which came first?

how we think or how we speak?

from boingboing:

“In English, we use ‘I am’ statements to describe our current biological state, things that are happening to us, or events that we are experiencing. We say, ‘I am hungry.’ We say, ‘I am dying.’

“But that’s not how it works in Irish. Yesterday, during a panel called There’s Perception, and Then There’s Reality, Irish storyteller Clare Murphy talked briefly about how the language you speak alters the way that you perceive the world. The Irish equivalents of ‘I am hungry’ and ‘I am dying’, for example, would literally translate into English as, ‘Hunger is upon me’ and ‘Death is beside me.'”

“how the language you speak alters the way that you perceive the world.” ooooooooooooorrrr, maybe the way a people perceives the world (i.e. how their braiiiiiiinz work) affects the sort-of language they come up with?

i mean, after all, where does language come from? unless you adopt someone else’s language (like how almost everyone in central and south america now speaks a language they got from the spanish … who got their language from the romans), doesn’t language come from your brain? languages (to paraphrase jared taylor) don’t just drop down out of the sky … they come from different peoples. and maybe different languages are different because different peoples are different.

from newsweek:

“[W]hile English says ‘she broke the bowl’ even if it smashed accidentally (she dropped something on it, say), Spanish and Japanese describe the same event more like ‘the bowl broke itself.’ ‘When we show people video of the same event,’ says Boroditsky [language researcher @standford], ‘English speakers remember who was to blame even in an accident, but Spanish and Japanese speakers remember it less well than they do intentional actions. It raises questions about whether language affects even something as basic as how we construct our ideas of causality.'”

or maybe it raises the question: are the spanish and japanese more fatalistic than the english?

also from that newsweek article:

“Language even shapes what we see. People have a better memory for colors if different shades have distinct names—not English’s light blue and dark blue, for instance, but Russian’s goluboy and sinly. Skeptics of the language-shapes-thought claim have argued that that’s a trivial finding, showing only that people remember what they saw in both a visual form and a verbal one, but not proving that they actually see the hues differently. In an ingenious experiment, however, Boroditsky and colleagues showed volunteers three color swatches and asked them which of the bottom two was the same as the top one. Native Russian speakers were faster than English speakers when the colors had distinct names, suggesting that having a name for something allows you to perceive it more sharply.”

what i’d like to know is, were all the native russian speakers actually russian|slavic (as opposed to say some indigenous siberian groups or something)? ’cause perhaps slavs actually see blues differently|better than other peoples, and that is just reflected in their language. there is, after all, some evidence for physical differences in color perception in some humans. (not to mention color blindness.)

i’m sure language prolly affects how we think. it seems likely. but i also think it seems likely that how we think (differently) must affect our languages.

(note: comments do not require an email.)


  1. I bet the Japs were just being too super-polite and graceful to remember, or even consciouly lying/tilting in the direction that they don’t blame the person, but in reality they do. I’ve heard that there’s hardly any such thing a bad luck in China, you’re simply responsible for everything, and a bad act is remembered until the end of time – hence, in part, the extremely high trust and low rate of ignominious deeds in these NE Asian races (outside of war terrorism on outgroups, that is, where they seem to be no better than Euros). I think if you’re spotted ganking a bicycle in Japan, you’ll be considered might shady forever, even by your own friends who know all your Jean Valjean excuses for doing it. And they’ll know people probably aren’t lying about you, because such lying would itself be a shameful act.


  2. @rs – “extremely high trust and low rate of ignominious deeds in these NE Asian races”

    i associate high trust (and high trustworthiness) with the japanese and the koreans, but NOT the chinese! i think of them as very low trusting — and having low trustworthiness! eg. – all the tainted milk scandals. something like 43% of china’s dairies have had to be closed down!


  3. No doubt, you’re right. They are fairly shady at present. This is borne out on the corruption indicies constructed by polling international businessmen. The thing is, I think they may rise to a supra-European trustworthiness once they get wealthier. But maybe not quite Japanese/Korean.

    Consider, say, Germany 1919-33, it was a lot like Lebanon is in our era. Political militias, political mafias, endless assasinations. You had a commie revolution in Munich, but with much more of a ‘hippie’ or boho vibe than the bolshies had… and a self-organzied militia of not-so-republican-at-all WWI-vets (if I recall) volunteers to go in and put this nonsense down, the Freikorps… and heaven only knows if they’ll march on Berlin after that, but they didn’t. 2/3 of the country wanting to nix the entire constitution – only they don’t agree on what to substitute. Russian bolshies sending agitprop from the east. Talk about Wild West. It’s a good example of how wealth can chill people out, though wealth isn’t the only difference from now to then (one really feared/hoped for the spread of bolshie revolution in that day, it was new and hot).


  4. @rs – “It’s a good example of how wealth can chill people out….”

    yeah. that’s a really important issue to always keep in mind! even ethnic genetic interests can pretty much disappear so long as everyone is comfortable. one can put up with a lot of legal & illegal mexicans as long as every year you can buy a new i-pod|i-phone|i-pad. (~_^)

    this is basic biology rearing its somewhat ugly head again, tho. fighting amongst all sorts of animals typically quietens down whenever resources are abundant. but, watch out in bad times….


  5. There’s definitely a fair amount of shady dealing in China. It’ll be interesting to see if such is the case in a few decades or whether they’ll have become more “Japanese-like” with increased wealth and development. By the same token, does anyone have a good handle on the level of corruption in Japan, say, in the immediate post-WWII era or before?


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