Sunday, September 19, 2010

More thoughts on Language and Thought, and gender

I've been sharing multiple links recently about the relationship between language and thought. One is this one from the Wall Street Journal; another is this one from the New York Times. Here's a quote that I found particularly interesting:

Some 50 years ago, the renowned linguist Roman Jakobson pointed out a crucial fact about differences between languages in a pithy maxim: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” This maxim offers us the key to unlocking the real force of the mother tongue: if different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.

This brings us (and Guy Deutscher, the author of the NYTimes piece) back to issues I've discussed like grammatical gender and relative versus absolute direction, as well as others like the defining of time periods (past, present, future). Here's another terrific quote from the article:

When your language routinely obliges you to specify certain types of information, it forces you to be attentive to certain details in the world and to certain aspects of experience that speakers of other languages may not be required to think about all the time. And since such habits of speech are cultivated from the earliest age, it is only natural that they can settle into habits of mind that go beyond language itself, affecting your experiences, perceptions, associations, feelings, memories and orientation in the world.

This really spoke to me. As a speaker of French, I have always found it difficult to remember the grammatical gender of words. I know a large core number, but once I start getting to the periphery of that, I start having to guess. It's so frustrating! For the first time, during my visit to France this summer, I started having a glimpse of the worldview that lies behind knowing all these grammatical genders - the fact that when a French speaker (or Spanish speaker, etc.) looks at an object, it simply appears inherently masculine or feminine. We English speakers have an easy time differentiating between events in the past, the present, and the future, which our language requires us to specify.

While I'm not sure I could attempt it without living in France, I got a glimpse of what the world might look like if I thought in this way. It really stretched my mind into a place beyond where it had been before, and that's one of the most rewarding feelings I can imagine. Perhaps that's why I try to share it with other people through my stories.


  1. At the risk of teaching Grandma to suck eggs:
    can I point you to, Daniel Chandle's brief discussion on the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.
    Also worth a read, if you haven't already, is Jack Vance's The Languages of Pao.
    Fascinating subject.

  2. Gary, thanks - that was a really interesting article. Quite academic and dense, in case any of my readers would like to take a look, but excellent.

  3. Even if Juliette already knows all about that, it's still a great link for the rest of us.

    Having studied Spanish (several years ago), I sympathize with frustration with the guessing game about gender articles. None of my classes even explained the articles as applied to animals. We learned la perra and el gato. But what about male dogs and female cats? In English we might say "male cat" or call it a "tom." The female cat can also be called a "queen." But in Spanish, change the article and form, or do they have separate names? Do they even differentiate between male/female for animals?

    Even though people are easy, it's still interesting to see the differences in how male and females can be differentiated. El padre is father, la madre is mother, but el hermano/la hermana is brother/sister. Some words have unique terms, others just change the form.

  4. Hi, Jaleh! I believe that in Spanish "el perro" is the dog, and "la perra" is the female dog - if that should happen to need to be specified. I *think* I've heard "la gata" but I'm not sure. Certainly in French one can say "le chat"/"le chien" the default, or "la chatte"/"la chienne" if you need to specify for someone who's asking the precise gender of your pet. You raise an interesting point about form. It's hard to find rules in a language that are entirely regular! Which kinds of words can be altered by suffixes, and by which suffixes, is something that can change over time, and pockets of regularity will become pockets of irregularity, or vice versa.

  5. The one I like is the spelling of "blonde." If it's a male reference, it's spelled blond, if it's a female reference, it's spelled blonde.

    Kinda cool...

  6. Ah, indeed. Excellent pick, Les - since it's inflected even in English!

  7. It appears that my first link wasn't working; I think I've repaired it, and I've added another I found while looking up the first one...