Ever wondered why so many different languages around the world have such common structures, even common words for some?
The words Pitru and Matru in Sanskrit are very similar to Pater and Mater, even though the two languages grew in isolation from each other. Latin and Sanskrit also have similar structures where it comes to the grammar of the two languages. Where does this common vein originate from?
The Black Sea is located on the cusp of Europe and Asia, draining into the Mediterranean Sea through the Bosporus strait, Aegean Sea, amongst others. It is a very significant water body in terms of anthropological and archaeological studies.
Evidence shows that some 8500 years ago, human civilization thrived on the banks of this sweet water lake, relying on it for sustenance and life to continue. This was also the time of the end of the last ice age, rising temperatures would increase the level of the Mediterranean Sea, leading to a deluge of salt water into the lake.
The civilizations that evolved so close to each other would flee this inhospitable part of the world in search of greener pastures, heading off into different parts of the world. This is the reason that several pioneers of linguistic studies give when they note the significant similarities between languages in Europe, parts of the Indian subcontinent and West Asia.
It could also be the reason so many cultures have stories and legends about The Great Flood!
Now that we have established that languages do in fact bring us closer together, showing that we are not as different as we may think, what of how language influences society, culture, and even the very way in which we think?
Benjamin Lee Whorf was an American linguist, born in the year 1897, most famously known for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which he put forward with his mentor Edward Sapir. He is said to have called it the principle of linguistic relativity, along the lines of Einstein’s famous theories of relativity, which just goes to show how crucial he found it.
The principle states that the structure of a language influences the ways its speakers view the world, even the cognitive processes of the brain.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Whether I speak Russian or Arabic or French or German can influence how I see the world, influence the way I think, and even so much as to influence my personality.
The great Emperor Charlemagne said “to have a second language is to have a second soul”
For instance, a certain Aboriginal community in Australia does not understand the concept of left and right, because they have mention of it in their language. They use cardinal directions like North, South-East, West, etc. A study of this community revealed that the members have an uncanny knack for navigation, even in the most unfamiliar of environments. It seems as though they are driven by an instinct, and barely rely on signs of navigation like the sun and stars, but are driven by years of their language reinforcing these qualities in them.
One can also view stereotypes about different communities around the world, and compare them with the languages they speak. Several books I have read talk of Arabs and Arabic culture placing great emphasis on protocol, etiquette, and a relaxed pace at conversing. They do not jump to the crux of the matter instantly, rather choose to make small talk first to get comfortable, and then address the issue at hand.
This is also evident in the Arabic language, which I would consider the most beautiful and poetic language of the world. It has been called by many the language of love, though some also refer to it as flowery. It can be called long winded, and takes a while to get to the point, but while it does it will enchant you with its beauty.
Could you think of stereotypes about the German people, and how it is reflected in the nature of the German language as well?
Comparing certain incidents also throws up some interesting factors. While in English somebody would say “John broke the vase”, in Spanish or Japanese the statement would most likely be “the vase broke itself”. A study carried out with speakers of English, Spanish and Japanese revealed that Spanish and Japanese speakers have less of a tendency to blame people for accidents, and possess a poorer eyewitness memory as compared to English speakers.
There is so much about Language that changes us. Russian speakers make more distinctions between light and dark shades of blue, and can hence better differentiate between various shades of blue. A tribe in the Amazon struggles with keeping track of exact quantities because they use words like ‘many’ or ‘few’ in favor of actual numbers.
“Language is a uniquely human gift. When we study language, we are uncovering in part what makes us human, getting a peek at the very nature of human nature. As we uncover how languages and their speakers differ from one another, we discover that human natures too can differ dramatically, depending on the languages we speak. The next steps are to understand the mechanisms through which languages help us construct the incredibly complex knowledge systems we have. Understanding how knowledge is built will allow us to create ideas that go beyond the currently thinkable.”
This extract underlines the necessity of studying linguistics and the various effects it has on human society. Hoping your interest is now piqued, here are a few books you can refer to-
- The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature – Steven Pinker
- Talking Hands: What Sign Language reveals about the Mind – Margalit Fox
- Language and Responsibility – Noam Chomsky (for a different approach to the ideas highlighted in this article)
- The Man who forgot how to read – Howard Engel