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Does the language we speak influence the way we see the world?

Approximately 7000 different languages are spoken around the globe today. This figure is approximate, as it seems there are still some left to discover. Linguists Niclas Burenhult and Joanne Yager from Lund University recently encountered a formerly unknown language in the Malay Peninsula, Southeast Asia. The finding occurred as a part of the Tongues of the Semang project, which aims to study the endangered indigenous languages and traditions of the region. This newly documented language, named Jedek, is spoken by a small hunter-gatherer community of 280 people in the resettlement area of Sungai Rual, in the Malaysian state of Kelantan. What is especially interesting is that Jedek possesses certain unique qualities which appear to be reflected in the way its speakers lead their lives.

According to the Lund University linguists, the community where Jedek is spoken seems to be far ahead of Western societies in terms of social equality, with no strict gender divisions or professions. Rather, everyone has the same skills needed by hunter-gatherers. In addition, there is barely any interpersonal violence, children are encouraged not to compete against one another, and there are no laws or courts. Jedek doesn’t have vocabulary to describe these things either – there are no words for laws or for different occupations, nor are there verbs for ownership, such as borrow, steal, buy or sell. Instead, they have a broad range of vocabulary to describe the acts of sharing and exchanging.

This takes us to the broader discussion about the relationship between the languages we speak and the way we experience the world around us. Does the discovery of Jedek prove that if a language doesn’t have words to describe something, its speakers won’t be able to think about that thing either? If there is no vocabulary for ownership, does that automatically mean a more equal society?

In the past, the idea that one’s mother tongue could significantly constrain and contribute to one’s thought processes has been rather controversial and debated within the linguistic community. While we still don’t have definite answers to questions such as the ones presented above, new research has helped us gain more knowledge about how far language and our perception of the world are connected.

“Language is a uniquely human gift, central to our experience of being human. Appreciating its role in constructing our mental lives brings us one step closer to understanding the very nature of humanity,” writes Lera Boroditsky, an Associate Professor of Cognitive Science at UCSD, who has spent her career researching how language affects the ways in which humans think and behave. Her research suggests that there is, indeed, a connection between our mother tongue and the way that we think.

One of Boroditsky’s studies involved an Aboriginal community, the Pormpuraaw, in northern Australia. Instead of using words such as “right,” “left,” “forward,” and “back,” this group uses cardinal directions (north, south, east, west) when talking about space. This means saying things like “Move the cup to the north northwest a little bit.” Consequently, the speakers of this language must learn to pay close attention to the clues in their physical environment from a young age and to always stay oriented – something that the majority of people don’t have to think about in their daily lives.

Language families around the globe

Evidently, there are some major differences between languages – we have tongues with no future tense and with no words for numbers; languages that are gendered or genderless. Coming from the perspective of having Finnish as my native language – which doesn’t have any grammatical gender or definite and indefinite articles – learning German in school was always a bit of a struggle. I have never managed to truly accept inanimate objects as masculine or feminine, likely because it is so far from the way my mother tongue is constructed. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t able to learn the words or understand the idea of having a gendered language, but rather that if I had wanted to fully grasp German, I would have also had to embrace an alternative way of seeing the world.

Similarly, the fact that the speakers of Pormpuraawan languages are using cardinal directions instead of egocentric coordinates doesn’t mean that they can’t understand what it means when something is placed behind them. Neither does the lack of words for professions in the Jedek language mean that they would not be able to understand the concept of an occupation. Rather, depending on the language(s) we speak, we are forced to pay attention to different details of our lives compared to the speakers of other languages. This, on the other hand, can be (and usually is) reflected in the way we experience the world and lead our lives.

“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,” summarises a linguist Guy Deutscher.

Some researchers also argue that knowing more than one language can in fact give you multiple perspectives on the same issue. They have suggested that bilingual people might be more flexible in their thinking, as they can switch between perspectives depending on the language that is most active in their minds at a specific moment.

Clearly, studying the effects of language on the human cognition can be incredibly complex and we have only scratched the surface here. Our speech and thinking habits are instilled in us from the moment we are born, and they could have many more consequences than what we have been able to study so far. The discovery of Jedek could perhaps take these discussions about language and our lived experiences even further. But no matter how the debate will turn out, Jedek gives us something even more important – a new insight into humanity. As Niclas Burenhult stated:

“There are so many ways to be human, but all too often our own modern and mainly urban societies are used as the yardstick for what is universally human. We have so much to learn, not least about ourselves, from the largely undocumented and endangered linguistic and cultural riches that are out there.”

Aino Haavisto

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