A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

Which Comes First–the Idea or the Word?

“There’s no such thing as knowing what you want to say but not being able to find the words,” claimed one of my teachers.  “If you can’t find the words, it’s because you really haven’t figured out what you think.  Spend time on the idea and the words will follow.”

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It’s a common perception that thinking comes before expressing the thinking in words.  Think clearly in order to write clearly.

Linguists, however, have long argued that the matter isn’t quite so simple.  Words actually shape ideas. Language creates the structures in which people think.   George Lakoff has written several books popularizing this idea.  Don’t Think of an Elephant applies some of this thinking to political discourse in the U.S.

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If someone says, “don’t think of an elephant,” you do.  In the same way, he claims, Democrats can’t use language associated with Republican ideals unless they want to reinforce the very thinking they’re trying to battle.   Just saying the phrase “tax relief,” for example, feeds into the idea that taxes are a burden rather than a participation in shared civic life.

In a recent edition of Edge, Lera Boroditsky (an assistant professor of psychology, neuroscience, and symbolic systems at Stanford University) reports on studies that show the profound effect of language on human thought.

Based on data collected from China, Greece, Chile, Indonesia, Russia, and Aboriginal Australia, researchers in  Boroditsky’s labs at Stanford and MIT “have learned that people who speak different languages do indeed think differently and that even flukes of grammar can profoundly affect how we see the world.”

A clear example is in the way that speakers of different languages think about spatial orientation.  Here’s a long quote:

Follow me to Pormpuraaw, a small Aboriginal community on the western edge of Cape York, in northern Australia. I came here because of the way the locals, the Kuuk Thaayorre, talk about space. Instead of words like “right,” “left,” “forward,” and “back,” which, as commonly used in English, define space relative to an observer, the Kuuk Thaayorre, like many other Aboriginal groups, use cardinal-direction terms – north, south, east, and west – to define space.  This is done at all scales, which means you have to say things like “There’s an ant on your southeast leg” or “Move the cup to the north northwest a little bit.” One obvious consequence of speaking such a language is that you have to stay oriented at all times, or else you cannot speak properly. The normal greeting in Kuuk Thaayorre is “Where are you going?” and the answer should be something like ” Southsoutheast, in the middle distance.” If you don’t know which way you’re facing, you can’t even get past “Hello.”

The result is a profound difference in navigational ability and spatial knowledge between speakers of languages that rely primarily on absolute reference frames (like Kuuk Thaayorre) and languages that rely on relative reference frames (like English).  Simply put, speakers of languages like Kuuk Thaayorre are much better than English speakers at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes or inside unfamiliar buildings. What enables them – in fact, forces them – to do this is their language. Having their attention trained in this way equips them to perform navigational feats once thought beyond human capabilities. Because space is such a fundamental domain of thought, differences in how people think about space don’t end there. People rely on their spatial knowledge to build other, more complex, more abstract representations. Representations of such things as time, number, musical pitch, kinship relations, morality, and emotions have been shown to depend on how we think about space.”

The article has other compelling examples and is worth a read.

This research (along with other work) underscores that language isn’t simply decorative or merely a matter of personal preference.   Calling God “Father” isn’t just a matter of  “that’s what I’m used to.”  It reflects an unrecognized belief system about gender and about the role of parents.

Sure, language can change over time and words can be reconceptualized, as when the LGBT community took back the word “queer” and made it mean something positive and transgressive.  But, as this research shows, language is never going to be neutral or irrelevant.  It will show cultural values, even when the individual speakers of the language can’t articulate those values.


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