Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Speaking of I, Me, We

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An article on Nautilus provides a fascinating birds-eye view of how we use language to express ourselves, and in turn, the role it plays in the way we use it to express ourselves. Confused?

The article starts by pointing out that the English language is highly egocentric, particularly when you compare it to language used by the Guugu Ymithirr tribe in Australia. English speakers tend to orient themselves in the world according to, well, themselves. We talk about moving forward or backward according to the direction we’re facing. English speakers describe the world from the perspective of the self. Guugu Ymithirr speakers take a different approach, using their internal compass and the cardinal directions of east, west, north and south.

Research has shown this ability also translates into other aspects of the speakers’ lives, having good spatial memory and navigational skills. Another tribe in Australia apply cardinal directions to their interpretation of time, with time moving from east to west as opposed to left to right (which is how English speakers typically express time).

Other interesting but slightly more abstract examples highlighted in the article are a language where colors are described as metaphors (e.g. ‘the man is white like a parrot’, rather than ‘the man is white’) and a language that makes you provide evidence, with speakers taking absolute care to describe things in the most truthful way possible at a particular point in time.

A reminder that our worldview is largely built on the language that we use. The words we speak create a framework in which others use to understand us, and ultimately how we understand ourselves. So choose your words wisely.

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