An article in the New York Times Magazine today by linguist Guy Deutscher, raised some interesting questions about how language can affect the way we think–not in the discredited Orwellian way that limitations in a language’s vocabulary can limit the ideas we can conceive of, but rather in the sense that the grammatical structure of different languages can force speakers of one language to think about things that speakers of another language need not always consider. For example, an English speaker who tells someone he had dinner with his neighbor need not identify the neighbor’s sex. Other languages do not permit speakers to maintain such discretion. On the other hand, Chinese speakers need not identify whether the dinner occurred in the past, present or future. English speakers also do not identify inanimate objects as male or female, while speakers of European languages must think of all objects in gender terms.
Perhaps languages can even change the way our brain operates: The language of an Australian aboriginal tribe requires speakers to identify spatial relationships by compass directions, e.g., east or west instead of left or right, which supposedly gives its speakers a highly developed innate inner compass.
In a city as diverse as Los Angeles, lawyers often find ourselves needing to interpret speakers whose first language is Spanish or Korean or Farsi or a number of others. These described differences in the way such speakers describe and therefore think about the world make me wonder whether important information sometimes gets omitted or lost in translation, or whether we might sometimes make inferences from a speaker’s translated words that would not be justified in their original language.
But to me the most interesting example Deutscher gave of how language can affect the way we describe and think about the world was the Matses language in Peru, which requires speakers to identify how they came upon the knowledge they are imparting. They cannot make a statement about an event without describing whether they personally witnessed it or heard about it or whether they inferred it from circumstantial evidence. This example made me wonder whether lawyers would have an easier time examining a witness in the Matses language, or whether it would be more difficult for a witness speaking that language to make up a story on the witness stand. (I also often wish the talking heads on the tv news would take the trouble to tell us how they happen to know some of the stuff they are spouting, or whether they are just making it up.) It is one of a trial lawyer’s basic challenges to probe the basis of a witness’s knowledge. Is the witness speculating? Was the witness in a good position to view what they claim they saw? Is the witness making an improper inference based on what they did see or hear? It might be helpful if our language required the kind of evidentiary precision that we sometimes have to work hard to obtain.
(still from the film Lost In Translation)