Monday, 18 March 2013

Lena Boroditsky's Thoughts on Language and Thought

For anyone interested in how language affects thought, Lena Boroditsky's lecture  is really fascinating. She demonstrates how the specific grammatical structures in a language influences its speakers perceptions of   time, space, impressions of culpability etc. I've long felt that I am a different person in Russian than I am in English. And Boroditsky's lecture explains why that is, and why that sentiment reflects reality to a certain extent.  I highly highly recommend watching the vid!

There are some implications re: religion in this. I'd be curious about how much one's native language's constructs influence textual interpretation.  The research implies that native English speakers would inherently interpret the same Bible story/characters differently than lets say a native Yiddish speaker, or than a Hebrew speaker would, even if all three are reading the text in the original. i.e. The characters God, Moses, Pharoah, may be more/less sympathetic in English vs. Hebrew or Russian due to arbitrary linguistic constructs.  By extension, I wonder whether speakers of different languages perceive God in general differently by virtue of the means with which they can represent God that are available to them in their language. All this very much reminds me of Sherwin Wine's comment: "The mistake of the Reform Movement was translate the prayerbook into English. Mistake! Mistake! Mistake!" (Although he meant it in a different context). In any case, just my 2c for today.

 Thanks to Elyaqim for the link!


  1. Each language has its own flavor, and yes, stuff does get lost in translation.

    "Yiddish With George and Laura" is funny precisely because the Yiddish terms are so out of place. Watch the video here: (yes, there is plenty of political commentary too).

    I find that Hebrew is much more efficient with words than English. Words are more obviously related to each other, and the tone seems more direct. The Hebrew Bible uses puns all over the place, which just don't translate. Take Genesis, Chapter 2 for example: You need to use Hebrew terms to realize that "adam" is sometimes translated as "man" and sometimes as the name Adam, and to realize that it is connection to the word for earth (adamah). The English terms "G-d" and "Lord G-d" don't really convey the same sense as [4 letter proper name of G-d] and Elokim.

    I also find that a lot of traditional English translations use more formal language and words that nobody ever uses in everyday talk. At the Passover seder, we go around the table and have each person read a paragraph, and since my family is Canadian and my husband's is Israeli, we do it in a combination of English and Hebrew. My husband and his siblings, who were all born in Canada, stumble over the words and can't understand some of the English translations.

  2. I went through this video over the course of several days. Fascinating - thanks for posting. (And is she ever brilliant and articulate!) Just underscores what a huge topic this is and how much there is to be explored.

    Of course language isn't everything. The "personality" of a group clearly has a lot to do with the culture. For instance I've noticed when my kids switch into Hebrew they tend to express themselves more aggressively. But I'm not sure how much of that has to do with the Hebrew language per se. My sense is that it's more a function of the Israeli-Middle-Eastern gruff persona/mentality. Just like New Yorkers have a different personality from Californians, who are different from Torontonians, etc., despite the fact that everyone's speaking English.

    That said, I find it bizarre that languages should assign gender to "things". There's something childlike about that. Reminds me of being a kid and thinking to myself about which letters of the alphabet are "boys" and which are "girls".

  3. Great point re: the group's personality. Definitely an important consideration.

    > There's something childlike about that. Reminds me of being a kid and thinking to myself about which letters of the alphabet are "boys" and which are "girls".

    So cute AJ! I love that!! I'm working with a lot of 4 year olds right now, and many personify "things" around them. Recently I was helping a little girl say something, and she wasn't able to get it. She turned around, looked in the mirror, and said "Tongue! Why you not working, tongue?! What's wrong witch you tongue?!" My son talks about his brain in the same way. ("My brain is telling me I need . . . "). (I know those examples don't include gender, but basically similar in their anthropomorphic quality).


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