Monday, January 18, 2016

Linguistic relativity

The flags of the Netherlands (left) and Luxemburg

Ask a Dutchman what the colours of the Dutch flag are, and he will say “Red, white and blue”. Ask a Dutchman what the colours of the flag of Luxemburg are, and he will say “Red white and blue”. Yet there is a difference, as we can see in the picture above: The blue of the Luxembourgian flag is lighter than the blue of the Dutch flag, so when we would compare the flags we would describe the blues as light blue and dark blue. Nevertheless the difference doesn’t seem really important for Dutchmen, and on days that the Dutch hang out their flags, here and there you see flags with light blue bars and everybody sees it as a Dutch national flag and nobody cares that actually it’s not right.
Now ask a Russian to name the colours of the flags of the Netherlands and Luxemburg. If he knows them, I am for 100% sure that he will say that the Dutch flag has a dark blue bar and the Luxembourgian one a light blue bar. Why? Because in Russian there is no word for “blue”, but there is a word for dark blue (siniy) and one for light blue (goluboy) and just these words describe exactly the bluish bars in these flags. By chance, the Russian flag has the same colours as the Dutch one although in a different order,  so I think that the Russians will not make the mistake of keeping a flag with a light blue bar for the present Russian national flag, for the simple reason that it has a different colour for them.
I think that this is an example of the idea that there is a relationship between language and culture and that language guides your interpretation of the world. It explains why many Dutch say that the Netherlands and Luxemburg have the same flag, and that they are not very precise in determining the shade of blue of the bluish bar of these flags.
A few days after I had written my blog last week, I read an interview with the Dutch linguistic researcher Jolien Francken. If we think an idea, we must be able to find back in the brain where we think it and one of the results of her investigations is that we arrange what we see in the world around us in the “language section” of our brain: The temporal lobe. This is an indication, so Francken, that categorizing is a semantic, linguistic operation. This is not obvious, for other researchers think that we arrange what we see in the visual cortex, so the section of the brain for visual perception. Francken’s findings are a physical sign that there is a relation between language, culture and the way the world is for us. Initially, we don’t make a copy of the world in the head, but what is in the head makes how the worlds looks like to us. But let us not see this deterministic; a failure that has been made so often in the past. There is a tendency to adapt the world to the categories in the head, but we are flexible enough to adapt our categories if they don’t fit the world. But how difficult it can be to change our categories (and ideas) once we have fixed them in the head! Prejudices are of that kind.
As Francken says in the interview: “My findings are interesting for the principle of linguistic relativity. Everybody of us sees the same, but it is our language that steers our attention and how we categorize the world. It happens very automatically and maybe you have less influence on it than you may think.” However, categorization is not only an unconscious brain proces. It is also intentionally used by others who want to influence our thoughts, like politicians. This has become known as “framing”. For instance, US president George W. Bush used the expression of “War on Terror” on purpose in order to justify a global military, political, legal and conceptual struggle against terrorism. This has been retracted by Barrack Obama, who prefers to focus his efforts on specific persons, networks and the like. Or take a certain Dutch politician who tries to make that we automatically associate the word “Islam” with the word “terrorism”. But wasn’t it already George Orwell who warned us in 1949 in his novel 1984 for this use, if not misuse, of language?

Source: Erica Renckens, “Taal beïnvloedt hoe je de wereld waarneemt” (interview with Jolien Francken) on .

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