This is completely off-topic, but I wanted to share a link to a very interesting podcast I played during my commute today. Stanford professor Lera Boroditsky addressed The Long Now Foundation in October last year on the topic of “How Language Shapes Thought”.
It’s a great presentation and she is an excellent speaker. It reminded me of this long article from last summer in the New York Times: “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?”. The talk and the article overlap somewhat, but both are worth listening/reading.
The most memorable topic in both cases is that of geographic languages (but there are many other interesting perspectives). From the NYT article:
In order to speak a language like Guugu Yimithirr, you need to know where the cardinal directions are at each and every moment of your waking life. You need to have a compass in your mind that operates all the time, day and night, without lunch breaks or weekends off, since otherwise you would not be able to impart the most basic information or understand what people around you are saying. Indeed, speakers of geographic languages seem to have an almost-superhuman sense of orientation. Regardless of visibility conditions, regardless of whether they are in thick forest or on an open plain, whether outside or indoors or even in caves, whether stationary or moving, they have a spot-on sense of direction. They don’t look at the sun and pause for a moment of calculation before they say, “There’s an ant just north of your foot.” They simply feel where north, south, west and east are, just as people with perfect pitch feel what each note is without having to calculate intervals. There is a wealth of stories about what to us may seem like incredible feats of orientation but for speakers of geographic languages are just a matter of course. One report relates how a speaker of Tzeltal from southern Mexico was blindfolded and spun around more than 20 times in a darkened house. Still blindfolded and dizzy, he pointed without hesitation at the geographic directions.
But what about annoying the French you may ask. This comes from a small section at the end of Lera Boroditsky’s talk. It’s at 73:54, just before the Q&A starts. Once again, I encourage you to listen to the podcast (or better yet pay for membership and see the video). But here is a transcript of the relevant advice:
People tried to affect some linguistic change and it’s just silly. So, here, US Congress decides to rename “French fries” into “Freedom fries”. This is when France refused to go into the war in Iraq, didn’t want to join our “coalition of the willing” and so this was their way of getting back at them.
Well, that seems stupid, right?
But this is not new. So, during World War I, for example, everything that had a German-sounding name became Liberty-something-or-other. There is a reason that these kinds of substitutions don’t work and it’s because they’re based on wrong theory about how cognition and language relate to one another.
So, words that you can simply replace one for the other in a language are synonyms, right? So if two words can equally well go into any phrase, that means they have the same meaning, they are synonyms. And so when you make that kind of replacement what you’re saying is “French” is synonymous with “freedom”.
So, “French fries” are “freedom fries”, “French toast” is “freedom toast”, “French poodles” are “freedom poodles”, “French kissing” is “freedom kissing”, and then we have “freedom manicures”… But what should we call France then? Freedomland? And French would be “the language of freedom”? It’s setting up the wrong kind of mapping.
What I want to suggest is if we understand, really, how language and though interact, and mind, we can even be nationalistic in a more effective manner. So if we really want to annoy the French, I say take all the things that the French hate and call them French. That will really annoy them.
For example, ketchup becomes “French sauce”, McDonald’s will be “the French cafe”, shorts will be “French pants”, mimosas will be “French cocktails”, Disneyland will be “France”, Americans will be “French people”, the English language will be called “French”. That will get them.
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