We speak, sometimes without even paying close attention to the words we say. Our words are sometimes babbling, and not really any form of instruction or description at all. After viewing a TED talk about language, I started to look differently at the way I formed my words.

Lera Boroditsky delves into the why we speak, how we speak, and the differences in cultural languages. This TED talk brings innovative ideas to wrap your brain around, but you will have to listen with your entire being to understand.

What happens when we talk?

Basically, we force air out of our mouths in different ways and the hisses, puffs and such travel through the air to others. When they enter the ears of other people, they hit the eardrum and are translated into thoughts. Because of language, we can transmit thoughts across vast distances.

There are around 7 thousand languages that are spoken all around the world. Each language works in a different manner. They aren’t just different numbers, letters or exclamations, and they also have different structures. They also come from different ways of thinking as well. So, we might ask ourselves, “do bilingual people have more than one way of thinking?”

Structures of language

One example of different structures of language comes from an aboriginal tribe in Australia. Instead of saying things like “Your left foot”, they would say, “your southeast foot”.

Also, instead of saying ‘hello’ when greeted, these natives ask you which way you are going. You may reply with “I am headed southeast.” Although this may sound incredibly strange, these aboriginal people are much better adapted to directions than many of us are. This is established with simple language.

Age progression and language

People of different languages think about time differently as well. If you looked at photographs of the aging progression of someone, and the youngest photo was on the left, English speakers would look from left to right. Other cultures may glance at the photos in the opposite direction.

As for the aboriginal people, they would order the photos in different ways according to their facing direction. So, to them, time is not locked within us, it is locked within the landscape…from east to west. Reminds you of the suns travel across the sky during a day, doesn’t it?

Understanding photos in language

If you saw a photo of a group of animals, as an English speaker, you would count them to know the number, right? Well, it isn’t the same with others. For those who weren’t taught the linguistic trick of counting with numbers, this might be difficult.

After all, not everyone has the number “6” or “3”, so when matched with other photos of the same number of animals, they might not understand the point.

Language and color

For many people, there are numerous words for colors and shades of colors. For others, there are few names. On the other hand, in English when we say the overall color “blue”, Russian speakers have two separate words for light blues (goluboy) and dark blues (siniy).

Because of this linguistic difference, Russians recognize and differentiate between light and dark blue much faster than English speakers.

Feminine and masculine

In some languages, nouns have genders. For instance, Spanish speakers see the sun as masculine and the moon as feminine. It’s the opposite for German speakers, with the moon being the masculine form and the sun feminine.

This means that those who use masculine and feminine forms also use masculine and feminine descriptions when talking about them. If a bridge is considered masculine, then it might be called “strong or sturdy”…masculine words.

Languages and events

An event, such as an accident, is described differently according to different languages. If someone leans over and bumps a table, knocking over a lamp, an English speaker might say, “She broke the lamp”, while Spanish speakers may simply say, “the lamp broke”.

According to Spanish people, accidents shouldn’t be correlated with someone doing something bad. English people remember who did it. Spanish people remember their intention.

The effects of language

Words are powerful, and now you can see how they have various effects from one culture to the other. They can have big effects, as they can decide how time works, they can have deep effects as they show the differences in how we understand quantity.

Language can govern how fast we differentiate between colors and how we perceive objects in our lives. And finally, words can shape how we feel about and how we handle situations and events. This includes blame and punishment, both decided by language.

So, you see, language isn’t just about speaking carelessly and understanding that there are various dialects. It’s about how we perceive these various languages. Unfortunately, we lose a different language about every week, and soon there will be a great reduction in the various cultural dialects. You have to ask yourself, what does this mean for the world.

I guess we have to wait and see.’

Sherrie Hurd, A.A.

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