Savvy Saturday: Language and Meaning

Have you ever considered how language itself influences the way we think? As a fantasy writer and sociologist, I am fascinated by how our perceptions of reality as a society are influenced by the words we use, and the way in which we use them. I came across several interesting articles this week that speak to various ways in which language has shaped the way we see our world – and that can give interesting ideas to writers who are looking for other worlds to create.

First, our language shapes the way in which we view color. While all languages distinguish between colors to a certain extent, there are many colors we have words for today that were not so distinguished in other times and lands. The color blue, for instance, was wholly unknown and unrecognized in many ancient cultures, including ancient Greece (http://www.businessinsider.com/what-is-blue-and-how-do-we-see-color-2015-2). Further, when we don’t have words to distinguish between colors, those differences are harder for our eyes to process. A different study found that in Russia, where the language has different words for light blue and dark blue (as opposed to English, where nearly every shade is just “blue”), Russian speakers found it easier to distinguish between colors that fell into different “official” shades than colors that fell within a given “official” shade, whereas English speakers found it equally difficult to tell all of the colors apart (http://www.pnas.org/content/104/19/7780.full).

As a writer, what would it look like if a culture didn’t distinguish between green and blue? What would it look like if a traveler from a land that did distinguish between more colors came to a land that did not? Little touches such as color use or non-use might help give your work a strange, other-worldly type of feel that would draw readers in with fascination.

Second, our language shapes the way in which we view direction. English speakers tend to use the self as the reference point for directions – we tell people to turn right, go straight, and turn around if they’ve gone too far. Other languages use absolute directions: north, south, east, and west. Interestingly, individuals who speak these languages have a much better sense of direction than English speakers do. They are always subtly aware of what direction they are facing, as they align themselves to an absolute grid rather than a relative one (http://nautil.us/blog/5-languages-that-could-change-the-way-you-see-the-world).

As a writer, think about what advantages and disadvantages seeing the world in absolute directions would bring to a society. Individuals from this society would probably make excellent tracking and hunting parties, as their direction sense would help them not get lost and communicate and work efficiently and effectively with their fellows. If a society like this grew more developed, it would be likely that all towns/cities would need to be laid out in the same simple directional grid to avoid confusion. Rules such as “drive on the right hand side of the road” are easier for us to apply in an English context, as they equally apply on roads pointed north/south, east/west, or that curve around rivers and mountains. Written instructions in that kind of language would need to include initial orienting directions; before one could be told which pedal in a car is the brake, for instance, one would need to be told that one should make sure one’s car is facing north. (The east pedal, then, is the gas, and the one immediately to the west of it is the brake.)

Third, our language shapes the way in which we see numbers. Some societies only distinguish between one, two, and many, and some don’t have a concept of zero. A society that groups numbers by tens has a different conception of space and time and mathematics than societies that group numbers by sixties, as did ancient Babylon. The groupings that we find to be natural lead us to break up the world into those groupings, and to try to use those groupings in our daily lives. What would it look like if a society’s mathematical system were based in root 2 or root 15? The first is binary, which is computer language. A system based on it might lead, for instance, to a strong cultural norm of either-or answers: one or zero, yes or no, on or off, right or wrong.

These are only a few examples of how language affects the way in which we see reality. Other more subtle ones include passive versus active voice (for instance, Spanish tends to grammatically deflect responsibility for negative actions – “el plato se me rompió=the dish broke itself to me” instead of “I broke the dish”), and formality of language based on whether one is addressing an older or younger person, someone of a different social class, or someone of the same or different gender.

Of course, as a writer, you aren’t constrained by the grammar choices of Earth’s languages. What types of grammatical rules and quirks might you insert into a culture that would subtly affect the way in which its speakers view the world?

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