Yes. The answer to the question is yes.
The true question is how and to what degree.
Is it the case, as proponents of linguistic determinism argue, that speakers of a certain language are, because they speak that language, incapable of expressing certain ideas and concepts?
Or is the truth closer to that proposed by the supporters of linguistic relativism, i.e. that one’s language has no impact on one’s ideas?
Drawing examples from languages native to many parts of the world, I shall attempt to demonstrate that the reality of the situation lies somewhere in the middle of the two extremes outlined above.
My argument is thus: Language most certainly affects thought, but only to the extent that it determines the grammatical information that is automatically encoded into a sentence.
This only applies to natural languages. Constructed languages are an entirely different matter.
Newspeak from George Orwell’s 1984, for example, is designed in order to make it impossible for the speaker to not only express politically incorrect thoughts, but even to think them in the first place.
Unlike my typical content, this will be less technical, i.e. we won’t dissect the meaning of every word.
(The linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, whose Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis argues for a very extreme form of linguistic determinism.)
In this section, we will explore the various ways wherein grammatical gender can encode information.
For example, here is a German sentence and its English translation:
Ich habe den Tisch gebrochen, die Tuer geoeffnet und das Fenster geschlossen.
I have broken the table, opened the door and closed the window.
Now, let us focus on the gender of the three nouns above.
den Tisch (the table) is Masculine, die Tuer (the door) is Feminine, and das Fenster (the window) is Neuter.
(They are all in the Accusative case which, with the exception of der Tisch, is the same as the Nominative case. I mention this because we will discuss the topic of case later.)
The first sentence, as we see, translates into English word for word, though the order is somewhat changed.
In our second sentence, we will replace the nouns with ihn, sie and es, which mean him, her and it respectively.
Seitdem haben wir ihn repariert, sie gereinigt und es gemalt.
Since then we have fixed him, cleaned her and painted it.
As you can see, the English sentence is grammatically incorrect, since none of these objects have genders.
What if we changed the first two pronouns to it.
Since then we have fixed it, cleaned it and painted it.
This also doesn’t work, since it sounds as though we’re performing all the actions on the same thing.
Another use of gender in German is through the relative pronouns, which can be useful when talking about someone with a gender-neutral name.
Hier steht Kim, den ich liebe. / Hier steht Kim, die ich liebe.
Here stands Kim, whom I love.
In the first sentence, Kim is a man. In the second, she is a woman. In the English sentence, you can avoid explicitly stating whether Kim is a man or a woman, whereas in German, it is unavoidable.
Furthermore, although the English and German sentences are word for word translations of one another, the German ones contain more information than the English one.
(A jewel of a lake nestled within the Bavarian Alps.)
On the other hand, the Turkish language has one word, o, which means he, she and it.
o beni seviyor
She loves me. / He loves me
beni means me, and seviyor is the 3rd Person Singular conjugation of the verb sevmek, which means to love.
The same is true of the words for the Accusative declension onu, which means him, her and it:
ben onu seviyorum
I love her. / I love him. / I love it.
ben is the 1st Person Singular Pronoun I, while seviyorum is the 1st Person Singular conjugation of sevmek.
In contrast to English, Turkish is a pro-drop language. Thus, the word ben can be omitted with the sentence remaining coherent.
In addition to this, Turkish also has, I have heard, a relatively large proportion of gender-neutral names. Thus, it is possible to describe someone in a lot of detail without making explicit whether they are a man or a woman.
Indeed, depending on context, you could tell a great saga about a person’s great deeds in such a way that the listener is unsure as to the biological sex of the person in the story.
Recently, a friend gave me a primer on the Lushootseed language spoken in the US Pacific Northwest, which has this to say: „if the speaker does not choose to name specifically the person spoken about, there really is no need to use any words such as he or she.“ (Italics in original).
You may not agree with this statement, but I hope it provides food for thought.
(The Ayasofya Cami, Hagia Sophia Mosque, in Istanbul, Turkey, whose languages we will likely discuss at some point in the future.)
Consider this English sentence for a moment:
He did not go
Based entirely on this information, answer this question: At what point in the past did this event take place?
Based on no further context, it is not possible to answer this question in any conclusive manner.
The same is not true for the Diyari language of South Australia, where five translations of the English sentence are possible. Below each sentence, I have included a secondary translation to provide more detail:
I: nhawu wata waparna warayi
i: He did not go (today)
II: nhawu wata waparna wirriyi
ii: He did not go (yesterday)
III: nhawu wata waparna parraya
iii: He did not go a week ago
IV: nhawu wata waparna wapaya
iv: He did not go a few months ago
V: nhawu wata waparna wanthiyi
v: He did not go a very long time ago
For clarification, the underlined words are not temporal locators, e.g. words such as long ago or yesterday.
Instead, they are auxiliary verbs, i.e. the equivalent to the word did in the English Sentence, or the word have/has that is also used in the English Past Tense.
Naturally, none of the above underlined words translate to either did or have/has, especially as the latter certainly does not exist in Diyari.
(South Australia, the region where the Diyari language is located, has a thriving wine industry.)
The principle difference amongst the above sentences is their distance in the past, as implied by the secondary English translations.
The Tenses are:
I: The Immediate Past, pertaining to events that occurred within the time elapsed since the most recent sunrise;
II: The Yesterday Past, for actions undergone in the week leading up to the days‘ sunset;
III: The Recent Past, for goings-on that took place one or two weeks prior;
IV: The Intermediate Past, which took place „a good while ago“;
V: The Distant Past, for all events that took place further back than that.
However, if you do not wish to specify the rough time period that has elapsed since the event took place, it is possible to use the Simple Past:
nhawu wata wapaya
At this point, you may be wondering whether the Diyari have, through their language, a greater understanding of the past.
There is no doubt an academic study into the matter would reveal interesting results.
Sadly, the Diyari language became extinct in the late 20th century. With the last beat of heart, a unique worldview was lost, and many mysteries shall remain forever unravelled.
Do not be desponded, however, because there are many other languages out there that divide the past into several areas, e.g. the Kala Lagaw Ya language of the Torres Strait Islands that pepper the waters between the tip of the Queensland Peninsula and Papua New Guinea, and the Yemba Language of Cameroon, which also divided the future into different grammatical sections.
(A piece of work by Aboriginal artist Andrew Highfield Tjupurrula, who was born in South Australia, the region where Diyari comes from.)
3. Person & Number
In Section 1, we touched upon the notion of languages that possess no distinction between the pronouns he and she.
In this section, we shall discuss the Unua language of Malekula, Vanuatu, a Pacific Island Nation, another language that lacks the she/he distinction, expressing both via the 3rd Person Singular pronoun xini.
However, there are three English pronouns, we, you and they, for which there are four, three and two Unua equivalents respectively. For the purposes of brevity we will focus on the versions of we.
Below are two English sentences, followed by their four mutual possible translations. Again, I have included secondary translations to provide further clarification.
We looked for him on the shore, but he was not there. / We looked for her on the shore, but she was not there.
I: rrarru rrukroxni xini aut go xini ujxe
i: You and I looked for her on the shore, but she was not there.
II: memru morkroxni xini aut go xini ujxe
ii: The two of us looked for him on the shore, but he was not there.
III: rrate rrakroxni xini aut go xini ujxe
iii: With your help, we looked for her on the shore, but she was not there.
IV: memde mamkroxni xini go xini ujxe
iv: Without your help, we looked for him on the shore, but he was not there.
Here, we can see the two separate dichotomies along which the English 1st Person Plural is further differentiated in Unua.
(Malekula Island, Vanuatu. Don’t get lost in the jungle. Those coconuts are known to get quite vicious when they sense the presence of trespassers on their territory.)
Our first distinction is between the Dual and the Plural. Our second is between the Inclusive and the Exclusive.
In sentences I and II, the Dual Pronouns rrarru and memru refer to specifically to two people.
In sentences III and IV, the Plural Pronouns rrate and memde more closely resemble the English we, as they refer to three or more people.
Rrarru and memru, are the Inclusive pronouns. Rrate and memde, meanwhile, are the Exclusive pronouns.
As you can imply from the secondary translations, the difference here is that the former include the listener, whereas the latter do not.
From my own, albeit admittedly limited research, it seems that both the Dual/Plural Inclusive/Exclusive difference are more common than the he/she 3rd Person Plural distinction.
This is not a conclusive remark, and there are languages, like the aforementioned Diyari, which include all three of the dichotomies explored thus far.
(Malekula Island, Vanuatu, the home of not only Unua, but potentially up to 39 additional languages. Of these 40 tongues, only 20 have been studied in any great detail, leaving plenty left to uncover.)
For our last segment, we will discuss an area where English is more detailed than the comparison language, in this case German.
In Linguistics, Aspect imparts certain information concerning the nature of the action.
Our example here is between the Progressive Aspect, which indicates an event that is yet to reach completion, and the Habitual Aspect, which shows an action that occurs with a specified or unspecified frequency.
In German, this distinction does not exist, wheres in English, it can be expressed implicitly. For example:
Ich gehe zum Strand.
I am going to the beach. (Right now or later.)
I go to the beach. (For example to answer the question: What is the first thing you do every holiday?)
Although the latter English sentence is a word-for-word translation of the German one (zum is the combination of zu and dem), both English sentences are, assuming a lack of context, equally valid translations.
In order to alter the German sentence to more closely reflect that of the first English sentence, we can add the word gerade, which translates approximately as now. To wit:
Ich gehe gerade zum Strand
I go now to the beach. / I am going to the beach.
Though as we can see here, it is not a perfect replacement, especially as gerade possesses a number of other meanings in English, an exploration whereof lies beyond the scope of this blog post.
As ever, I hope that I have provided you with an interesting insight into the many different ways that one can express ideas linguistically. It, of course, goes without saying that this is merely a scratch upon the surface of the tip of the iceberg, as are all my blog posts. I have no doubt that you could point out to me countless other, fascinating examples.
To all those who have made New Years‘ Resolutions, I wish you every success that I can, and to those who did not, may every success befall you and your loved ones also.
In the next article, which will be the first composed entirely in 2019, I shall do something bold. A three-way language comparison between Mandarin Chinese, Irish Gaelic and Panamint Shoshone, the latter two I have discussed in previous articles.
The reason why I have chosen these three languages in particular is that they all share one particular feature: the Question Particle.
Only time will reveal whether this was too ambitious an undertaking.
Thom Hess and Vi Hilbert, Lushootseed: The languages of the Skagit, Nisqually and other tribes of Puget Sound (Lushootseed Press 1995 (Reprint))
Peter K. Austin, A Grammar of Diyari, South Australia (Cambridge University Press: 1981)
Elizabeth Pearce, A Grammar of Unua, 2015