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How Language Affects Thought

There was an interesting article by Guy Deutscher in the New York Times last week about how the language we grow up speaking affects the way we think and the way we perceive the world around us. Linguists used to believe that our thoughts were constricted by the limits of our native tongue-for example, it was believed that people who spoke languages without a future tense for verbs could not understand the concept of the future.  That’s simply not true; the human brain is amazingly capable of learning new concepts and processing new information.

But according to Deutscher, language does shape how we see the world by shaping the way we think about and interact with our environment and the things in it.  For example, English speakers for the most part don’t think about whether an inanimate object is “male” or “female.” However, people who speak languages like French and Spanish have to think about inanimate objects as having a gender, and this consequently influences how they describe these objects.

Another example: in some languages, instead of using directions like “right” and “left,” all directions are given as cardinal directions, like north, south, east or west. Native speakers of these languages develop a keen sense of direction, one that seems almost supernatural to people who are used to saying “to your right” or “to your left.” In order to accurately describe their world, they have to.

What does all of this mean? According to Deutscher, looking at how language shapes the way we think about and experience the world can help us better understand each other:

“We may not know as yet how to measure these consequences directly or how to assess their contribution to cultural or political misunderstandings. But as a first step toward understanding one another, we can do better than pretending we all think the same.”

Eyak: Back from the Dead?

Last year, we wrote about how the Eyak language, once spoken by a native tribe in Alaska, was being given a second chance at life courtesy of a young French student with a knack for linguistics.

At the time, 22-year-old Guillaume Leduey had just made his first trip to Alaska. Leduey is something of a language prodigy, and had taught himself Eyak via instructional DVDs.

The last native speaker of Eyak, Marie Smith Jones, died in 2008. However, before she died she taught the language to University of Alaska linguistics professor Michael Krauss. Leduey brought the total number of Eyak speakers up to two, but nobody knew whether he’d be able to continue to work with the language or not. Read more

Majority Support for Gaelic in Scotland

In order for a language to survive, people need to want to speak it. Fortunately for the future of Gaelic, a new survey shows that the majority of Scottish citizens support efforts to promote the language.

The survey, “Public Attitudes Towards the Gaelic Language,” was conducted by the Scottish government. It found that 70 percent of respondents believed that more opportunities to learn Gaelic should be made available to the public. 53 percent of respondents would like to see the language make its way into everyday life more frequently. 80 percent of those surveyed were aware that Gaelic is still spoken in Scotland today. Read more

Zambian Farmers

One of the most important aspects of language preservation is the ability to record the language in writing. However, many endangered languages lack an orthography, or writing system. UNESCO notes that “it is extremely difficult to estimate how many written and unwritten languages there are in the world, and there is no established source of information.” What is certain, however, is that languages that can’t be written down suffer from a competitive disadvantage, as may the people who speak them.

One such language was ciShanjo, spoken in Zambia’s Western province. Nancy Kula, a linguist at the University of Essex, told the BBC that the language “is very much under threat of extinction.”

Until recently, the lack of a writing system made it even more vulnerable, but that has changed as representatives of a ciShanjo-speaking village collaborated with linguist Paul Tench to devise and standardize a spelling system for their language. Read more

Minion Language

The ‘Language’ Behind the Minions

Parents still reeling from the decimation of sanity caused by the soundtrack to ‘Frozen’ will be all too aware of a new plague, as the childless amongst us laugh uncomprehendingly at their misfortune. It is known to a generation as Minionese – the virtually-incoherent language spoken by those googly-eyed yellow chaps, introduced to an unprepared world by the 2010 movie ‘Despicable Me’. The internet is abuzz with Minionese-English dictionaries; and this is exactly how it would have started with Klingon, if there were high speed internet in the 1970s. Should we fear, or embrace, this new language?

We may have little choice. Now they have become the stars of their own self-titled, full-length movie, the Minions are more inescapable than ever. In the movie we learn that they have served many masters the world over, so it makes a bit more sense that they couldn’t be held to just one earthly language. Read more