Thursday, May 13, 2010

Language and how it shapes the way we think

Confession: I love science and love working stuff researchers have discovered into manuscripts (even if they're ostensibly about, I dunno, temporarily possessing the body of a squirrel).

My college alumni magazine had a really interesting piece about research being done on language, and whether thought drives language or vice versa. For a long time, scientists have thought that language expresses your thinking, but doesn't necessarily shape it.

But a cognitive scientist named Lyra Boroditsky is shaking that up a bit. Here's an excerpt from the article:

"In English," she says, moving her hand toward the cup, "if I knock this cup off the table, even accidentally, you would likely say, 'She broke the cup.'" However, in Japanese or Spanish, she explains, intent matters.

If one deliberately knocks the cup, there is a verb form to indicate as much. But if the act were an accident, Boroditsky explains, a smile dancing across her lips as she translates from Spanish, the speaker would essentially say, "The cup broke itself."

The question is: Does the fact that one language tends to play the blame game while the other does not mean speakers of those languages think differently about what happened? If so, what might linguistic differences tell us about cognition, perception and memory—and with what implications for such perennial debates as the influence of nature versus nurture? Welcome to the intensely spirited academic debate on which Boroditsky has spent the last decade shining a bright new light.

Read the rest of it (it gets really interesting where she reveals that a Spanish speaker is less likely to remember key details about accidents--perhaps precisely because the language doesn't provide a structure for that).

So what might this have to do with fiction? Well, imagine that a character's expressions reveal the way she sees the world. Let's say she's someone who can't apologize or take responsibility for something. She might say, "The car crashed." That's a really basic example, of course--not to far from the cup example. But you could reveal all sorts of things about your character, the world you're building, and your metaphors and themes by playing with this idea. Have fun!


Angelina C. Hansen said...

Very interesting, Martha. I've often pondered the linguistic difference between the French and English when it comes to designating in-laws. The French add the English equivalent word for beautiful in front of mother, father etc. to name the relationship. So "my mother-in-law" becomes "my beautiful mother". Hmmmm...

Martha Brockenbrough said...

Angie, how interesting! Are the French sarcastic? (Oh, but I kid. OR DO I?)

There's sort of a classic sci-fi example that shows how language can shape the world of a story: "the door dilated." That's an entirely different way of opening that we have.

And I think that gets to the power of language. If we dig deeply enough, we can create whole new ways of thinking about the world, and in the process, understand our own a little better.

Michèle Griskey said...

Thank you for sharing this.

Long ago I lived in Italy and found the many ways one could organize a sentence fascinating.

I also love the way non native speakers say something in English that sounds fabulous and completely unique.