The Power of Language: Afterthought

Feb 10, 2011 10:15:19 AM / by Rachel Reardon

In this post I would like to write about some thoughts I had while reading the previous post, The Power of Language. The article mentioned in the blog post "Does Your Language Shape How You Think?" was not new to me; I had come across it when it was published, and here is my opinion.

I will start with the assumption that when we talk to other people, we want to be understood as clearly as possible and as fast as possible: we do not spend our time in lengthy exchanges of vague propositions, at least this is what I observe when I see two people talking. Even when our propositions are vague, this is sometimes done on purpose because we want to imply certain things, which again we believe that our interlocutor will “get.” (I have already discussed that in another post.) So for example, in the first article, I read that the Chinese can understand the concept of time but “they are not obliged to think about timing whenever they describe an action.” How true is this? Let’s pretend for a moment that there are no tenses in English and the same form of the verb “talk” is used for “I’m talking," “I talk,” “I will talk,” and so on. If I want to express the concept that “Tomorrow I will talk to my boss”; instead I will say, “I talk to my boss" since there is only this one form. However, because I want you to understand what I mean, I do not want you to be confused and wonder, “Will she talk to her boss? Or Has she talked to her boss? Or what?” I need to make sure that you understand that “I will talk to my boss.” I do not want to spend all my time trying to convey the meaning of futurity, as this is not what happens in real life.

Even though the Chinese do not have different tense forms for verbs, they understand each other immediately and do not ask for clarifications every time the other person says something. How is this done? If I do not use verbal tense, I use some other means, like adverbs (e.g. "tomorrow"), aspectual particles, and so on, and I say, “I talk to my boss tomorrow.” This is what the Chinese do. They think about it and make sure that the time reference is clearly conveyed via a linguistic device other than verb tense. So, they are still obliged to think about timing, perhaps not in the sense of verbal tense but of an adverb; they are obliged to think of the means they will use to make timing clear. Of course, this “thinking” is done in no time, but that is another story!

Let me now tackle gender. When I first read the article, I was intrigued and decided to do an experiment myself. I asked my guinea pigs, my husband, and my daughter, to complete a questionnaire. I wrote down a list of randomly selected nouns that referred to objects that were masculine, feminine, and neuter. (As a side note, in Greek, grammatical gender is arbitrary--for example the fork is neuter and the chair is feminine, and there is no reason why this is so). Then I asked them to assign human voices to them, just like the experiment in the article. Some results were the same, e.g. the "bulb" (we have two words for it, one masculine and one feminine) was assigned a child’s voice by both; the "car" (neuter gender) was assigned a man’s voice; "Harley" (feminine gender) was assigned a man’s voice; and "camera" (feminine gender) was assigned a man’s voice.

There were some differences, like the "table" (neuter gender) was assigned a man’s voice by my daughter and a woman’s voice by my husband; the sofa (masculine gender) was assigned a man’s voice by my daughter and a woman’s voice by my husband. More relevant to the experiment, few were the cases in which the gender coincided with the assigned voice (masculine gender – male voice). My conclusion was that in general other things interfered with the decision of voice assignment: machines (Harley and camera) were assigned a man’s voice because machines are considered by our society to be a masculine hobbies; the bulb is small so it was assigned a child’s voice, and so forth. Our general perceptions of the world play an important role here.

In Linguistics we distinguish between competence (what we subconsciously know about language) and performance (what we actually utter) and we work on competence in order to understand how language works. Most of what the article described was about performance.

All this is not to deny that language and culture are intertwined; people need to express their everyday needs, desires and what have you, in a precise way so as to avoid misunderstandings as much as possible.

What are your thoughts about this topic? About verb tense? Gender? Culture?

Topics: Language Learning and Culture

Rachel Reardon

Written by Rachel Reardon

Rachel works with some of the coolest marketers, designers, and writers around to help Mango look and sound its best. She loves bold colors, old books, the Montréal metro, and Star Trek. She has conflicting feelings about the Oxford comma.

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