The influence of the mother tongue

“Language has two lives. In its public role, it is a system of conventions agreed upon by a speech community for the purpose of effective communication. But language also has another, private existence, as a system of knowledge that each speaker has internalized in his or her own mind. If language is to serve as an effective means of communication, then the private systems of knowledge in speakers’ minds must closely correspond with the public system of linguistic conventions. And it is because of this correspondence that the public conventions of language can mirror what goes on in the most fascinating and most elusive object in the entire universe, our mind.

This book set out to show, through the evidence supplied by language, that fundamental aspects of our thought are influenced by the cultural conventions of our society, to a much greater extent than is fashionable to admit today. In the first part, it became clear that the way our language carves up the world into concepts has not just been determined for us by nature, and that what we find “natural” depends largely on the conventions we have been brought up on. That is not to say, of course, that each language can partition the world arbitrarily according to its whim. But within the constraints of what is learnable and sensible for communication, the ways in which even the simplest concepts are delineated can vary to a far greater degree than what plain common sense would ever expect. For, ultimately, what common sense finds natural is what it is familiar with.

In the second part, we saw that the linguistic conventions of our society can affect aspects of our thought that go beyond language. The demonstrable impact of language on thinking is very different from what was touted in the past. In particular, no evidence has come to light that our mother tongue imposes limits on our intellectual horizons and constrains our ability to understand concepts or distinctions used in other languages. The real effects of the mother tongue are rather the habits that develop through the frequent use of certain ways of expression. The concepts we are trained to treat as distinct, the information our mother tongue continuously forces us to specify, the details it requires us to be attentive to, and the repeated associations it imposes on us-all these habits of speech can create habits of mind that affect more than merely the knowledge of language itself. We saw examples from three areas of language: spatial coordinates and their consequences for memory patterns and orientation, grammatical gender and its impact on associations, and the concepts of color, which can increase our sensitivity to certain color distinctions.

According to the dominant view among linguists and cognitive scientists today, the influence of language on thought can be considered significant only if it bears on genuine reasoning-if, for instance, one language can be shown to prevent its speakers from solving a logical problem that is easily solved by speakers of another language. Since no evidence for such constraining influence on logical reasoning has ever been presented, this necessarily means-or so the argument goes-that any remaining effects of language are insignificant and that fundamentally we all think in the same way.

But it is all too easy to exaggerate the importance of logical reasoning in our lives. Such an overestimation may be natural enough for those reared on a diet of analytic philosophy, where thought is practically equated with logic and any other mental processes are considered beneath notice. But this view does not correspond with the rather modest role of logical thinking in our actual experience of life. After all, how many daily decisions do we make on the basis of abstract deductive reasoning, compared with those guided by gut feeling, intuition, emotions, impulse, or practical skills? How often have you spent your day solving logical conundrums, compared with wondering where you left your socks? Or trying to remember where your car is in a multilevel parking lot? How many commercials try to appeal to us through logical syllogisms, compared with those that play on colours, associations, allusions? And finally, how many wars have been fought over disagreements in set theory?

The influence of the mother tongue that has been demonstrated empirically is felt in areas of thought such as memory, perception, and associations or in practical skills such as orientation. And in our actual experience of life, such areas are no less important than the capacity for abstract reasoning, probably far more so.”

THROUGH the LANGUAGE GLASS – Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages (2010), Guy Deutscher (1969). Pages 233 to 235, published by Arrow Books (2011).

Zukunftsmusik or “music of the future”

This word is made up of two other words, their combination manage to convey a positive feeling. The first part of the word (Zukunft-) means “future”, the second part (-musik) means “music”. The two words put together mean “music of the future” (Zukunftsmusik)*. There is no Spanish or English word to translate Zukunftsmusik directly but you can understand its meaning by observing its use. This word is being used to describe plans or facts that could happen or that we want to happen in the future. Those things may happen but their materialization is still pretty far or subject to uncertainty. It is not a word to describe fantasies, hypothesis or things that we already regard as impossible, it is a word to emphasize that the future that we hope does not necessarily answer to our wishes: things may happen as we imagine or not. For instance: When I am a famous writer I am going to donate all my money to projects related to social inclusion, but this is “music of the future”. One may say that this word suggests that our dreamed future is “music to our ears”.

*The letter “s” serves to connect the two words in this case.

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Zukunftsmusik o “música del futuro”

Sin importar su origen, esta palabra se compone de otras dos que al juntarse logran transmitir una sensación positiva. La primera parte de la palabra (Zukunft-) significa “futuro”, la segunda parte (-musik) significa “música”. Si unes las dos palabras dices “música del futuro” (Zukunftsmusik)*. No hay una palabra que traduzca directamente Zukunftsmusik al castellano o al inglés, pero se puede entender cómo se usa. Esta palabra se utiliza para describir planes o hechos que pueden o queremos que ocurran en el futuro pero cuya realización se encuentra aún muy distante o sujeta a mucha incertidumbre. No se usa para describir fantasías, hipótesis o cosas que de antemano sabemos que no son posibles, sino para recalcar que el futuro del que hablamos no necesariamente responde a nuestros deseos: las cosas podrían pasar como lo imaginamos o no. Por ejemplo: Cuando sea un escritor famoso voy a donar mis ganancias a proyectos de inclusión social, pero eso es “música del futuro”. Se podría pensar que esta palabra sugiere que nuestro futuro soñado es “música para nuestros oídos”.

*La letra “s” en el medio de las dos palabras cumple en este caso una función de conexión.

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Zeitlupe or “time magnifying glass”

This word evokes a beautiful image in a very simple way. The first part (Zeit-) means “time”, the second part (-lupe) means “magnifying glass”. If you put the two words together you would say something like “time magnifying glass” or “magnifying glass of time” (Zeitlupe). Could you imagine what this word really means? Take some minutes to think about it before you read the answer…This word is a gorgeous example of a visual onomatopoeia, it is the transformation of a visual phenomenon into words that have a meaning full of aesthetic. This word is a memory of how the language is created by our interaction with reality, and how the language can go beyond the merely descriptive and show not only our original capacity to be astonished but also our poetic perspective. Zeitlupe is the German word for “slow motion”.

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Zeitlupe o “la lupa del tiempo”

Esta palabra evoca una imagen bella de manera muy simple. La primera parte de la palabra (Zeit-) significa “tiempo”*, la segunda parte (-lupe) significa “lupa”. Si unes las dos palabras dices algo así como “lupa del tiempo” (Zeitlupe). ¿Puedes adivinar el significado de esta palabra? Toma unos minutos para pensar antes de leer la respuesta… Esta palabra es un hermoso ejemplo de una onomatopeya, es la transformación de un fenómeno visual en letras que cobran un sentido provisto de estética. Es un recuerdo de cómo se forma el lenguaje a partir de nuestra interacción con la realidad, y de cómo el lenguaje puede ir más allá de lo descriptivo y mostrar no sólo nuestra capacidad original de asombro sino también nuestra perspectiva poética. Zeitlupe es la palabra alemana que expresa lo que en castellano se conoce como “cámara lenta” y en inglés como “slow motion”.

*El artículo (die) de la palabra tiempo en alemán es el mismo que denota lo femenino, así  que decir die Zeit  en alemán se podría comparar con decir “la tiempa” en castellano.

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Glühbirne o “pera ardiente”

Como muchas palabras alemanas, esta palabra tiene dos partes: la primera parte (Glüh-) tiene que ver con el verbo alemán que se usa para expresar “arder”, “flagrar”, “caldear”, “encandecer” u otras cosas por el estilo. La segunda parte (-birne) es la palabra Alemana para la fruta conocida como “pera” en castellano. Aunque no lo creas, Glühbirne significa bombilla.

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Glühbirne or “burning pear”

Like many German words, this word has two parts: the first part (Glüh-) comes from the German verb for “glow”, “burn”, “flare” or the like. The second part (-birne) is the German word for the fruit known as “pear” in English. Surprise! Glühbirne means light bulb.

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