In a recent interview, Stanford Psychologist Lera Boroditsky says language, described as "Encapsulated Universes" by The Edge, is more than simply a method to convey information, but inextricably bound to context.
Her question: Does language change how we think, or does how we think change language?
Linking to the same interview, the blog of The Long Now uses it to point out the context in question. Hebrew and French, for example, assign a gender to everything in the world; Finnish does not. Russian verbs specify when an event has taken place while Indonesian verbs are timeless. Japanese tends to track causality closely in sentence structure. In her interview with The Edge, Boroditsky points out that in Turkish, one has "to change the verb depending on how you came to know this information." Even more interestingly, the Kuuk Thaayorre, an Aboriginal group, do not think in terms of left and right, but of how they occupy absolute space at any particular moment.
Language can also reflect some interesting ideas related to time, according to Boroditsky. Testing this on volunteers:
I would give them a set of cards, and the cards might show a temporal progression, like my grandfather at different ages from when he was a boy to when he's an old man. I would shuffle them, give them to the person, and say 'Lay these out on the ground so that they're in the correct order.' If you ask English speakers to do this, they will lay the cards out from left to right. And it doesn't matter which way the English speaker is facing. So if you're facing north or south or east or west, the cards will always go left to right. Time seems to go from left to right with respect to our bodies. If you ask Hebrew speakers to do this, or Arabic speakers, they're much more likely to lay the cards out from right to left. That suggests that something about the writing direction in a language matters in how we imagine time. But nonetheless, time is laid out with respect to the body.
But these folks, the Kuuk Thaayorre, don't use words like 'left' and 'right.' So what would they do? How will they lay out time? Well, it turns out they do it from East to West. If a person is sitting facing south, they will lay out the cards from left to right. But if they're facing north, they will lay the cards out from right to left. If they're facing east, the cards will come towards them.
Aside from an academic's interest in answering the questions she poses, the idea that our biologies play host to individual universes, that language, like cognition, is irreducible to a chain of strict causality, would appear to be a result of embodiment, an idea that has spread to other disciplines like artificial intelligences as well. We are not just organic computers churning through information as it's presented. And our bodies are not there simply to ferry our heads from one appointment to another. As a practical matter, we think with our arms and legs and hand and feet, and abstractions such as notions of fairness and justice arise from a sense of being in the world.
Just as for the purposes of language all "cats" to the French are masculine, whether language or thought precedes expression is destined to remain a mystery.
Have a great weekend.