There is a word in German – umwelt – which refers to how different organisms and beings experience reality. Numerous conditions influence our perception of reality – faith, assumptions, education, culture, physical considerations, character traits, concepts we hold, and, among other things, language. Just having the vocabulary means we more immediately use a concept to frame our perspective.
There are approximately 7,000 human languages in our world. The way each language is structured, the vocabulary used, the variety of sounds incorporated and the categories used to describe reality – all influence how we express and perceive the world we live in.
I’ve thought about this aspect of language a lot over the years and am constantly intrigued at how the perspective shifts depending on how things are said in different languages. Here are a few examples:
- When I leaned Spanish – I was intrigued by how the aspect of blame or responsibility was generally removed in how “I broke the glass/bowl/pen,” was usually translated, becoming literally “The glass/bowl/pen broke itself.”
- When I watched Keith Chen’s research comparing behavioural differences between communities using futureless vs futured languages – I began to realize how often I have said, “I will go on the diet/stop drinking so much/start saving more money… tomorrow/next week/next year” and how easy that was for me to rationalize.
- When I read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s wonderful book entitled “Braiding Sweetgrass” – My perception of nature adjusted quite notably. One example, she discusses how the Cree language, rather than categorizing nouns by gender as many languages do, distinguishes groups by animate vs inanimate, creating the perception of animals and plants being persons. She uses the example of a friend who had a bug in her hair saying, “Someone is in my hair.”
There has been a lot of research into this aspect of how different languages categorize and express relationships. More examples include:
- The Australian Aboriginal community of Pormpuraaw do not categorize location using ‘left’ and ‘right’ but rather by the relation to the sun. According to cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky, approximately one third of the world’s languages use this absolute relationship between spaces rather than the relative way we tend to do in English, for example left, right, north and south. Using absolute relationships means people are able to stay oriented in even unfamiliar landscapes.
- Behavioural economist, Keith Chen, was interested in comparing whether speakers of ‘futured’ and ‘futureless’ languages approached saving in different ways. Futureless languages use the same verb tense to describe time frames, using other ways to indicate future or past, whereas futured languages, like English, change the verb tense. He summarizes his research as follows: “Futureless language speakers are 30% more likely to report having saved in any given year than futured language speakers. This amounts to 25% more savings by retirement, if income is held constant… When we speak about the future as more distinct from the present, it feels more distant — and we’re less motivated to save money now in favour of monetary comfort years down the line.” You can hear Chen’s Ted Talk where he summarizes his research here.
- Related to my observation of Spanish, how much we blame and punish people connected to unforeseen or unintended events can vary and the language indicates this. For example, “one study conducted by Stanford researchers found that Spanish and Japanese speakers didn’t remember who is to blame for accidental events as much as those who speak English do. However, speakers of all three languages remember agents for intentional events the same. In the study, participants were given a memory test after watching videos of people popping balloons, breaking eggs, and spilling drinks both intentionally and accidentally. In Spanish and Japanese, the agent of causality is dropped in accidental events.”
In “How the Languages we Speak Shape our Realities,” author Jack Maden writes: “Language is a strange, wonderful thing. It both contextualizes and enables us to share our experiences. By broadening our linguistic capabilities and vocabularies, we broaden our cognitive universes — and so deepen our understanding of the world, each other, and ourselves. Indeed: if our umwelts are of our own making, how will you shape yours?”