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So Does it?

Written By: Billette on August 29, 2010 1 Comment

Does Your Language Shape How You Think?

The debate rages on, no?

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One Response to “So Does it?”

  1. Youki on: 4 September 2010 at 11:35 pm

    I like how the article frames the debate. My initial response was, “I thought we answered that question decades ago!” — which we did (according to certain fields) if the question has a simple yes/no answer. Not that there’s a cut-and-dry answer, which is why the better question to ask is, “how does your language shape how you think?”

    I think the innovative perspective comes from the word your, instead taking a cross-cultural/multilingual perspective on how languages shape how we perceive objects in the world around us (like bridges, clocks and violins having “manly properties” in Spanish, or forks having a “woman’s voice” in French). To me, it’s a given that language shapes how you think. What’s interesting about this article is how different languages produce different ways of thinking.

    Then again, I think the key question in this article isn’t how language shapes how you think, but how speech shapes how you think. It’s really an epistemology question, isn’t it? Everything in our minds is either known or a known unknown. You know your neighbor’s gender, or you don’t know but you know that you don’t know. In your mind, the gender of a person is like a variable, and you can either assign a value or leave it unassigned. It’s only the act of communicating with someone else that I have to choose what to specify and what not to specify. For the person you are speaking to, if you use the gender-neutral term “neighbor” they don’t know whether you know the person’s gender. All they know is what you tell them (unless they have prior knowledge of who the neighbor is) plus any assumptions they make (they’ll assume your neighbor is human, for example). When you begin speaking to a person, everything mostly starts off as an unknown unknown, and knowledge transforms into knowns and unknowns knowns as you populate your speech with information.

    To me, speech shapes how you think because it forces you to juxtapose what you know to what someone else knows. It requires you to define variables and assign values to those variables, variables that otherwise could be left unassigned in our minds. The act of committing to a gender is really an act that’s shaped by speech, not just by language.

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