Language and How One J-to-E Patent Translator Thinks

Today on YouTube I watched a TED talk entitled “How Language Shapes the Way We Think.” (Actually, the title on YouTube is written with only the first letter capitalized: “How language shapes the way we think.” This form is referred to as “sentence-style capitalization,” and is a widespread convention with titles of scientific papers. The way I initially just wrote the title is referred to as “headline-style capitalization” and is still the convention for writing the title of formal publications. I say, if something you write is a title, as a courtesy to the reader, why not clearly make it look like a title, rather than a sentence? It’s not too hard to get your computer to capitalize the words headline-style in your title.) Anyway, Lera Boroditsky, a professor of cognitive science at the Univ. of Cal. San Diego and the woman who gave the TED talk, spoke of many interesting things, a couple of which I’d like to share. One is something that I had read about a while ago. There are Australian aboriginal peoples who speak the languages Kuuk Thaayorre and Guugu Yimithirr. These languages’ words for spatial orientation are not self-referential, but instead tie in to the natural surroundings in which the speakers of these languages live. Whereas our words “left,” “right,” “front,” and “back” refer to our own bodies—egotistically to our own selves—these people have a geographically embedded apprehension of their environment, according to which they say the equivalent of, for example, “my southwest hand” or “my northern-side foot.” Online I just found where I’d read about this: In the New York Times Magazine, in an August 26, 2010 article entitled, “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?,” by Guy Deutscher, “an honorary research fellow at the School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures at the University of Manchester.” I was fascinated by this linguistic question 10 years ago, as I am today, because it resonates profoundly with me from my early years struggling to master the Japanese language. Although western linguists and other scholars seem to treat this question of whether language shapes how we think very guardedly because the question seems to be highly controversial, I for one, from deep personal experience in learning a language as different from English as is Japanese, enthusiastically answer, Yes of course! Meanwhile, I have yet to encounter a linguist who answers this question and who herself or himself has mastered a nonwestern language such as Japanese. How the Japanese language shapes how the Japanese people think—in contrast to how native speakers of English think—is an ongoing theme that I will explore in this blog. A second interesting thing that Lera Boroditsky spoke about in her TED talk is that among the world’s currently catalogued some 7000 languages, so many are dying that the extinction rate is about one language per week. While I find that to be very disheartening, on the other hand, I would argue that there are so many esoteric specialties in our hyper-technocratic world that in fact we are continually creating new dialects of our own mother tongues—some of them, though appearing to be English, being nearly unintelligible to uninitiated me. Who knows, maybe these dialects will either become separate languages or at least will have to be taught as such? That is another theme that I will enjoy exploring in this blog, and that in an upcoming post I will begin by giving specific examples of what I mean.


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