Language and Thought
It is clear that man invented language. The first grunts may have been warnings like: ‘Get off my stone, my bed or my spouse,’ and the first shrieks probably warned of danger, but as people are born into a society where language, in any form, is already being used, the language may affect the way a person thinks. Are thoughts shaped by our languages or our ability to use language?
As tribes migrated, spread out and eventually became separated from one another, different languages developed, some with still-discernibly similar roots, but others began to lose all but the most tenuous vestiges of a common source. Look at Asian and European languages.
Do the differences between, say Thai and English, contribute to why Thais and Brits are so different? It must do. surely? Although all living languages are changing all the time, purists in many proud countries are complaining about the adoption of English words. Surely, this is no coincidence given increased globalisation? The peoples of the world, especially the youth have never been so similar. This has to be connected, and connected to the plethora of films for TV and the cinema too. Western values are being force-fed to the world’s young people, and its language is English.
Another aspect of language that interests me is specific words and grammatical constructions. It is often said that Inuits have a hundred words for snow (probably not true), but we only have about three (snow, sludge and, er… sleet), so would that help them have a better understanding of snow than us? It is certainly more important to them than it is to us.
The Welsh language does not have a word for ‘blue’, as far as I remember, or more accurately ‘glas’ means blue or green, but it defaults to green. Why? So if you said, ‘Isn’t the sky a beautiful shade of ‘glas’ today?’ no-one is going to think you mean green. Why didn’t we, I am Welsh, just invent a word for blue and be done with it?
German uses cases and highly structured sentences. So, the order of thoughts in German should be ‘time, manner, place’ and the verb should be held to the last word in sub-clauses. Is this responsible for their legendary love of organisation and order?
In English, we use the verb ‘to be’ a heck of a lot. ‘I am brainy; I am a student and I am studying for university’. Other languages like Russian and Thai would not have used ‘to be’ once in that sentence, and in Thai they would have left the personal pronoun out as well.
Thai has the verb ‘to be’, but they use it only with professions or positions. Therefore, our sentence above would be reduced to, ‘Brainy; am student and study for university’.
So, does our constant use of ‘I am…’ etc make us more egoistic than Thais, or at least more prone to being selfish? Thais are far more family-orientated than Brits, but the oldies are beginning to complain that young people care less nowadays than they used to. Will we see an increased use of the Thai word for ‘I’ – ‘phom’? See that? We even capitalize the first person pronoun – no other language that I know of (eight) does that.
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Podcast: Language and Thought