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Does Language Shape the Way You Think?

In the New York Times, Guy Deutscher has a lengthy article about the speculations of some linguists that the language that we first learn strongly shapes and limits how we think. One interesting example that he cites is an Australian aboriginal language that has no personal spatial descriptors, such as the English phrases "to my right" or "behind me". Instead, it uses cardinal directions in everyday conversation:

But then a remote Australian aboriginal tongue, Guugu Yimithirr, from north Queensland, turned up, and with it came the astounding realization that not all languages conform to what we have always taken as simply “natural.” In fact, Guugu Yimithirr doesn’t make any use of egocentric coordinates at all. The anthropologist John Haviland and later the linguist Stephen Levinson have shown that Guugu Yimithirr does not use words like “left” or “right,” “in front of” or “behind,” to describe the position of objects. Whenever we would use the egocentric system, the Guugu Yimithirr rely on cardinal directions. If they want you to move over on the car seat to make room, they’ll say “move a bit to the east.” To tell you where exactly they left something in your house, they’ll say, “I left it on the southern edge of the western table.” Or they would warn you to “look out for that big ant just north of your foot.” Even when shown a film on television, they gave descriptions of it based on the orientation of the screen. If the television was facing north, and a man on the screen was approaching, they said that he was “coming northward.”

Link via Popehat | Photo by Flickr user psd used under Creative Commons license

This is just the latest episode in the investigation of how learned concepts and algorithms affect our thinking and how our mind interprets that which we learn.

The reason that it is important for children to learn a non-native language, math, categorical sciences, music and other such subjects is to not only teach them the subject, but to allow them to figure out that there are many ways to examine the world without and within.
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Having grown up with 3 languages (4 if you include a dead one) it is my belief that language(s) have an enormous effect on how we perceive things. Individual word definitions can be translated, but the subtle conotations of what the word "means" are lost during the translation. In this sense each language offers a variety of "texture and color" to individual words.
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I guess I can blame my German language upbringing for not understanding how observations of a limited isolated non-modern tribe of pygmies can be applied to current modern evolved global languages of today.
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As an American living in China for 12 years, I've been observing how the differences in the Chinese language affect the way the way people go about thinking here. In English, most things are cut and dried - when you say something, people generally understand what you mean.
In China, it seems that when people first meet and start talking, there is a lot of verbal "handshaking" (like what modems used to do) before simple communication can take place. Picture a waitress having to discuss an order with a customer for a while before even being able to understand the first item to be ordered.
Much of the language seems to be more descriptive and poetic than specific like English. I often think this affects the way some people here attack problems - and the idea of "common sense" doesn't hold up when peoples' backgrounds and ways of thinking are not "common"
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There are at least two other cultures like this. The speakers of Tzeltal live on the side of a mountain, so they use words that mean "up-the-slope", "down-the-slope", and "across-the-slope". They do, however (@jojo69), have words for their left vs right limbs.[1] Another is this island where the inhabitants refer to many places and directions with similar non-egocentric words. The island is called Manhattan, and the words are "uptown", "downtown", and "crosstown".[2]

[1] - The Stuff of Thought, Steven Pinker
[2] - ibid, paraphrasing Lila Gleitman
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Chinese language for example, their number systems as a language is quite mathematical compared to English. Fifty for example is "Five tens".

On the reverse of this spectrum, an aboriginal group (i forget which) did not use a clear numerical naming system. They only had equivilants for "one" "two" "some" "several" etc.

I would imagine it shapes a lot of how you think.
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A HUGE amount of native English speakers have NO IDEA how handicapped their thinking about group dynamics and diplomacy is from just the simple fact that the English language has no plural term for "You" and instead has the confusing use of "you" as both singular and plural.
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My sister and I grew up learning the same language, but why does her explanations become the equivelent of "Can you get my thing? It's sitting on the thing".
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I think it changes me emotionally. When I speak and think in Russian, I'm very happy, optimistic and humorous. When I speak English I always end up feeling depressed and blank minded
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ohhoho Even the English numbersystem is more descriptive than the Germanic numbersystem.

English say Fifty One (fif = 5 ty = ten) - meaning Fifty plus One.
Germans say Ein und Fünfzig meaning One and Fifty just like is done in English from 13 to nineteen.

Now try to remember telephonenumbers in both languages, like say

0117 - 4513259

Lots of people would somehow split up the number to remember it- like say 0117 45 132 59

In English you would just say like
zero one one seven forty five hundred thirty two fifty nine
However you say it- The numerical order will never change

Yet in German or like in this example in Dutch (same as in German) it coul0d become:

zero hundred seven teen five and forty hundred two and thirty nine and fifty.

That is why we see far more number-dyslectia in Germanic-lingual countries than in Anglish-lingual countries.
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