I am still thinking- does language affect the way I think? The New York Times super article

In the last post I said I’d post the popular article featured in last month’s New York Times, titled: Does language affect the way you think? I have pasted some of the article below, please go and read the rest…..it is a good read.


by Guy Deutscher

Seventy years ago, in 1940, a popular science magazine published a short article that set in motion one of the trendiest intellectual fads of the 20th century.

At first glance, there seemed little about the article to augur its subsequent celebrity. Neither the title, “Science and Linguistics,” nor the magazine, M.I.T.’s Technology Review, was most people’s idea of glamour. And the author, a chemical engineer who worked for an insurance company and moonlighted as an anthropology lecturer at Yale University, was an unlikely candidate for international superstardom. And yet Benjamin Lee Whorf let loose an alluring idea about language’s power over the mind, and his stirring prose seduced a whole generation into believing that our mother tongue restricts what we are able to think.

Horacio Salinas for The New York Times

 In particular, Whorf announced, Native American languages impose on their speakers a picture of reality that is totally different from ours, so their speakers would simply not be able to understand some of our most basic concepts, like the flow of time or the distinction between objects (like “stone”) and actions (like “fall”). For decades, Whorf’s theory dazzled both academics and the general public alike. In his shadow, others made a whole range of imaginative claims about the supposed power of language, from the assertion that Native American languages instill in their speakers an intuitive understanding of Einstein’s concept of time as a fourth dimension to the theory that the nature of the Jewish religion was determined by the tense system of ancient Hebrew.

Eventually, Whorf’s theory crash-landed on hard facts and solid common sense, when it transpired that there had never actually been any evidence to support his fantastic claims. The reaction was so severe that for decades, any attempts to explore the influence of the mother tongue on our thoughts were relegated to the loony fringes of disrepute. But 70 years on, it is surely time to put the trauma of Whorf behind us. And in the last few years, new research has revealed that when we learn our mother tongue, we do after all acquire certain habits of thought that shape our experience in significant and often surprising ways.

Whorf, we now know, made many mistakes. The most serious one was to assume that our mother tongue constrains our minds and prevents us from being able to think certain thoughts. The general structure of his arguments was to claim that if a language has no word for a certain concept, then its speakers would not be able to understand this concept. If a language has no future tense, for instance, its speakers would simply not be able to grasp our notion of future time. It seems barely comprehensible that this line of argument could ever have achieved such success, given that so much contrary evidence confronts you wherever you look. When you ask, in perfectly normal English, and in the present tense, “Are you coming tomorrow?” do you feel your grip on the notion of futurity slipping away? Do English speakers who have never heard the German word Schadenfreude find it difficult to understand the concept of relishing someone else’s misfortune? Or think about it this way: If the inventory of ready-made words in your language determined which concepts you were able to understand, how would you ever learn anything new?

SINCE THERE IS NO EVIDENCE that any language forbids its speakers to think anything, we must look in an entirely different direction to discover how our mother tongue really does shape our experience of the world. Some 50 years ago, the renowned linguist Roman Jakobson pointed out a crucial fact about differences between languages in a pithy maxim: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” This maxim offers us the key to unlocking the real force of the mother tongue: if different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.

Consider this example. Suppose I say to you in English that “I spent yesterday evening with a neighbor.” You may well wonder whether my companion was male or female, but I have the right to tell you politely that it’s none of your business. But if we were speaking French or German, I wouldn’t have the privilege to equivocate in this way, because I would be obliged by the grammar of language to choose between voisin or voisine; Nachbar or Nachbarin. These languages compel me to inform you about the sex of my companion whether or not I feel it is remotely your concern. This does not mean, of course, that English speakers are unable to understand the differences between evenings spent with male or female neighbors, but it does mean that they do not have to consider the sexes of neighbors, friends, teachers and a host of other persons each time they come up in a conversation, whereas speakers of some languages are obliged to do so.

On the other hand, English does oblige you to specify certain types of information that can be left to the context in other languages. If I want to tell you in English about a dinner with my neighbor, I may not have to mention the neighbor’s sex, but I do have to tell you something about the timing of the event: I have to decide whether we dined, have been dining, are dining, will be dining and so on. Chinese, on the other hand, does not oblige its speakers to specify the exact time of the action in this way, because the same verb form can be used for past, present or future actions. Again, this does not mean that the Chinese are unable to understand the concept of time. But it does mean they are not obliged to think about timing whenever they describe an action.

When your language routinely obliges you to specify certain types of information, it forces you to be attentive to certain details in the world and to certain aspects of experience that speakers of other languages may not be required to think about all the time. And since such habits of speech are cultivated from the earliest age, it is only natural that they can settle into habits of mind that go beyond language itself, affecting your experiences, perceptions, associations, feelings, memories and orientation in the world.

BUT IS THERE any evidence for this happening in practice?

Let’s take genders again. Languages like Spanish, French, German and Russian not only oblige you to think about the sex of friends and neighbors, but they also assign a male or female gender to a whole range of inanimate objects quite at whim. What, for instance, is particularly feminine about a Frenchman’s beard (la barbe)? Why is Russian water a she, and why does she become a he once you have dipped a tea bag into her? Mark Twain famously lamented such erratic genders as female turnips and neuter maidens in his rant “The Awful German Language.”……….. READ THE REST HERE


See? How interesting was that? He could have also added Arabic as a language that assigns the masculine, feminine, and sometimes neutral gender! Maybe one day we’ll get to the bottom of this.  The writer has written a book, ‘Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages’  to be published by Metropolitan Books. I thinnk it’s a must read for anyone intersted in the topic, I have just ordered my copy so maybe I’ll put up a review! 


Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/29/magazine/29language-t.html?pagewanted=all

Arabic dying? Not in Egypt

As I was reading I came across this blog posting which sort of affirmed what I said in the last post and what I keep saying- that Arabic native speakers will lose their language if they do not make efforts to learn the language. Once again just to re-affirm Arabic as a language will NOT die not now not EVER, but the people will lose out, especially the native speakers. My claim is always this: Arabic will remain among Muslims as a language of religion but the cultural aspects will be lost, because without native speakers there is no sense to the proverbs or the historic aspects of why words are the way they are. What’s wrong with this? Nothing much but there will be an absence of culture and without culture a people or their way of being will be erased. It’s something that we can discuss forever, language and culture and does it really matter anyway! I have pasted the posting below, and at the bottom I make some comments.

 ——————————————————– copied without editing

 Is Arabic a dying language?

From where I sit, in Cairo, the question seems a bit laughable. Dying? True, English is a “higher status” language here. Often, when I read a menu, I will find something like this: الآيس كريم That particular word (ice cream) has legitimately made its way into the Arabic language, but you can also find the transliteration of cheese instead ofجبنة and so on. Still, Egypt is a country where life and literature are conducted (by and large) in Arabic. Of course, if I squint at the question sideways, I can say: Sure, sure. After all, I’m dying. You’re dying. We’re all dying! But scholars in the Emirates mean this in a much more urgent way—and perhaps this is part of the reason why so much Emirati money is being laid down for culture: book prizes, poetry channels, literary fairs.

 In the Emirates, Tom Hundley writes, Arabic is “no better than the third most-spoken language” after English and Hindi. And since Arabs are a minority in the laborer-laden Emirates, that’s hardly a surprise.

 But apparently even Emiratis aren’t interested in their language. Hundley reports that last fall, only five new students enrolled in UAE University’s Arabic language and literature program. And most university students, he says, take their instruction in English.

Hundley says the Emiratis are aware and concerned: A new national plan, unveiled earlier this month and aimed at 2021, the United Arab Emirates’ 50th anniversary, highlights the concern: “Arabic will re-emerge as a dynamic and vibrant language, expressed everywhere in speech and writing as a living symbol of the national Arab-Islamic values,” the plan said. But it offered few specifics on how this would occur. Hundley said that some have called for laws enforcing the use of Arabic.

 But he quoted Professor Kamal Abdel-Malek, a professor of Arabic literature at the American University in Dubai (AUD) as disagreeing with this sentiment: “We shouldn’t end up with language police,” he said. “Laws cannot maintain the vitality of a language. I don’t think you force people to preserve a language.”

Agreed. (Although I might like to read a novel where this was happening.) How, then, are we to preserve languages? Perhaps, as the Emiratis are doing, with more money for culture? After all, the death of a language is no small thing: a number of social scientists liken the deaths of languages to the deaths of species. Could we end up in a world with only a few languages, and thus fewer ideas, fewer ways of structuring existence?


I like the way the post ends with powerful questions, we might not have the answers but at least we can begin thinking. I am not sure if money is the answer, it does help, but can it save a language? I think not. It is all to do with how people see their language, what are the benefits of me learning and deeply understanding this language? If the speaker sees no real benefit they will not ‘waste’ their time learning language. Maybe it’s only us linguists and those who love languages, who learn language for the sake of loving words and how they are similar or different from each other (like trying to see the similarity between Spanish and Italian)?! He is right that the death of a language is a serious issue, though I don’t think Arabic will ever make it to that list. He touches on an issue that has gained much attention recently – that of the connection between language and ideas or the perception of reality. I have written on it before, the linguistic relativity theory, so based on the claims of this theory we could say: if Arabic becomes weaker among its native speakers then the ideas encapsulated in Arabic language will also be weakened and not understood so well? Interesting, like I always say I have not made my mind up yet as I am reading on the subject – does language affect the way we think? And if so to what extent? I read a New York Times article on this issue so I will put it up on the next posting. Thanks for reading!


Source: http://arablit.wordpress.com/2010/02/24/is-arabic-a-dying-language/

Linguistic Relativity: The Arabic take on the controversial issue? Part II

Here is part two as promised- In the last post we discussed the author’s ideas on the relationship between language and thought, and we also discussed what linguists think about this issue (Sapir-Whorf hypothesis). In this second and final post in reference to Badr’s excerpt, I take a close look at how he views the relationship between Arabic language and the Qur’an; and how he sees that relating to a speaker’s thoughts. Below is an excerpt (in bold)

Let us take a closer look at this idea of the importance of language. If it were wholly or even partly true, it would be most appropriate for us to consider the characteristics of the Arabic language, its impact on the Arabs and the reasons for the divine choice of this language as the means to reveal the Qur’an and convey the message of Islam to the whole of humanity. God says in the Qur’an: “We have, without doubt, sent down the Message; and we will assuredly guard it” (15:9). This means that He guards Revelation and, consequently, also the Arabic language.

After the author maintains that language is connected to thought, he then applies that theory to the Qur’an and Arabic language (the language of the Qur’an). He believes that the choice of Arabic as a liturgical language is divine and has qualities that are unique only to it, therefore making it the most suitable language in which God chose to send His message to human beings.  Badr here quotes Chapter (Surah) 15 verse (ayah) 9, in which God (Allah) promises to “guard” the Qur’an and therefore its language- Arabic. I discussed this briefly (in the post Preservation of Arabic revisited- part 2 will be up soon- in that post I discuss the role of the hadith tradition and Qur’anic sciences in the preservation of Arabic) as one of the reasons/ motivations for the perfect preservation of Arabic. I said that maybe this verse made the scholars of Islam and the Arabic language more mindful in how they planned the future generations to understand the revelation of Allah and its language.

In this connection, the Egyptian scholar, `Abbas Mahmud al-`Aqqad, discusses some aspects of the Arabic language: its vocabulary, phonetic and phonemic aspects: “ The human speech system is a superb musical instrument which no ancient or modern nation has used as perfectly as the Arab nation, as they have used the entire phonetic range in the distribution of its alphabet. Therefore, it is these qualities of the Arabic language that made Arabic poetry a perfect art, independent of other arts” [`Abbas Muhammad al-`Aqqad, al-Lughah Al-Sha`irah (Cairo: Maktabat Gharib, n.d.)] According to al-`Aqqad, these qualities are not found in any other language, for “Arabic eloquence has taken the human speech organs to the highest point ever reached by man in expressing himself by letters and words.” [Ibid, p. 70.]

A high praise indeed for Arabic language, and phonetically he might be right. The Arabic language has many of the sounds that the human speech apparatus can produce. The IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) is a table which captures all the possible sounds made in human speech/language. We use it to transcribe (write down) speech and we can also show tone, pitch and intensity used whilst producing the sounds. Most linguistics students learn this skill and it is especially handy when it comes to research projects or documentation of languages and grammars.  If you look closely at the table, you can see that all the sections across are the places of emanation (what we call in Arabic/ Qur’anic sciences ‘Makahrij al Huroof’ – the points where letters emanate) like bilabial [both lips meeting to pronounce a letter] where p and b are made (say p – try it!). And the sections going down are the ways in which the sounds are produced (what we call in Arabic or Qur’anic Sciences ‘Sifaat al Huroof’- the characteristics of letters). Taking the same place of emanation as above, bilabial, we can see that the sound can have a nasal characteristic which is manifested in the letter m, or it can be fricative; which is not in English but some languages put so much air in the b sound that the lips do not completely seal and there is small vibration. The IPA   also captures clicks, rolls, taps and other strange phenomena of the human speech apparatus! Anyway I am sure you can read better and clearer notes than the ones I am putting up here (see sources). Here is the top part of the IPA the rest of it is quite complex as it deals with vowels and tones:

 Phonetically Arabic is the only language in the world that contains the sound of the letter ض /dhaad/ is according to the IPA:  [dˁ] emphatic voiced alveolar plosive, and is often referred to as Lughat ad-dhaad, the language of Daad.  So we see why the quoted author says that the Arabic language has used the “the entire phonetic range in the distribution of its alphabet”, meaning it has covered all the major areas of pronunciation.

It is most astonishing to see this robust language (Arabic) growing and reaching a stage of perfection in the midst of the desert, and in a nation of nomads. The language has superseded other languages by its wealth of vocabulary, precise meanings and perfect structure. This language was unknown to other nations. But when it came to be known, it appeared to us in such perfection that it hardly underwent any change ever since. Of the stages of life, that language had neither childhood nor old age. We hardly know anything about that language beyond its unmatched conquests and victories. We cannot find any similar language that appeared to scholars so complete, and without gradation, keeping a structure so pure and flawless. The spread of the Arabic language covered the largest areas and remotest countries. [Anwar al Jundi, Al-Fusha:Lughat a/-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar Al-Kitab Al-Lubnani, 1982), p.27]

Badr here sees Arabic as the most perfect of all languages, having a vocabulary and eloquence that is unmatched by any other language. He once again mentions the idea that Arabic language has not undergone any changes for over fourteen hundred years. He continues further to say that because of this the language maintains and retains the same values and views from its inception until today. In the same way that the Qur’an has retained its form, content and message; the Arabic language has maintained its structure, words and world view!  Powerful statements to make and I think it is high time that such statements were taken seriously and objective research was conducted. Does the mind of a Qur’an reader view the world differently from the mind of an avid Agatha Christie reader?  If the Qur’an contains a certain view of good and evil does that shape the mind of the Arabic reader/speaker to see good and evil in that way and only in that way? Or can they view good and evil in different ways based on the language the concept is represented in?  Badr supports the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in the sense that a language shapes the thought of its speaker, and Arabic is a “vehicle of contemplation”; because Qura’nic Arabic speakers think in the Qur’anic world view. This sets three challenges: for someone to read the Qur’an over and to pull out all the possible world views and to then study all the linguistic aspects of Arabic and finally to show how the two non- arbitrarily relate to one another.  Overall I think that Badr has raised many important points and the onus is now with Arab linguists to substantiate or dispute the statements presented here. Cognitive linguistics is a fast moving field with ever-improving research methods and I am sure sooner rather than later this issue will have to be addressed- objectively and scientifically.



 IPA in general: http://www.google.co.uk/#hl=en&source=hp&q=international+phonetic+alphabet&aq=f&aqi=g10&aql=&oq=&gs_rfai=&fp=4a9850f25e5993a0