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Does our language influence the way we think?

"The usage of language permits us to transmit our ideas and knowledge across minds. For example, I can put a bizarre new idea in your mind right now: Imagine a jellyfish waltzing in a library while thinking about quantum mechanics.

You probably haven't had that thought before, but now I've just made you think it, through language. Of course, there isn't just one language in the world, there are about 7,000. And all the languages differ from one another in all kinds of ways. Different sounds, vocabularies, and structures. That begs the question: Does the language we speak shape the way we think?"

Thus begins the TED conference by Lera Boroditsky, scientist and professor in the language and cognition fields.

Over the centuries, philosophers, scientists and researchers have tried to give an answer to this question, formulating different theories, without ever reaching an agreement.

Among the most relevant examples of how language can influence our mind, we find Japan.

In this ever-developing nation, but equally tied to ancient traditions and superstitions, the number 4 is often missing in the numbering of hotel rooms, hospitals and elevators. Furthermore, we will never find packages for four people, whether they are dishes sets or food packet.

Why?

The number 4, in the Japanese language, it is pronounced as "Shi", which also means "death".

Because of this connection, 4 is considered the most unlucky number in Japanese culture. The number 9 suffers the same fate as well which, pronouncing it as "Ku", it means "pain".

In the first half of the twentieth century, two American linguists and anthropologists, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, noticed that different languages often described the same situation in grammatically different ways.

A simple example is the very common "Quanti anni hai?" from the Italian language. If we had to translate it into English, word by word, we will have a result like this: "How many years do you have?"

The actual translation is "how old are you?".

The two linguists also hypothesized that language has the power to influence our world view. This definition is called the "principle of linguistic relativity".

Indeed, Sapir and Whorf theorized that a language in which nouns are classified by gender requires people to conceive the world as divided into males and females and therefore as two different entities. It will therefore generate a culture in which gender division plays a substantial role in the attribution of social labels.

Other languages such as Fulfulde, in which there is only one third person pronoun that is valid for both the masculine and the feminine, should instead generate thought patterns, and therefore cultures, in which the difference between males and females is not perceived.

This theory, however, has caused various controversies over time, mainly due to the difficulty of demonstrating it.

Indeed, in the Fulfulde speaking communities there are obvious social models of male supremacy, and more generally, even in cultures that speak languages with the same grammatical structure.

Furthermore, each language offers alternative ways of describing the world, which makes unclear the links between grammatical structure and thought pattern.

In the end, if the connection between the forms of language and the forms of thought were so rigid, it would be impossible to translate a text while preserving its meaning and probably even learning another language.

For these reasons, we have not yet a definitive conclusion regarding the connection between language and mind.

What do you think? Does our language influence the way we think?

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