Language by some may be perceived solely as a method of direct communication, utterly disregarding the possibility that it might convey much more information than that. In the episode ‘Watch Your Mouth’ of the podcast Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam interviews a cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky and a linguist John McWhorter, who share with the listeners a completely different perspective on languages and their significance.

Languages – more than tools of direct communication

To begin with, professor Boroditsky points out that languages not only describe our world but they also present different ways of seeing reality. She advocates learning languages, among other things, to learn new words describing feelings or phenomena which are familiar to us and yet lack a proper equivalent in our mother tongue. That is why we so often find certain phrases untranslatable, not because these are concepts unknown to the speakers of other languages, but because there is simply no expression for them. Furthermore, even though often times various aspects are referred to daily regardless of a language, the way in which we approach them linguistically may differ considerably from language to language. An example given by Boroditsky is the way in which some Aborigines approach spatial orientation, namely, they don’t use the words left and right, but they rather use directions, like north or northeast. Such a distinction also affects the way we see the world, i.e. if we were raised using the left and right terminology, it comes quite naturally that what’s on the left comes earlier compared to what’s on the right. A reason for that is the fact that our world revolves around abstract concepts, of which perception depends on the society we were raised in. Some differences between languages, like the aforementioned directions or discrepancies in numbers, may be really significant; some others, like gender, are rather minor yet still important.

Interestingly enough, the same concepts expressed in various languages, using different genders, also affect the way we see the world. According to an experiment conducted by Roman Jakobson, people tend to “see” nouns in compliance with their grammatical gender; his study has shown that the grammatical gender of nouns affected the way his students perceived these words, either as feminine or masculine, even though there is no tangible distinction between them. It was also proved that depending on the gender of a noun, we are more prone to assign it certain qualities, like strength to masculine nouns, and beauty and elegancy to feminine ones. What is more, words with grammatical gender make it easier for children to learn to distinguish genders and, therefore, they are able to acquire this ability faster compared to children speaking languages in which this phenomenon doesn’t occur.

Finally, each language comprises culture developed over the course of thousands of years and this is why Boroditsky considers it a tragedy for a language to die out, as in this way the cultural heritage gets lost and – due to this process being irrevocable – instead of enriching our culture, takes something away from it.

Languages don’t stand still

On the other hand, McWhorter touches upon language development and linguistic errors. He commences with saying that dictionaries create an illusion that languages are supposed to stand still while, in fact, they are constantly changing, either due to slang or the formation of new phenomena which require new names. However, there are certain mistakes and irritating habits that, even though they may seem petty, in reality bring about changes to a language. But have people always paid attention to being so grammatically accurate? As John McWhorter sees it, the answer is no. When people were just speaking, the language was constantly evolving, but now, when we’re writing things down, the language is more systematised and, therefore, there exists “the right way of speaking”. He, consequently, points out how wrong it is that we don’t teach people to respect each other even despite making linguistic mistakes, as we do in the case of e.g. race or gender.

Many of us are not aware of how much information languages actually convey. They are not simply carriers of direct message but they also contain so much valuable insight – they reflect our cultures, societies and developments. It is a natural process, then, that they evolve, and it shouldn’t be hampered. Regardless of how much one opposes change, it has always been present, and that is exactly why we don’t speak the language of ‘Beowulf’ anymore.

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