How language quirks shape who we are
In 2007, professors at the USA’s National Academy of Sciences discovered that native Russian speakers were quicker at identifying certain shades of blue than native English Speakers. And with that gem of a fact, I don’t want anyone complaining that we fail to bring you the important news here at Take Note!
Though such a nugget of research might seem insignificant, the reasoning behind this incredibly bizarre Russian superpower is actually pretty remarkable, because it’s all a consequence of language.
In English, we have one word for the colour blue, but in Russian, there are two, goluboy and siniy, which differentiate between lighter and darker shades of the colour. The team behind the study believe it is this linguistic disparity that has resulted in such an apparent cultural difference.
The study is touched on by cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky in her TED talk ‘How language shapes the way we think’, a video I highly recommend you watch if you’re not concerned about your mind being blown to smithereens from awe. In her talk, which touches on this theory of linguistic relativity, Boroditsky explores some of the ways in which language has shaped the way we think, and highlights some of the curious quirks that crop up amongst the nearly 7,000 languages that exist around the world today.
Reading from Left to Right
As well as Russian superiority in colour identification, she also talks about how reading direction can have an impact on how a person interacts with the world around them. Today, there are approximately twelve languages across the globe that are read from right to left, with Hebrew and Urdu being two of the most common, whilst several Chinese languages are traditionally read top to bottom.
Studies show that when it comes to counting objects, those whose native language reads left to right will usually count objects from left to right, whilst right-to-left readers will count, you guessed it, from right to left. This tells us that language not only affects how we see the world, but also how we process it.
Of course, by going straight to analysing the direction we count objects in, we are automatically presuming that every language allows for the technique of counting, but what if your language doesn’t even have numbers?
These languages are known as ‘anumeric languages’, and are spoken by peoples such as the Pirahã, who live in the heart of the Amazon rainforest. Numbers are not important to the way they live, and so their language simply includes general terms for quantities, in the same way as we have many and few.
96 Words for Love
So, if a language can omit words we would assume are needed, can it ever have too many Author Robert Johnson didn’t believe so. In his book ‘The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden’, he wrote ‘Sanskrit has 96 words for love; Ancient Persian has 80, Greek three, and English only one…Of all the Western languages, English may be the most lacking when it comes to feeling’, and perhaps he’s right. After all, every one of those 96 Sanskrit words has a different meaning, and yet, when you translate them into English, you get just one back. You don’t need numbers in your language to know that’s not a good rate of exchange!
The Upside Down-ness of Gendered Nouns
However, we may be cold inside, but at least we don’t think tables are feminine. (Anymore, anyway. Old English did actually have gendered nouns, but that died out in the Middle Ages.) Gendered nouns occur in over 90 languages around the world, and exist solely as a way to class nouns, although I would personally testify that they also exist to drive language learners insane. In many cases, they also seem to go entirely against reason; the word ‘manliness’, for example, is classed as feminine in a number of languages, whilst Portuguese classes the word mulherão as masculine when it means ‘voluptuous woman’!
The Platypus of Language: Klingon
Undoubtedly the language with the most quirks, however, has to be Klingon. Yes, that’s right, the fictional language from Star Trek. Not only does it have three genders that are used to gender nouns seemingly at random, but there are also 29 different ways of conjugating verbs and 36 ways to suffix them, all with different indications. Unsurprisingly, despite what many Trekkies may claim, it is believed that only 20-30 people in the world can speak it fluently.
With that in mind, I will leave you with this piece of magnificence, Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Klingon. Enjoy!
Written by Transcriber Lydia