When you go beyond zebra and start poking around.
from On Beyond Zebra
written and illustrated by Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel)
Random House, 1955
My older daughter is a special education teacher whose class is made of non-verbal students. They communicate in various ways. Some have adaptive devices on which they can point to or press a picture of their needs and wants. In Circle Time, they use basic weather pictures to tell each other what the day is like. She is also teaching them some basic words in American Sign Language.
Nationsonline.org defines language as “a set of words and sounds used in a structured way and is communicated between people through speaking, writing, and gestures.”
In 2011, Lera Boroditsky told us in Scientific American “[e]ach language provides its own cognitive toolkit and encapsulates the knowledge and worldview developed over thousands of years within a culture.
I wondered what she has been doing lately and found a couple of TED talks.
You can find her most recent (11 minute) lecture called “How Language Shapes the Way We Think” here. This is my synopsis:
The world’s people use about 7,000 different languages to communicate. They are all made of sounds, words, and structure.
Boroditsky poses the question I first came across in a linguistics class many years ago when I was an undergraduate English major. “Do speakers of different languages think differently?” or rephrased, “Does language shape thought?”
Turns out the answer is complicated. Charlemagne famously said, “To have a a second language is to have a second soul.” About 700 years later, Shakespeare claimed “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Charlemagne likened language to our very souls. But Shakespeare, is he being ironic or profound? Since it’s Shakespeare, probably both.
Boroditsky uses scientific research to show examples of how language affects our thinking in many different ways.
Some languages do not have words for right and left. Their spacial relationships are noted in cardinal directions: north; south; east; and west; and their subtleties. For example, I park my car to the north of my husband’s in our garage. She has discovered that people with these “orienting languages” (my term) have a keen sense of where they are in space.
When I was in first grade and learning directionality, my teacher, Mrs. Zimmerman, told us that when we look out the large row of windows in our classroom we are facing north. I was excited to tell my mom what we learned. I told her that when we look out the big living room window, we are facing north. Too bad! Mom wanted this house specifically because it faced south, and the snow would melt off our driveway before it melted off the driveways across the street. My sense of direction has not improved much since then.
Languages also treat time differently. Like English, some languages embed tenses into their verbs, like walk and walked, or run and ran. (New English speakers tend to overgeneralize our irregular verbs, but that’s a subject for a different day.)
When we want to show time-lapse pictures, we tend to lay them out in the same direction that our writing takes. English goes from left to right, Hebrew from right to left. But what of the people Boroditsky studied in Australia who use directionality? She discovered that it depended on which way they were facing. Their pictures were arranged from east to west, just like the path of the sun. Always.
People who are oriented with comparative directions, left and right, she notes, are egocentric. First, next, and last flows in a different direction depending on which way a person faces in their own personal space, in English, from left to right. The Australian tribal members have a more worldly view, east to west. Is one better than another? I think not, but don’t ask the developers of GoogleMaps or WAZE.
Color words differ in different languages, too. Where American English speakers have one word to encompass all hues of blue, for example, Russian has a word for light blue and a different word for dark blue. We can say blue to refer to everything from powder blue to midnight blue. It’s all blue. Boroditsky studied brain scans of Russian speakers and found their brain activity showed surprise when a subject was shown light blue then dark blue. They noticed something had changed. The brains of English speakers took the color difference in stride, so to speak. Do we perceive colors differently? Probably not, but we think about our perceptions differently.
And then there's gender. A lot of languages have grammatical gender. Nouns take either a masculine or a feminine verb, noted by its suffix, usually. These gender assignments seem arbitrary. The word for tree in French, l’arbre, is masculine. Speakers will talk about a tree being strong and sturdy. In Latin, though, the word for tree, arbor, is feminine and tends to be described as graceful, and lithe-limbed.
In gendered languages, all nouns are assigned a gender, with all the baggage that entails and implies. (See the above examples about the description of a tree.) Maybe I’ll come back to this another day.
It turns out then, the question of the connection between thought and language is not really just one question. It’s many different questions. The message of On Beyond Zebra may be that the letters we use to represent the sounds we make can help us communicate in more ways than we can imagine. And by learning something new, we can learn to think differently.
I finished The Eyes and The Impossible, this year’s Newbery winner by Dave Eggers and illustrated by Shawn Harris (Alfred A. Knopf, 2023), It's an animal tale full of adventure, interesting relationships, and wisdom. Only every once in a while do I read a book and wish for an audience. This would be so much fun to read to a 4th or 5th grader, or a whole class!
-—Be curious! (and choose your words thoughtfully)