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“You are What you Speak” by Guy Deutscher Essay

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Updated: Apr 3rd, 2020

It is true that language has an impeccable imprint on one’s mind. However, the question is how far the extent of this influence is. In addition, linguistic experts are trying to unravel the extent of a language’s influence on an individual’s thinking process. “Does Your Language Shape How You Think” is an article by Guy Deutscher that was first published in the New York Time’s online forum.

The article explores how languages influence the mode of thinking in their speakers. Deutscher begins his article by restating Benjamin Lee Whorf’s claims. Whorf was of the opinion that different languages created various realities for their speakers. Whorf’s theory found relative success during its early days but later on, it was widely discredited for lack of evidence. Deutscher focuses on Whorf’s notion that “our mother tongue restricts what we are able to think” (Whorf 21).

Deutscher who is an honorary research fellow at the University of Manchester revisits Whorf’s research and offers useful insights by providing current research on the subject. The article explores linguistic research from various standpoints including gender, time, color perception, and spatial perception. Deutscher’s paper points out the inconsistencies in Whorf’s claims and hypothesizes that language merely influences the mind but it does not shape it.

According to Deutscher, our mother tongues impact the mind “not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about” (Deutscher 1). Deutscher makes strong arguments to support his position and succeeds in disputing the theory and notion that our mother tongues are prisons that inhibit our ability to reason. This paper is an argument in support of some of Deutscher’s claims that our mother tongue is not a prison house that constrains our capacity to reason.

Guy Deutscher is a renowned linguist who has made considerable contributions to the study of languages and cultures. Some of Deutscher’s other academic contributions include his research on Akkadian, a language that was spoken in Assyria and ancient Babylon. On the other hand, Deutscher’s main proponent (Whorf) is a pioneer anthropological linguist who had little or no research to build to build on. Deutscher holds Whorf’s work in the same capacity as that of a modern linguist although the latter’s research premiered in 1940.

There is no excuse for unsubstantiated work in research; the contributions of a pioneer linguist are just as important as of those who come after him/her. Deutscher forwards several claims when nullifying Whorf’s work. For instance, the author notes that “Whorf’s theory crash-landed on hard facts and solid common sense, when it transpired that there had never actually been any evidence to support his fantastic claims…. for decades, any attempts to explore the influence of the mother tongue on our thoughts were relegated to the loony fringes of disrepute” (Deutscher 1). However, a careful examination of facts reveals that interest in linguist determinism has never waned.

The only difference between scholars pursuing linguist determinism has been their level of enthusiasm. An example of a scholarly work that is blamed for refuting Whorf’s work is Berlin and Kay’s research on ‘color terminology’ (Fodor 120). Therefore, even though language does not guide a person’s ability to think, Deutscher correctly identifies that a mother tongue has some influence on one’s thinking process. Nonetheless, later on, Deutscher’s research might be amended by new research.

The idea of a group of people with the same mother tongue can be studied with the view of understating its worldview has been around for a long time. Consequently, it has become customary for anthropologists, ethnographers, and other social scholars to familiarize themselves with local languages before conducting studies. Deutscher offers a valid explanation on why practices such as this one do not constrain individuals to a linguistic prison.

According to Deutscher, languages influence the minds of individuals to think about concepts that are instilled in their minds through a mother tongue. While anthropologists and ethnographers are trying to understand a certain community, they are able to think about concepts from that community’s point of view through a comprehension of the natives’ language (Boroditsky 14). However, learning a language does not guarantee that an anthropologist understands a certain community.

Other scholars and linguists have also contributed to the debate on linguistics and the human capacity to understand. Steven Pinker, another linguist also disagrees with Whorf’s premise that a language can inhibit an individual’s ability to understand (Pinker 14). Pinker considers Whorf’s insight to be ‘wrong’. In his paper “The Language Instinct”, Pinker argues that “thought and language” cannot be considered as the same thing.

The reasoning behind Pinker’s argument is that limiting a person’s ability to think to his mother tongue is a concept that has no room in modern linguistic scholarship. Pinker’s argument coincides with that of Deutscher who considers the concept of a thought-forming mother tongue outdated. Nevertheless, Daniel Casasanto defended Whorf’s work from Pinker’s criticism by arguing that there has been constant misunderstanding between the concepts of ‘a language affecting thoughts’ and ‘a language being thoughts’ (Casasanto 581).

There is ample language-based evidence in Deutscher’s essay to support his claims. Deutscher offers examples from different languages across the world when he is making his point to the readers. For instance, Deutscher uses the English, German, and French languages to illustrate differences in lingual conceptions.

In one instance, Deutscher notes that both French and German languages pay extra attention to masculine and feminine qualities during a conversation. On the other hand, the English language does not pay much attention to gender based qualities during a conversation. The provision of hard evidence adds credibility to Deutscher’s arguments. Whorf, the main protagonist in Deutscher’s hypothesis failed to provide solid proof in his claims. Analyzing other languages reveals similar patterns.

For example, the Spanish use the same gendered-noun patterns that are used by the Germans albeit in a different manner. The use of gendered nouns provides an insight into how a certain language might affect perception. For example, a certain person might consider a cup to be a masculine object while another person might consider it to be feminine depending on his/her language. Proponents of Deutscher’s theory argue that language is not the only factor that calls attention to certain features in a conversation.

It has been argued that other factors such as “experience and vision can also cause a speaker to focus on certain features” during communication (Fodor 87). Nevertheless, the importance of language as a thought provoking mechanism cannot be compared with factors such as vision. For example, when people who speak different languages are talking about a cup, they are both seeing a similar object but describing it using different languages.

In addition, languages especially mother tongues are the most changing aspects when it comes to descriptions and perceptions. Therefore, Deutscher accurately recognizes the importance of language features and how they ‘compel’ their users to pay attention to certain aspects.

Deutscher also unravels how the element of ‘space’ and not ‘thought’ manifests itself in language use (Deutscher 8). According to the author, the interpretation of space and not its comprehension is carried by languages. For example, in English, directions are often described using terms such as right, left, after, behind, and ahead.

However, some languages such as the Guugu Yimithirr of the Aborigines only describe direction using terms like east and west. Even though the description of space might change from one individual to another, his/her understanding of direction remains the same.

Therefore, English-speaking people can understand that north means right or left while the Yimithirr can comprehend that east refers to the direction that is straight ahead. Whorf had a similar argument but his interpretation of the results was different. For example, Whorf argued that the English language subdivides time into units.

Therefore, English-speaking individuals consider time as units that can be counted and subdivided. Whorf concluded that English speakers tend to consider time as a commodity that can be acquired, lost, or saved (Whorf 22). Whorf’s argument does not necessarily proof that the English words for time determine individuals’ comprehension. On the other hand, the English words for time only reveal how the speakers perceive time.

Deutscher also lists how various aspects of language affect their users’ comprehension abilities. However, the linguist declines to elaborate how lingual differences have varying effects on human understanding. For instance, the Russian language has two different words for dark blue and light blue. Lack of words for certain shades of colors can mean that some communities have a different understanding of the color spectrum.

Nevertheless, the impact of this kind of a lingual difference is not as far reaching as that of another lingual parity. For example, the Piraha people of the Amazon do not have any words for numbers. Instead, the Piraha describe quantities using words like ‘hoi’ to describe a small amount of objects and ‘baagiso’ to refer to a larger amount of objects (Pinker 19).

Consequently, the Piraha cannot possibly understand the concept of the numbering system. On the other hand, the Piraha understand the concept of quantity although in a different manner from English-speaking people. In a social experiment on the Piraha people, it was found out that they do not have the ability to count accurately. Examples like these indicate that Deutscher neglects to give any credit to the Whorf school of thought.

Deutscher has forwarded a strong argument against the prospect of the mother tongue being a prison house that constrains individuals’ ability to think. The writer provides several linguistic examples about how mother tongues do not affect the way human beings think. The constant references on the Aboriginal language of Guugu Yimithirr are quite illuminating on the subject of languages and thinking processes.

From the onset, Deutscher sets out to discredit Whorf’s claims about languages having restrictive qualities on their speakers. The author reveals some important factors about linguistic influences such as gender, space, time, and color recognition. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the author is overly critical of Whorf’s claims unlike some of the other linguistic scholars who came after him.

Works Cited

Boroditsky, Lera. “Does language shape thought?: Mandarin and English speakers’ conceptions of time.” Cognitive psychology 43.1 (2001): 1-22. Print.

Casasanto, Daniel. “Time in the mind: Using space to think about time.” Cognition 106.2 (2008): 579-593. Print.

Deutscher, Guy. “Does Your Language Shape How You Think”. New York Times. New York Times Mag., 26 Aug. 2010. Web. 14 October 2014.

Fodor, Jerry. The Language of Thought Revisited: The Language of Thought Revisited, London: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.

Pinker, Steven. The language instinct: The new science of language and mind, London: Penguin UK, 1994. Print.

Whorf, Benjamin. Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1956. Print.

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