What are languages and how exactly do they affect cerebral processes? Suriasumantri, a prominent Indonesian neural scientist, defines language as the channel capable of encompassing everything in the field of human understanding. It is the medium which allows communication and expression of symbols, objects and concepts into words. Essentially, language is one of the fundamental tools that forges and molds the reality that surrounds you. This notion in linguistics dates back to the 1930s, a period which fostered great linguists and scientists such as Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. Their hypothesis that languages shape thought and reality met enthusiasm throughout the 1950s, however, soon the euphoria would encounter disillusionment due to “near complete lack of evidence to support their claims” (Boroditsky, 2010). Ever since the rise of the Age of Information, the deepening of Globalization and the access to more advanced technology, the Sapir-Whorfian hypothesis is being reglorified with a staggering rise of new scientific evidence. Lera Boroditsky and her analysis of the conceptualization of space and time provides insight to this. Further, a cultural analysis on how different languages conceptualize humor reveal how reality is shaped by specific environments. Finally, the notion of “collective memory” and identity formation through language will shed light on the psychological impact of a specific language on its peoples.
Space and Time
Lera Boroditsky is an Associate Professor of Cognitive Science at UCSD and conducted her studies in Stanford and Northwestern Universities. In 2010, Boroditsky published a breakthrough study revealing how Mandarin speakers conceptualize time and space as opposed to English speakers. The two groups were given a series of temporal sequences shown in pictures which they were supposed to distribute across a plane. The Mandarin monolinguals showed that 30% of the time, they would distribute the pictures in vertical order across space. Instead, their English counterparts never did so. In a different set of experiments, Lera Boroditsky asked the two groups to arrange time by pointing to 3D space surrounding them. The speakers were tested in their native language and results demonstrated that Mandarin speakers organized time on a vertical axis in 3D space 43.6% of the time whereas the English organized time vertically only 2.5% of the time. In scientific terms, this behavior is called ‘vertical perception of time’ vs. ‘horizontal’. It appears that the studies prove that English speaking peoples perceive time and space ‘horizontally’ therefore, whereas Mandarin speakers perceive time and space ‘vertically.’ What could account for this different perception of space and reality? Regarding Boroditsky’s study, I can comment on her experiment from a structural linguistic point of view. I believe it is interesting to note that in Mandarin verbs do not conjugate. This means that verbs do not alter structural form in order to indicate a shift in time. Rather, speakers use spatial morphemes such as ‘qian’ (front) or ‘hou’ (back) to indicate whether the verb is describing an action in the future or in the past. Further, they also use vertical morphemes to indicate past or future months. The phrase ‘shang ge yue’ translates to ‘last month’ where the unique word ‘shang’ means ‘up’. It follows that a vertical shift in space ‘upwards’ corresponds in the mind of the Mandarin speaker to a ‘backward’ shift in time, hence the ‘last month.’ As one can see, even the structural linguistic analysis confirms both the Sapir-Whorfian hypothesis and Boroditsky’s cognitive experiments. As one can see, the language that the test subjects are experimented in shows that it influences the perception of reality around them. This segment shows the body of scientific evidence and quantitative data that were lacking prior to breakthrough experiments such as the one conducted by Lera Boroditsky. However, is that enough to satisfy the claim? Does language really shape our perception of the world? Humor and culture also help shed light on the ‘mentality’ and therefore ‘identity’ of a specific language.
Humor and Culture
A wise man once said, “you understand the identity and culture of a place only when you can grasp and internalize their sense of humor.” The theory of Humor developed as a proper research field in the mid-1970s, even though the first postulates can be dated as far back in history to the works of Plato and Aristotle. Victor Raskin in his Semantic Mechanisms of Humor (1985) theorized and subdivided it into three possible categories: incongruity, hostility and release. The first refers to laughing at a joke because the logic of it seems out of place, incoherent, or contradictory. Hostility humor, instead, points out to an aggressive aspect directed towards someone. Finally, release theories focus on the effects that humor has on the psyche, for example, relieving stress. For facilitation of the linguistic discourse, I will focus on the incongruity theory of humor and show how it is culture-specific to a certain language. Many have encountered bad translations of jokes in their lives. Sometimes, however, translations are not bad per se, but simply, the translation may not make sense to the listener if he is not aware of its cultural context. One hot summery day I encountered with a friend the following Modern Greek joke online, “Σου είπα σε πέντε λεπτά θα είμαι εκεί. Τι με παίρνεις κάθε μισή ώρα; ” This phrase translates to: “ I told you I would arrive there in 5 minutes, why are you calling me every half an hour?” My friend and I laughed for quite some time in front of the computer screen, but when I tried telling my Italian friend the story, she seemed confused. The joke is based on the “relaxed atmosphere” and easy going pace of Modern Greek life; therefore in absence of cultural context, one cannot fully understand a joke even if a translation is provided. My Italian friend finally understood the joke only after I had explained its cultural context, in fact. Another cultural example can be seen in Mandarin, where the following symbols mean “good” 好. The left side of the character ‘nu’ means female, whereas the right side of the character means ‘son.’ When these two symbols are written together they mean that something or someone is doing “good” because if a woman in the Chinese culture has a son, then it is a good thing. A Russian idiom can further explain this cultural aspect of linguistic expression. Sometimes, when Russians refer to the expression “going crazy, or losing one’s mind” they say, “крыша поехала.” The literal translation is “the roof has departed.” When using this expression in Russian speaking countries one immediately understands that the roof is a metaphor for the head in this case. As one can see, it is truly fascinating to see how languages can be the doors that open the perspective to new realities. To an extent languages, through humor, and the history that is behind their sayings carry with them a mystic transcendental collective memory. This means that, although the world is inhabited by individuals, these same individuals are bound by a certain linguistic ‘mirror effect’ where common sayings, common humor, and a common history help shape a common identity. It is this common identity that establishes a primordial sense of ‘belonging.’ And it is this sense of belonging that all humans yearn. To feel bound to a home.