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How language constrains the way we perceive the world around us

More than 30 percent of the world’s 7,000 or so languages are “severely endangered” of becoming extinct.

The July issue of the British-based publication The Psychologist has a provocative Q&A with Asifa Majid, a psycholinguist at Radboud University in the Netherlands. Majid studies the influence of language on how we think and talk about the world around us — and therefore why speakers of different languages often interpret and describe their interactions with that world in such very different ways.

It’s a fascinating topic, for it offers some insight into why we often find it difficult to understand the perspective of people from different cultures.

Here are some examples of those language differences as described by Majid in the interview (with British spellings and punctuation):

On color.  “Across the world, languages differ in how many basic colour words they have. For example, Umpila spoken in Cape York, Australia, only has three colour words: black, white, and red; whereas English has a much larger repertoire of 11 basic colour words: black, white, red, yellow, green, blue, orange, pink, purple, brown, and grey. So, an Umpila-speaking child will have to learn a different set of distinctions to an English-speaking child.”

On body parts.  “We make a distinction between our hand and our arm. But if you’re a speaker of Indonesian you just refer to your tangan (which includes both hand and arm). And if you speak Jahai (in Malaysia) you have to specify further. You have to make explicit whether you mean your upper arm bliŋ, or your lower arm prbԑr. There is no general arm.”

On various verbs. “In English we can both cut a carrot with a knife and cut a piece of paper with scissors, but in Dutch you can only snijden the carrot and knippen the paper. English speakers smoke cigarettes but drink water; Punjabi speakers pii both.”

Asifa Majid
Asifa Majid

On odors. “We spend billions on the flavour and fragrance industry every year. Smell is important to us. But still we struggle with naming even familiar smells. But amongst the hunter-gatherer Jahai speakers, talking about smells is easy. The Jahai have a dozen or so dedicated verbs to talk about different qualities of smell. For example, the smell of petrol, smoke, bat droppings, millipede and leaf of gingerwort are cŋԑs, but the smells of mushroom, cabbage, some species of hornbill, and the fur of the pig-tailed macaque are all pɁus. It’s hard for us to imagine some of these smells. You’ve probably not even experienced them. But the smell words in Jahai are not restricted to these sources. They apply even to novel smells Jahai speakers have not experienced before, as we found out when we tested people under experimental conditions.”

At a loss for words

In the interview, Majid also explains how some experiences are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to put into words — in any language:

Humans are incredible at face recognition. We can discriminate endless numbers of individuals. But it seems impossible to describe a face such that it individuates it from all other faces. If you had to say what sets apart Katy Perry’s face from Zooey Deschanel’s, or Will Smith’s from Barack Obama’s, you would struggle; never mind trying to produce a description that would uniquely identify Katy Perry or Barack Obama from the millions of other faces.

Or, let’s think about pain. When the doctor asks you to describe the pain in your the back, what resources do you really have to express the exact pain? Or what about the time you were on holiday and tried an exotic fruit. Now try describing it to your friend so they can recreate the exact flavour experience you had. It’s hard! But compare this to describing the location of the pain, or the colour of the fruit. In comparison that seems relatively easy to do.

These examples are interesting because they potentially tell us something important about language, and what it really evolved to communicate; and how language interacts with other aspects of cognition. If some experiences are ‘ineffable’  — i.e. difficult or impossible to put into words — then this tells us about the limits of language, and our underlying cognitive architecture.

New ways of communicating

As Majid (who grew up speaking both English and Punjabi) notes, about six languages die out each year. Indeed, more than 30 percent of the world’s 7,000 or so languages are “severely endangered” of becoming extinct, she says.

“But language loss is not inevitable,” Majid stresses. “We can put language policies into place that help ensure children will continue to learn their ancestral mother tongues, if communities want that. Part of this can be done through bi- or multi-lingual schooling, for example. And language change and evolution is a never-ending process. New varieties appear, as we see with newly emerging village sign languages which occur when a high density of deaf individuals come together and evolve a new way to communicate with each other. So while there are people, there will be languages to study.” 

FMI: You can read the interview on the website of The Psychologist, which is published by the British Psychological Society.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/21/2016 - 11:38 am.

    It’s truly essential

    I spent time each of the 30 years that I taught (history and other social sciences in a public high school) telling my students the same thing:

    Command of the language (and, if they’re different, command of one’s native language as well as the dominant language of the society in which one lives) is the most important intellectual task any and every student has.

    If you don’t have the word for it, you can’t express the idea or accurately describe the object, as even the brief treatment of the topic above makes plain. I was almost always on the side of the English teachers when kids complained about vocabulary drills or being nicked on an essay because of punctuation or grammatical errors (I always included punctuation and grammar as part of the grade for essays I assigned, as well, much to the disgust of many a teenager…).

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