Language alters how we think, or does it?

Here is an article about a recent book by Guy Deutscher which points out the influence of language on how we think. Apparently this contradicts ideas put forth by Steven Pinker in a book called The Language Instinct, which postulates the existence of a common language instinct, and even common grammar,  among all humans.


Deutscher explains that ” in Russian, water (a “she”) becomes a “he” once you have dipped a teabag into her, and why, in German, a young lady has no sex, though a turnip has.” To him languages are different and that makes the culture, and even the working of the brain of different language speakers different.


I must say that I do not identify the gender of words with the sex of animate beings. The allocation of gender to nouns is totally arbitrary, and I don’t feel that this convention infuences how we think. These kind of language conventions vary considerably from language to language, but the ability to express thoughts and concepts appears to me to be more or less equal in all eleven languages that I have learned. Each language has a uniquely elegant word or phrase, here and there, but in general they all work equally well, even if they have widely varying conventions.


Pinker appears to be a supporter of the univeral grammar theory, first put forward by Chomsk. He tells us that kids will evolve the same structure in artificial pidgin language, even in different geographical locations. I have not studied linguistics but as a language learner, I have found that grammatical patterns can vary widely from language to language. I am skeptical about the idea of a common grammar.


Some languages have articles and another do not. Some languages have gender and others don’t. Some have plurals and others don’t;  some languages say “he is not as big as her”, whereas in Chinese we can say “he does not have her big”; or some languages say “I have a car “, whereas Russian says “to me is car”; and on and on. It all works.


So, I feel that our brains have the ability to recognize patterns and to start to rely on them. This is true for language, for social or behavioural patterns, or any skill that we acquire. The language does not alter our social patterns, except superficially. As we learn a language it becomes easier for us to become aware new societal patterns, and therefore to adapt to them, especially when speaking that language. It is not the language that changes us, it is the culture of that language.


On the other hand, languages are different, significantly different, reflecting the evolution of these languages in different environments. The grammar is not universal. Our ability to identify patterns and use them is universal and part of how our brain works. Languages exhibit different patterns. Nevertheless, the different patterns do not prevent most common concepts from being expressed more or less equally clearly in different languages.


Now, is that clear?

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