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Strange Languages

Posted March 13, 2017 12:00 AM by Chelsey H

Every time I travel to NYC, I get lost in the many languages spoken around me. It’s always beautiful and fascinating that a combination of sounds and tones can mean so much to one person and absolutely nothing to another.

There are roughly 6,500 spoken languages in the world today with about 2,000 of those languages having less than 1,000 speakers. So many of the languages you hear on the streets of NYC support the universal grammar theory, which proposes that if human beings are brought up under normal conditions (not those of extreme sensory deprivation), then they will always develop language with properties (e.g., distinguished nouns from verbs, or distinguishing function words from lexical words).

However, there are exceptions to this rule. These three languages reveal how the habits of speech can affect our thinking.

Directions

I don’t know about you, but I hate when people give me compass directions—am I supposed to take out a compass when someone tells me to walk two blocks to the east? Fortunately, for me, a native English speaker, the English language orients everything around me; left, right, in front, or behind. You move forward and backward in relation to the direction you are facing. Image credit

The Guugu Ymithirr aboriginal tribe in Queensland, Australia, however, uses cardinal directions to express spatial information. They are imprinted from a young age with an “internal compass” so they are able to direct their speech along a compass line. Further study is needed to decide if this creates a less egocentric society since their spatial information is not relative to themselves.

Time

The Prompauraaw people in Queensland, Australia, speak Kuuk Thaayorre. They also use cardinal directions to express location, but this also affects their interpretation of time. In a series of experiments, linguists had Kuuk Thaayorre speakers put a series of cards showing the passage of time, such as a man aging, in order. In one of the experiments, the speakers were facing south and in the other, they were facing north. In both instances, the speakers arranged the cards in order from east to west. By contrast, English speakers would always arrange the cards from left to right.

The speakers in the experiment were never told which direction they were facing. For the Kuuk Thaayorre, the passage of time was intimately tied to cardinal directions.

Color

According to the theory of “basic color terms,” all languages had at least terms for black, white, red, and warm or cold colors. However, on an island in Papua New Guinea where the islanders speak Yélî Dnye, there is no word for color. Speakers talk about color as part of a metaphorical phrase, with color terms derived from words for objects in the islander’s environment. For example, to describe something red, islanders say “mtyemtye,” which is derived from a word that means “red parrot species.” The islander’s grammar reinforces the metaphorical nature of the language, saying, “The skin of the man is white like the parrot,” rather than “He is white.”

There are several more examples of how language can affect how a culture thinks and views or describes the world. To learn more about languages, click here.

Has any word (or lack of word) affected your interpretation of the world?

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#1

Re: Strange Languages

03/13/2017 7:52 AM

I myself like to put it in a little musical diddy or jingle.

Seriously, I live in the upper Midwest, and since the 90's, there was a noticeable influx of eastern European, (Poland, Romania, etc) in our area.

It is interesting.

But as far as giving directions,... in the upper Midwest, it consists of,... You turn left at what used to be the old Piggly Wiggle, which is now a Walgreens, and then go about a mile and a half and turn right at the Shell gas station with the dinosaur in front. If you passed the big red rocket (fireworks store) ,... you've gone too far, turn around.....

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#5
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Re: Strange Languages

03/13/2017 11:48 AM

"You turn left at what used to be the old Piggly Wiggle, which is now a Walgreens"

I lived in the Southeast (NC,SC) for quite a while, and they give the same type of directions, with one exception:

"You turn left at what used to be the old Piggly Wiggle, which is now a Walgreens"

That gets really frustrating, if you haven't lived there long enough to know the history for the past 20-50 years.

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#6
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Re: Strange Languages

03/13/2017 12:03 PM

I found it amusing...

before when I moved to the city... if I give the directions that wasn't specific with history, to friends at home... like this...

You turn left at what used to be the old Piggly Wiggle, which is now a Walgreens

it would go like this.

Me: As your coming into town, you turn left at Walgreens...

Friend: Walgreens? where's that?

Me: you know it used to be the Pig on University.

Friend, Ahhh, the pig is gone, when did that happen.

Me: "oh man, about 12 -15 years ago.

Friend: "Really, I used to like that store, and stopped there on my way home."

Me: " ya, Well, Seigo's Japaneze restaurant is also closed acrossed the street"

Friend: "Noo,... I loved going there too..."

you get the picture .....

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#17
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Re: Strange Languages

03/14/2017 10:17 AM

Oh yeah - that is W.Va. oilfield talk. Go to where the big oak tree used to be and turn, as though someone who obviously was NOT from W.Va. (Yankee accent) would know the area that well. Of course, maybe it was because of the accent.....

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#2

Re: Strange Languages

03/13/2017 9:15 AM

And then with a train delay or service change, everyone on the subways curses in the same language...

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#13
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Re: Strange Languages

03/14/2017 5:13 AM

What happens in Gotham City, stays in Gotham City...

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#3

Re: Strange Languages

03/13/2017 11:21 AM

Me , been born and raised in Texas , when i was in NYC every time i would speak people would stop and listen.

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#4
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Re: Strange Languages

03/13/2017 11:26 AM

Rrrrriiiiighhhtttt.

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#11
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Re: Strange Languages

03/13/2017 10:18 PM

This picture is much larger than it needs to be....

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#12
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Re: Strange Languages

03/13/2017 10:32 PM

Well, you know what they say about Texas... something like,... 'things appear bigger than they actually are'.

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#18
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Re: Strange Languages

03/14/2017 10:29 AM

I can attest to that!!!!!

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#19
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Re: Strange Languages

03/14/2017 10:51 AM

ahhh,... not even some type of protest,... I'm disappointed.... lol...

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Re: Strange Languages

03/13/2017 3:49 PM

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#8
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Re: Strange Languages

03/13/2017 4:21 PM

Or how about a presidential translator...

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#20
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Re: Strange Languages

03/14/2017 11:27 AM

That was so funny, I had Starbucks latte coming out my nose!

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#9

Re: Strange Languages

03/13/2017 5:29 PM

Native German speakers have difficulty in English initially in differentiating between "colo(u)r" and "paint", and between "mo(u)ld" and "shape", according to distant experience...

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#10

Re: Strange Languages

03/13/2017 5:36 PM

There are several more examples of how language can affect how a culture thinks and views or describes the world.

I've noticed that Java programmers don't know what *pointers are...

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#14
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Re: Strange Languages

03/14/2017 5:16 AM

Fortran IV:

10 PRINT(7H,Really?)

20 STOP

30 END

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#15

Re: Strange Languages

03/14/2017 5:55 AM

I cannot comment on the first too, but as for color, isn't it normal that some languages use every-day objects to name further things? All languages have done and keep doing this. I'm not sure where did words like "blue" or "red" or "white" came to existence, but I guess they derived from blue, red or white stuff being around and already having a name. It could be things like "sky", "blood", "snow" or whatever.

And now that I think of it, color "orange" comes from a fruit, "lilat" from a tree, "fuchsia" from a flower, "crimson" from an insect and so on. Not to mention more descriptive composite names, like "sky blue", etc. What's so different than using bird names to tell a color?

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#16
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Re: Strange Languages

03/14/2017 7:05 AM

GA. I assumed that the fruit was named after the colour: but you are correct, before the introduction (to this country) of the fruit in the thirteen hundreds the colour was known as "yellow red".

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#21

Re: Strange Languages

03/14/2017 6:18 PM

I find it fascinating how even languages much closer to English have interesting quirks. In high school I was amazed that French only uses the letters 'k' and 'w' for loanwords and metric measurement (kilo-, etc.).

E-Prime interests me a lot--when I think about never speaking or writing using the verb "to be" I start to realize how silly it is to say "I'm tired" or "I'm hungry." I feel those things but don't become them. Seems a lot like language influencing thinking, or vice versa.

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#22
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Re: Strange Languages

03/15/2017 9:04 AM

"E-Prime interests me a lot--when I think about never speaking or writing using the verb "to be" I start to realize how silly it is to say "I'm tired" or "I'm hungry." I feel those things but don't become them. Seems a lot like language influencing thinking, or vice versa."

E-Prime looks like another 'new language' attempt similar to Blissymbols, working to solve a problem that only exists in the eyes of the inventor. The verb 'to be' has many functions, and it is trivial to determine which function is being used:

  • I'm tired -> Assigning the attribute 'tired' to the object 'I.'
  • I'm Andrew -> Attaching a name to the object.
  • This wood is oak -> Identifying the material of an object.
  • Socrates is a man -> Assigning a class to an object.
  • X is 7 -> Assigning a value to a variable.

Not to mention that poetry and Theatre would suffer.

  • "Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate:"
  • "To be or not to be: that is the question."
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#23
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Re: Strange Languages

03/16/2017 10:37 AM

It's definitely philosophically and linguistically splitting hairs--probably interests me because I have experience and interest in building ontologies and knowledge maps. Yes, you're assigning those attributes, but most of them imprecisely.

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#24
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Re: Strange Languages

03/16/2017 3:58 PM

However, there are times where we NEED the imprecise usage of words, even as engineers, who value precision and unambiguous communication.

Allow me to use the words of one much better at stating this than I:

[blockquote start]

“All right," said Susan. "I'm not stupid. You're saying humans need... fantasies to make life bearable."
Really? As if it was some kind of pink pill? No. Humans need fantasy to be human. To be that place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.
"Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—"
Yes. As practice. You have to start out learning to believe the little lies.
"So we can believe the big ones?"
Yes. Justice, mercy, duty, that sort of thing.

Terry Pratchett, Hogfather

[blockquote end]

The text in bold is normally rendered in caps and small caps, without quotation marks to indicate speech. If you've read any of the Diskworld books you would understand the author's unusual choice for that characters speech patterns.

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#25

Re: Strange Languages

03/20/2017 1:49 PM

English has some quirks when it comes to time and direction. North is alway up and south is down. It's probably because of the way maps are drawn. Or are maps drawn this way because of the language?

Forward and back are used as references to time, especially in schedules. I suppose an approaching deadline is similar to an advancing enemy, where forward would be closer, but that is the only justification I can see.

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#26
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Re: Strange Languages

03/20/2017 1:58 PM

North is alway up and south is down.

Until our poles flip, .... which is any day now.

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#27
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Re: Strange Languages

03/20/2017 3:28 PM

"North is alway up and south is down. It's probably because of the way maps are drawn. Or are maps drawn this way because of the language?"

In ancient times, maps were drawn with East at the top. In the pre-compass, pre-roundworld era, the rising sun was the only 'global' reference point."

"Forward and back are used as references to time, especially in schedules. I suppose an approaching deadline is similar to an advancing enemy, where forward would be closer, but that is the only justification I can see."

It's even simpler than that. We see time as an unstoppable walk towards the future, and so the future is always 'ahead' of us, and the past is 'behind.' It is also why some writers have described human memory as working in 'reverse,' since we see the past more clearly than we see the future, as if heads were aimed 'backwards' on Time's path.

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