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).

Zitat aus Drachenläufer

“Manchmal, wenn Soraya ruhig neben mir schlief, lag ich wach im Bett, horchte auf die Tür mit dem Insektengitter, die im Wind aufschwang und wieder zufiel, auf das Zirpen der Grillen im Garten. Und ich konnte geradezu die Leere in Sorayas Leib spüren, wie ein lebendes, atmendes Ding. Diese Leere hatte sich in unsere Ehe geschlichen, in unser Lachen und in unser Liebesspiel. Und in der Nacht spürte ich in der Dunkelheit unseres Zimmers, wie sie von Soraya aufstieg und sich zwischen uns legte. Zwischen uns schlief. Wie ein neugeborenes Kind.”

Drachenläufer (2004) – Khaled Hosseini (1965). Die Originalausgabe erschien 2003 unter dem Titel The Kite Runner.

Arullo para personas muertas vivientes


“Wann alle Toten auferstehn.

Dann werde ich in Nichts vergehn.”


Centros ignorantes

de que sólo hay un universo

pueden ser alérgicas

a cualquier espectro…


Tienen las preferencias

más preferidas

como si eso fuera la más magna cosa

muy grande es la mínima herida

e importante el detalle

de la nimiedad más mimosa

con poder de arrugarles la frente

o torcerles para siempre la boca


Estrés antes de que ocurra

y mientras ocurre se estresan llorosas

para después estresarse en la calma

porque el post-estrés sin piedad las acosa


No pueden dar sin medida

y reciben con medida dudosa

el amor con que dicen que aman

es una pieza en el ajedrez de sus cosas


Con el tiempo se acorta su tiempo

aunque inventaron el tiempo y lo adoran

su tiempo es preciso oxígeno

que ahorran mientras se sofocan


No conocen la vida sin miedo

y en la normalidad dan vida a su fosa

malditas como el holandés de Wagner

deambulan por esta tierra ¡y la colman!


El Matallana


Te vas a separar

de los árboles de magnolias

y de los regocijados pájaros


de tu casa

y de las manos

que la hacen habitable


de la obstinada costumbre

de abrir los ojos

y cerrarlos

cuando el sueño te llama


de la palabra

que te ha creado


Te vas a separar

de tu sombra

que toda la vida

te persiguió en la luz


La tierra se va a separar

de ti

y tu amor a ella


Traducción no oficial de “Trennung” de Rose Ausländer (1901-1988)


Encuentra la versión original en alemán (das Gedicht auf Deutsch):


Du wirst dich trennen
von den Magnolienbäumen
und den jubilierenden Vögeln

von deinem Haus
und den Händen
die es bewohnbar machen

von der hartnäckigen Gewohnheit
die Augen aufzuschlagen
und zu schließen
wenn der Traum dich ruft

vom Wort
das dich erschaffen hat

Du wirst dich trennen
von deinem Schatten
der dich lebenslang
verfolgte im Licht

Die Erde wird sich trennen
von dir
und deiner Liebe zu ihr


Rose Ausländer (1901-1988)


Die Übersetzung ins Spanische (la traducción en castellano):

Wertvolle Gabe – Valuable Gift – Don valioso

„Die wertvollste Gabe ist die Erfindung, der größte Reichtum die Fantasie.“

Wie der Soldat das Grammofon repariert (2008) von Saša Stanišić (1978)


“The most valuable gift is the invention, the greater richness the imagination”

How the soldier repairs the gramophone (2008) by Saša Stanišić (1978)


“El don más valioso es la invención, la mayor riqueza la imaginación”

Como el soldado repara el gramófono (2008) de Saša Stanišić (1978)

Soledad II

Se hizo cierta

la profecía de la gitana


Tu tierra

te abandonará


personas y sueño



con labios cerrados

a labios extraños


Te amará

la soledad

te abrazará


Traducción no oficial de “Einsamkeit II” de Rose Ausländer (1901-1988)


Encuentra la versión original en alemán (das Gedicht auf Deutsch):