In the article “Does your mother tongue shape how you think” Guy Deutscher argues that our mother tongue does indeed shape our experiences of the world. However, it does not do so as Benjamin Lee Whorf’s theory suggests but rather because of what our mother tongue habitually obliges us to think. Guy Deutscher takes a claim made by Benjamin Lee Whorf, a chemical engineer, who essentially stated that our native language constrains our mind and we are unable to grasp concepts that are not given words to in our language.
He said that when a language does not have a particular word for a concept, the concept itself cannot be understood by the speaker. Deutscher argues that Whorf did not have any evidence to substantiate this theory and that his claim is wrong on many levels. He gives an example that although there isn’t an English word for Schadenfreude in German; it does not mean that an English speaker is unable to comprehend the concept of pleasure in someone else’s misery.
Whorf’s theory was “an alluring idea about language’s power over the mind, and his stirring prose seduced a whole generation into believing that our mother tongue restricts what we are able to think. ” Yet, due to the lack of evidence to back up his claim the theory crash landed. This is where Deutscher presents his argument that our mother tongue can influence and affect what it habitually obliges us to think about. He does so by presenting differences from language to language and explains the many tests that were conducted in recent years to back up his theory. i] Duetscher considers many different languages and compares the differences; such as in English we don’t have to say the gender of the person we are speaking about but in French and German we would be compelled to inform the listeners of the gender. However, in English we must speak of the timing of the event such as past, present or future but in Chinese there is one verb that represents the concept of time. When a language routinely obliges you to specify certain types of information, this makes people stay more attentive to the details.
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But the little details can change from language to language and a major example is inanimate objects having a gender. There were various experiments done in recent years with German and Spanish speakers. The test was to see how each person responded to an object. When asked about a bridge the German speaker believed it to be feminine and the Spanish speaker believed it to be masculine. Another test had French and Spanish speakers asked to assign human voices to objects in cartoons.
When a fork was shown, the French speakers chose a woman’s voice but the Spanish speakers chose a man’s voice. This is due to how some languages have related many inanimate nouns with gender; which Deutscher believes does affect how people see different things in the world and how it will shape their experience of life. Deutscher uses the Australian aboriginal tongue, Guugu Yimithirr, as a great example to back up his theory because they use cardinal direction which allows them to see and speak of the world in a different way than English speakers or egocentric coordinate speakers.
While arguing his point he uses a good example of how these two languages can differ and shape your experience of the world with something as simple as the way you view a hotel. “One way of understanding this is to imagine that you are traveling with a speaker of such a language and staying in a large chain-style hotel, with corridor upon corridor of identical-looking doors. Your friend is staying in the room opposite yours, and when you go into his room, you’ll see an exact replica of yours…But when your friend comes into your room, he will see something quite different from this, because everything is reversed north-side-south.
In his room the bed was in the north, while in yours it is in the south; the telephone that in his room was in the west is now in the east, and so on. So while you will see and remember the same room twice, a speaker of a geographic language will see and remember two different rooms”. Deutscher uses this to simplify that our mother tongue does indeed shape our experiences of the world but not in the extreme sense of a “Prison House” as Benjamin Lee Whorf’s theory suggests.
Deutscher concludes that the impact of our mother tongue goes far beyond what has been experimentally demonstrated and is believed to have impacted beliefs, values and ideologies. With all this being said, Deutscher believes that the biggest step we can take toward understanding one another is the simplest step to take; which is to stop pretending we all think the same. ----------------------- [i] http://aafreenafzal. blogspot. com/2012/10/analysis-does-your-language-shape-how. html
on Does Your Mother Tongue Shape How You Think?
This maxim offers us the key to unlocking the real force of the mother tongue: if different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about. Consider this example.
The short story Mother Tongue by Amy Tan addresses the reality that the inability to communicate effectively and see the different perspectives of those around us can hinder the flow of society and often block us from new ideas and potential.
In recent years, various experiments have shown that grammatical genders can shape the feelings and associations of speakers toward objects around them. In the 1990s, for example, psychologists compared associations between speakers of German and Spanish.
Communication is different for everyone as shown by the narrator’s mother, and how she has difficulty expressing her ideas so that others understand and respect her. We can see that she is still a very intelligent woman who has a great understanding of the world around her even though some view her language as “broken”.
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