Does our language shape the way we think?

It was the month of January 2020 in the pre-covid period. I was invited to facilitate a teacher orientation program in a distant place in the the East Garo Hills district of  Meghalaya. A total of 24 teachers teaching English in  classes I, I, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX and X were put together to undergo a professional development program in English language teaching!   When the  session started I requested the teachers to tell  me the names of the classes in which they taught English.  Their responses were as follows:  Teacher A: I teach from seven to one, Teacher B: I teach from ten to seven, Teacher C : I teach from five to one. To my utter surprise I noticed that all the teachers started with the higher classes and ended with the lower classes. It was not “one to seven,” it was “seven to one,” it was not “seven to ten,” it was “ten to seven”.  The responses of the teachers startled me. Why wasn’t  it “one to five” or “one to seven”?  Was  there  any special reason for using the descending order  of the numerals? 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1?

  When I used to teach in my college I used to say, “Well, I teach English in the second year and the third year classes ” NOT “I teach English in the third year and the second year classes.” Now, standing before a mixed group of teachers I wondered if the teachers attending the programme were  influenced by their  way of thinking. Did they think of the bigger number first and the smaller number next? I was  not sure, but I could not explain the way they responded…..” I teach English from  classes V to I and not from I to V”.

Musing over the  influence of language on our way of thinking I recollected the way in which some of my students speaking a particular Tibeto Burman language used to write in English: “We  live in a house big” instead of writing “We live in a big house” because in their language “ a big house” means  “a house big.” “noha (house) + gede (big)”. A beautiful girl is “ malasa (girl)  majangbi  (beautiful),  a big  man is “subung” (man) gede (big)  and two big men is “sububg (man) gede (big) saogini (two)”, the order of the words is Noun+ Adjective + Quantifier. Unlike the speakers of English and many other Indian languages, speakers of this Tibeto-Burman language of India use modifier or the adjective after the noun, not before the noun.   A strong man is referred to as “ a man strong” and a beautiful girl is a “girl beautiful.” For the speakers of this particular language, the Noun is more important than the Adjective which modifies it.  How does their language shape the way they think?

Let us think of the question of attributing masculine and feminine gender markers to inanimate objects. Traditionally, the Sun is considered masculine due to its life-giving power though the word Sun as a noun was feminine in grammatical gender. The word moon has the etymology of Luna and Selene in Greek, both female names and deities in the Roman and Greek pantheons. In many Indian languages the Sun is masculine while the Moon is feminine.  However, the moon, is referred to as ‘maternal uncle” in a number of Indian languages.   In the language of the  Nyishis  of Arunachal Pradesh, the Sun (Donyi) is feminine while  the Moon ( Polo) is masculine.   What is the correlation between the language and concept formation?  When it  is the question of looking at the world and making sense of the world, does it matter which language we speak?

The first sentence of this blog refers to a distant place of India. Well, is it really a distant place? Yes, of course, it is a distant place for me when I am writing this blog sitting at Bangalore.  The State of Meghalaya is thousands of miles away from me and therefore, it is a distant place for me. But if I had written this blog sitting in the capital city of Meghalaya, I would not have referred to it  as a ‘distant place’. My use of language is conditioned by the way I am think.

Let’s take the example of “Northeast,” an oft repeated expression used in the Indian media. It is puzzling to note that we don’t have any cluster of States in India called “Northwest”, “South east” or “Southwest” but we fondly refer to the States of Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Mizoram and  Arunachal Pradesh as “Northeast.”

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