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).


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):

Recuerdo de Maria A.


En aquel día en de luna azul Septiembre

Quieto bajo un joven ciruelo

Lo sostuve, al quieto pálido amor

En mi brazo como en un dulce sueño.

Y sobre nosotros en el bello veraniego cielo

Había una nube, que vi largamente

Ella era muy blanca y monstruosamente alta

Y así como la vi, no estaba nunca ahí.



Desde aquel día muchas, muchas lunas

Han flotado quietas cayendo y de paso

Los ciruelos ya fueron talados

¿Y me preguntas que fue del amor?

Así te lo digo: No puedo acordarme.

Sin embargo, seguro, sé a lo que te refieres

Pero de su rostro, ya nunca más sé

Sólo sé aún: antaño lo besé.



Y también el beso lo hubiera olvidado hace tiempo

Si la nube no estuviera ahí

De ella sé y he de saber siempre

Ella era muy blanca y venía desde arriba.

Los ciruelos quizá aún florecen

Y aquella mujer tiene tal vez ahora su séptimo hijo

Mas aquella nube floreció sólo minutos

Y así como la vi, desapareció en el viento.


Traducción no oficial de “Erinnerung an die Marie A.” de Bertolt Brecht (1898 – 1956)

Erinnerung an die Marie A.


An jenem Tag im blauen Mond September

Still unter einem jungen Pflaumenbaum

Da hielt ich sie, die stille bleiche Liebe

In meinem Arm wie einen holden Traum.

Und über uns im schönen Sommerhimmel

War eine Wolke, die ich lange sah

Sie war sehr weiß und ungeheuer oben

Und als ich aufsah, war sie nimmer da.



Seit jenem Tag sind viele, viele Monde

Geschwommen still hinunter und vorbei

Die Pflaumenbäume sind wohl abgehauen

Und fragst du mich, was mit der Liebe sei?

So sag ich dir: Ich kann mich nicht erinnern.

Und doch, gewiß, ich weiß schon, was du meinst

Doch ihr Gesicht, das weiß ich wirklich nimmer

Ich weiß nur mehr: Ich küsste es dereinst.



Und auch den Kuss, ich hätt’ ihn längst vergessen

Wenn nicht die Wolke da gewesen wär

Die weiß ich noch und werd ich immer wissen

Sie war sehr weiß und kam von oben her.

Die Pflaumenbäume blühn vielleicht noch immer

Und jene Frau hat jetzt vielleicht das siebte Kind

Doch jene Wolke blühte nur Minuten

Und als ich aufsah, schwand sie schon im Wind.


Bertolt Brecht (1898 – 1956)

Fin del mundo

Hay un llanto en el mundo

como si el querido Dios se hubiera muerto,

y la sombra plomo que cae

pesa como sepultura.


Ven, escondámonos más juntos…

La vida yace en todos los corazones

como en ataúdes.


Tú, besémonos profundo –

llama a la puerta un anhelo por el mundo

en el que morir tendremos.


*Traducción no oficial de “Weltende” de Else Lasker-Schüler (1869-1945)


Es ist ein Weinen in der Welt,

als ob der liebe Gott gestorben wär,

und der bleierne Schatten, der niederfällt,

lastet grabesschwer.


Komm, wir wollen uns näher verbergen…

Das Leben liegt in aller Herzen

wie in Särgen.


Du, wir wollen uns tief küssen –

Es pocht eine Sehnsucht an die Welt,

an der wir sterben müssen.


Else Lasker-Schüler (1869-1945)

Beschreibung X

“Aber weißt du was witzig ist? Ich sehe die deutsche Sprache mit anderen Augen, seitdem ich dir begegnet bin. Ich glaube ich bin bisher niemandem begegnet, der so liebevoll und neugierig und schön mit ihr umgeht.

Seitdem sehe ich sie auch viel schöner und bemerke ihre Schönheit, während ich sie gebrauche.”

Sonja – 04.09.2015