March 22, 2014, by michaelgroves
Does language influence thought?
There is a TED video where a second generation Vietnamese immigrant suggests that his view of life is different to his parents because Vietnamese doesn’t have a subjunctive, and English does. This allows him the luxury of speculating and imagining, as well as adding layers of subtlety to his language, whereas his parents speak directly and to the point.
He’s not actually talking about the subjunctive- he’s talking about modality, but that is probably of interest only to grammar geeks.
However, it is a new take on an old question- that of linguistic determinism, sometimes known as the Sapir- Whorf hypothesis. Does the language that we speak shape our personality and culture, or is it the other way round?
There is some evidence that the words in our language for colours determines the colours we can actually perceive, and it has been found that this also extends to smells. However, what the speaker in the video is discussing is far more complex. In fact, the whole issue of language and identity is highly problematic.
For me, the speaker makes two basic errors. Firstly, he assumes that his family’s direct no-nonsense approach to life is because of the way they use language, not the other way round. He also ignores the wealth of other personal, social and cultural factors involved. Secondly, and much more importantly, he assumes that because Vietnamese does not express imagination and subtly in the same way as English, then it cannot do it at all. Just a brief reading of some Vietnamese poetry gives the lie to this assumption.
Modality, speculation and hypothesis work differently in different languages. To assume that one language group cannot think a certain way because of their grammatical structures is, I would say, a wholly false assumption.