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Does Language Frame our Thinking?

Publicado por Mike el 18/02/2020

I, and at least a few other bilingual people I’ve asked, often find myself thinking that certain concepts are easier to explain in one language than in another. Part of this seems due to the vocabulary itself, i.e. actually having the words to express an idea, while others are related to the type and breadth of cultural contexts that are linked to a language. While researching these topics is complicated by the difficulty of isolating and controlling variables and our (relatively) poor knowledge of the brain, some intriguing work has been done on the subject.

Perhaps the best-known of these works are those concerning how different cultures relate to space and convey directions. In most common languages, we can communicate directions in both absolute and relative ways (egocentric vs geographic), for instance: “head north for two miles, then east for two hundred feet”. We can also say: “take the next left, two rights and then another left”. In the first example, we are talking in absolute terms, in the second we are speaking relative to the person at that time. Generally, when we talk to each other, we use relative terms. We say: “Can you pass the sauce? It’s right in front of you.” We don’t say: “Please pass me the remote, it’s to your east.”

However, there are cultures where the relative right and left don’t exist, everything is in absolutes. They give all directions using cardinal directions. This means that they have to constantly be aware of where they are at all times. Whenever they move around, at the back of their minds they are keeping track of the direction. This discipline gives them what to us would be a supernatural sense of direction. Whether at night, during a cloudy day or in the middle of a building, people from these cultures can unerringly point north. A language particularity, forced a real change in the way someone thinks.

This, of course, does not mean that people from these cultures cannot understand concepts such as behind or in-front, merely that they were never forced to, and this coloured their thinking. Here’s where we enter murky waters and broad generalizations would be dangerous. This merely shows, that under specific circumstances, language seems to influence certain aspect of our way of thinking.

In the past, there have been many attempts at both proving that one’s mother tongue was a vice constraining all thought, and that it was irrelevant and human thought was the same regardless of culture. This is particularly topical right now, when many languages are trying to find ways to add a gender neutral framework, and languages with grammatical genders (like French, Polish, Bantu and many other)s, are coming under renewed scrutiny. At this time, it is unclear whether such grammatical differences affect our social fabric, but most evidence seems to point towards it having a marginal effect at most.

All in all, this would seem an interesting field of study, which can help increase our understanding of our brains and how we process language and speech.


Palabras clave: Cosmo, Language

Translators as Guardians of Language

Publicado por Mike el 24/01/2017

Jurek d./ Flickr

Is chillax a real word? Should it be? When can we use it? Who gets to decide?
We do of course, all of us.

The progression of language is inexorable, it will change, mutate, evolve. It’s one of the never ending debates in language, where we place the line to allow evolution but maintain some semblance of the preceding structure. The explosion of communication in the last few decades has hastened the process, what might have taken decades now takes years or months. New words appear and disappear in the technological aether, some will stay in everyday use while others will be relegated to the archives of the early Internet (or something). Terms like lulz, NSFW and IRL may stick around and become the bedrock of future semantics and transform grammar.

Many academics and traditionally learned people are looking on with shock and horror at these rather tumultuous changes. And so, the spring feeding the discussion about who are the arbiters of language once again bursts forth. The dilemma facing those involved is simple to understand yet also challenging. How do you allow language to morph while protecting and respecting its traditions and underpinnings? To only mock, disdain and complain about the language of much of today’s youth is not only to fall prey to some form of academic snobbery (be a card carrying ivory tower member or not), but you also become nothing more than a cliché, and join the multitudes that have spoken with little but derision regarding the younger members of their own society.

This is especially true when we consider that this rapid evolution is arguably far more than casual want, it’s need. We need new ways to communicate. What worked for long formal letters might not make sense for rapid fire emails, and even less so for general messaging (whatever flavour you use). So, how do we remember and even cherish traditions past while allowing movement towards the future?

I have no real solution, but it seems to me that translators and interpreters are perhaps an overlooked tool for this problem. We do not modify register (at least intentionally) therefore we must be familiar with them all. We need to be able to translate formal academic papers with complex sentence structures and sometimes archaic language, but we also work with emails, good and bad books and films, web pages, games and programs; in short, we’re everywhere. This means we are at least passably knowledgeable regarding a wide variety of uses of language, but, more importantly, good practice does not allow us to change the original meaning or intention. We stand somewhat at the side-lines and judge as best we can what the author wants to say, and how he means to say it. This is of course a significant reduction of a science/art, but it suffices to illustrate that when it comes to our work, we don’t a have a dog in the fight. We will be as faithful to the author as we can.

While this debate might seem unnecessary or spurious to some, not only is it important to those of us who love language in our own small way, but it is also vital to our continued mutual understanding in the future. With this in mind, perhaps it’s time that the International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters and the International Federation of Translators joins the OED, Merriam-Webster and the Real Academia Española as a Guardians of Language.