Does an English speaker perceive reality differently from say, a Swahili speaker? Does language shape our thoughts and change the way we think? Betty Birner, a professor of linguistics and cognitive science at Illinois University, states that factors like culture, traditions, habits, and language shape the way we talk, how we talk about them, and even the way we think and remember things.
Just how much, however, can be challenging to determine. Consider:
In Russian, there are multiple words for differing shades of blue. Would having a word for light blue and another for dark blue lead Russian speakers to think of the two as different colors? Possibly. Birner says that this could be compared to red and pink in English, which are considered two different colors even though pink is merely a light shade of red.
The Pirahã people of the Amazonas, Brazil, do not keep track of exact quantities with their language.
And quite possibly my favourite example of all, which I personally keep annoying friends with, is:
“The language called Guugu Yimithirr spoken in a remote community in Australia doesn’t have terms like “left” and “right.” Instead, words like “north,” “south,” “east,” and “west” are used to describe locations and directions. So if you ask where something is, the answer might be that it’s to the southwest of X, which requires speakers to have spectacular spatial orientation. Because of the vocabulary, English speakers might organize things left to right, whereas a speaker of Guugu Yimithirr might orient them in a mirrored position.”
Studies have shown that people who speak languages with gender markings might categorise non-gender items, say a table or a chair, based on its gender markings. This may differ the way English speakers would categorise items, which is typically by shape or size.
The way we talk and communicate eventually lead to the ways within our culture. For instance, English speakers get to the point in speech quicker than say, a Chinese speaker would, says Birner. In English, someone might say “I want you to come to my house for dinner,” then give the reasons why we need to have dinner together. The Chinese speaker might give all the background information and build up to the punchline. The idea here is that the speaker can say what they want after they’ve explained why they want it.
The article also touches on those of us speaking a second and even third languages, explaining how these brains can be more efficient at putting information up together.
Every human language reflects the values of the place and culture where it originated and philosophers and linguists have long debated how this effects and shapes the mentality of the persons who speak those different languages. If you’d like some visual examples and more information, there are a few interesting
videos on Youtube
which do a good job at explaining the basic theories of linguistic relativity.