Does Your Language Shape How You Think? [New York Times]
And yet Benjamin Lee Whorf let loose an alluring idea about language’s power over the mind, and his stirring prose seduced a whole generation into believing that our mother tongue restricts what we are able to think. In particular, Whorf announced, Native American languages impose on their speakers a picture of reality that is totally different from ours, so their speakers would simply not be able to understand some of our most basic concepts, like the flow of time or the distinction between objects (like “stone”) and actions (like “fall”).
Whorf, we now know, made many mistakes. The most serious one was to assume that our mother tongue constrains our minds and prevents us from being able to think certain thoughts. The general structure of his arguments was to claim that if a language has no word for a certain concept, then its speakers would not be able to understand this concept. If a language has no future tense, for instance, its speakers would simply not be able to grasp our notion of future time. It seems barely comprehensible that this line of argument could ever have achieved such success, given that so much contrary evidence confronts you wherever you look. When you ask, in perfectly normal English, and in the present tense, “Are you coming tomorrow?” do you feel your grip on the notion of futurity slipping away? Do English speakers who have never heard the German word Schadenfreude find it difficult to understand the concept of relishing someone else’s misfortune?
Some 50 years ago, the renowned linguist Roman Jakobson pointed out a crucial fact about differences between languages in a pithy maxim: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” This maxim offers us the key to unlocking the real force of the mother tongue: if different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.
Consider this example. Suppose I say to you in English that “I spent yesterday evening with a neighbor.” You may well wonder whether my companion was male or female, but I have the right to tell you politely that it’s none of your business. But if we were speaking French or German, I wouldn’t have the privilege to equivocate in this way, because I would be obliged by the grammar of language to choose between voisin or voisine; Nachbar or Nachbarin. These languages compel me to inform you about the sex of my companion whether or not I feel it is remotely your concern. This does not mean, of course, that English speakers are unable to understand the differences between evenings spent with male or female neighbors, but it does mean that they do not have to consider the sexes of neighbors, friends, teachers and a host of other persons each time they come up in a conversation, whereas speakers of some languages are obliged to do so.
Applied to Korean context, what is something that a Korean speaker must think about when constructing a sentence? One example of Korean language's peculiarity is its use of particles -- in which the choice of one wrong particle (which is in most cases no more than one syllable, sometimes two) leads to a pretty strong change in tone. For example: "개가 짖는다" and "개는 짖는다" mean the same in English -- "Dog barks." But the tone is different; the first sentence sounds like it is describing a general scenary of which the dog is a part; the second, like there is another animal that is not doing the barking and there is a need to distinguish which animal is barking. But how does this direct Korean speakers' attention to a particular thing, like the way German and Spanish speakers are a little more attuned to gender as they speak their language? Hmmm.
Actually, the interesting thing is that the Korean cannot really think of too many things within Korean language which obliges a Korean-speaker to have in mind. Korean language is one with pretty loose requirements. There is no need for the subject in a sentence. Tenses are looser in Korean. Singular/plural rules are not strict. Active/passive voice switch is very natural. Perhaps Korean language is characterized by the relative lack of constraints? It's something to think about.
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at firstname.lastname@example.org.