behind Mandarin Chinese and Spanish in number of speakers in the world.) The language we think of as “Chinese” is actually a number of different mutually unintelligible languages. Many languages are spoken by only a few people, and since the 1970s, linguists have found that the number of languages spoken in the world has been reduced by at least 20%. The languages that have died out are all indigenous languages. It’s important to realize that each language represents a different way of thinking about the world, and when a language dies, a way of thinking dies with it. That represents a great loss for humanity as a whole.