Legacy Of Babel

in Deep Dives2 months ago (edited)

Language is one of, if not the most magical ability we humans have. We use it to transmit thoughts, ideas and opinions from one mind to another, or from one mind to many others. One question that's been debated for centuries is this: does language shape the way we think and behave?


Tour_de_babel_small.jpg
source: Wikipedia

I think it does. In fact, I think that every single aspect of our existence shapes our thoughts, ideas and behaviors, but ultimately it's words and sentences with which we think, and we do so in our native languages. This means that something as trivial as the geographical location where we're born, could define for a large part how we think and behave. I don't think in Chinese, French or any other of the approximately 7000 languages on Earth and it's an interesting question to ask if I would have become a different person if I had been raised with any of them. Does it matter in what language our thought-processes take place?

Some years ago I saw this wonderful documentary called The Story of 1 about the history of numbers. In it there's a small bit about an Aboriginal tribe in Australia that doesn't use numbers in their language. When an elder from that tribe's asked how many grandchildren he has, the answer is "many." When asked again he gives four names, followed by "many" again. They have words only for one, many and all. That was somewhat of a revelation for me. Our first instinct might be to think them primitive and for sure they won't have the ability to use arithmetic and could never design a combustion-engine. But I was struck instead by the beauty in this simplicity; "one," "many" (more than one) and "all" (or "everything") are the only important quantities on some level. Just think how easy it would come to them to understand that we're all one. Or that what affects one affects all. How different a mindset would these people have compared to ours?

And it's not just that, but much more. Just look at how we relate to space and time for example. It's not difficult to understand how we can come up with an abstract and non-existing concept like time-travel if we look at how we think about time. In our western Roman languages we think about time in terms of space and movement; the future is ahead, the past is behind us, we "approach" the holidays and so on. In space we can travel in any direction at a speed of our choosing or capabilities, and with the link we make between time and space in our language it's a small step to extend that traveling capability from space into the realm of time. In our minds that is. This makes me wonder if Albert Einstein would have come up with his brilliant idea, that space and time aren't separate, if he would have been raised in another language.

I bet this step is much larger for another Aboriginal tribe that doesn't use relative directions like "left," "right," "forward," or "backward." This tribe may have lost the ability to conjure up time-travel, but they've gained an almost superhuman (in our eyes) capability for spatial orientation. You see, they speak and think in absolute cardinal directions. They say things like "there's a spider near your south-west leg," or "could you move that thing to the north-east a bit?" And the south-west leg changes according to which direction the subject is facing. Our greetings go like "how are you doing?" "I'm just fine, how are you?" Their greetings go like "Which direction are you heading?" "To the north a long way, and you?" In their culture a firm grasp on spatial orientation is paramount, you'd be excluded from social live without it as you wouldn't even make it past "hello."

Again try to imagine how different a mindset this creates. We orient directions relative to ourselves; "left" and "right" become different directions according to our own orientation. Conversely, the Aboriginal tribe orient directions relative to the land and they always stay the same. Again we win in the department of egocentrism. This makes me wonder if we would have become much more protective of our natural environment if we, like those Aboriginals, would have given the land a central position in our language instead of ourselves. There are many more examples of different languages that inspire different ways to perceive and think about the world and reality discussed in the below linked video. It's a lecture of sorts by Lera Boroditsky, a cognitive scientist and professor in the fields of language and cognition, that's sure to make you think more about the legacy of Babel;

1 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks and fire them thoroughly." And they had brick for stone and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth." 5 The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6 And the LORD said, "Look, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech." 8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth, and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth. - Genesis 11:1–9
source: Wikipedia


How Language Shapes Thought | Lera Boroditsky


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I've heard about all of this! Yes, definitely language shapes the way we think. One of the most classical examples is the property some languages have called "grammatical gender". This induces a bias in the way people think as they tend to associate the grammatical gender of a word with gender role and even biological gender.

BTW, are the title and quote some sort of decorative device or do you really mean it? :)

Decorative click-bait ;-) Thanks so much for reading and responding :-)