Conceptualization as a Byproduct of Language?

This article from a couple of years ago (which I have only just discovered) paints a delightfully fascinating picture of the connection between language and conceptions of reality. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the language a person has affects how they perceive, remember, and respond to the world. It is not terribly controversial to suggest that the entire process of reasoning is potentially influenced by a person’s language ability, but this article casts some light on the kinds of effects this can have. Since this blog is written in English, that is perhaps the most relevant language to the majority of my readers. One observation was that, since English is a particularly agent-focused language, English speakers more easily remember details about agents—that is, the person who performs an action. Some other observations:

About a third of the world’s languages (spoken in all kinds of physical environments) rely on absolute directions for space. As a result of this constant linguistic training, speakers of such languages are remarkably good at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes.

We tested each person in two separate sittings, each time facing in a different cardinal direction. When asked to do this, English speakers arrange time from left to right. Hebrew speakers do it from right to left (because Hebrew is written from right to left). Pormpuraawans, we found, arranged time from east to west.

English speakers tend to say things like “John broke the vase” even for accidents. Speakers of Spanish or Japanese would be more likely to say “the vase broke itself.”

There’s also a bit in there that suggests that English speakers are far more likely to blame someone for an accident if they read about it in the active voice instead of the passive, which has implications for all manner of legal (or pseudo-legal) proceedings as well as the entire field of journalism.

One disappointingly absent consideration was that of multilingual speakers. How exactly does the ability to speak more than a single language affect a person’s conceptions of reality? To what degree does second language proficiency factor in? How about age—is a person who develops a high level of second language proficiency as a child linguistically influenced to the same degree as another person whose proficiency is developed as an adult? These would be, I suspect, deeply captivating questions to study. In any case, they are questions for another study, not in any way shortcomings of this article.

Do give the article a read if you have even a passing interest in language. (And why wouldn’t you?)

(Disclaimer: This should not be taken as “proof” of any particular interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, especially not the one depicted in Nineteen Eighty-Four as Newspeak. As you should be able to infer from this article, that notion is rather more complicated than Mr. Orwell might lead you to believe. The book is, after all, a work of fiction.)

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