Interesting blog post on how language structure can affect perception, or is that the other way 'round? - Dallas

Who dunnit? The not-so-insignificant quirks of language

When it comes to cognitive processes like memory, judgment and decision-making, humans are subject to all sorts of biases and seemingly trivial influences. Now, add one more to that list: peculiar habits of language.

Several studies in the past year have hinted at the many subtle ways in which the language you speak can play a role in how you remember events, make judgments of blame and responsibility, and dole out punishment. Specifically, psychologists and linguists have looked at how different languages construct agency, and the implications that follow.

First, let’s take a look at how speakers of different languages actually describe actions and outcomes in which an “agent” is involved. English speakers typically use agentive expressions to describe accidents: “I broke the vase.” Non-agentive expressions, like “mistakes were made” often sound evasive. Spanish speakers, on the other hand, typically describe those same accidents as passive occurrences: “se me rompió el florero,” or translated literally: “the vase broke itself to me.” Spanish or English speakers are clearly not locked into only one way of saying things, but these general patterns of language often make certain expressions sound more natural.

To demonstrate these patterns, psychologists Lera Boroditsky and Caitlin Fausey had English and Spanish speakers watch videos of various events in which a man interacts with an object. In some cases, the event is clearly intentional — he picks up a pencil, deliberately snaps it in half, and then smiles contentedly. In other cases, it is clearly an accident — he is in the midst of writing when the pencil breaks and he throws his hands up in surprise. After watching these videos, subjects were asked to describe what had just happened.

Read the rest on Rationally Speaking.

Tags: bias, language, perception, thoughts

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Replies to This Discussion

i read about this in a article. it also mentioned the quirks of gendered nouns, saying that a bridge is feminine in german, and masculine in spanish, so a german speaker is likely to describe a bridge as "graceful", and a spanish speaker is likely to describe it as "strong". or somesuch.
Yes, I'm sure that was on NPR, and I was almost certain I posted it here, but it must have been in the comments because I can't find it in the discussions. However, I did find this one: How does Our Language Shape the Way We Think?

I'll have to read this a little later, but I SO WANT to change my name to Peewee Nipplepuss.

Okay, I read right away anyhow. What a funny site. I'd never been there.
don't remember how i found it, but it's a great timewaster and surprisingly informative, with articles about pretty much everything.

On a related subject, a new study sheds light on why some languages use subject-object-verb while others use subject-verb-object.

Applying Information Theory to Linguistics

The MIT researchers' explanation is that the SVO ordering has a better chance of preserving information if the communications channel is noisy.

Suppose that the sentence is "the girl kicked the boy," and that one of the nouns in the sentence -- either the subject or the object -- will be lost in transmission. If the word order is SOV, then the listener will receive one of two messages: either "the girl kicked" or "the boy kicked." If the word order is SVO, however, the two possible messages on the receiving end are "the girl kicked" and "kicked the boy": More information will have made it through the noisy channel.

A preliminary investigation, Gibson says, suggests that there is a very strong correlation between word order and the strength of a language's "case markings." Case marking means that words change depending on their syntactic function: In English, for instance, the pronoun "she" changes to "her" if the kicker becomes the kicked. But case marking is rare in English, and English is an SVO language. Japanese, a strongly case-marked language, is SOV. That is, in Japanese, there are other cues as to which noun is subject and which is object,... [emphasis mine]

The summary makes so much sense to a feminist. We are only beginning to understand how distorted is the language used to describe women and their actions. Thanks for this article.

All of these findings are not just entertaining factoids about language use. They suggest that patterns in language might actually shape how people construe and reason about events. And that has real world consequences, particularly in legal contexts. The specific language used in police reports, legal statements, court testimony, and public discourse is full of descriptions that influence not only verdicts of guilt or innocence but also the sentencing process.
What is clear is how susceptible we are to habits of expression or twists of translation. And we’re only just beginning to understand the consequences.


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