It Loses Something in the Translation

Paul A. Kolers

Does our language determine the way we see the world? Even so simple a statement as the indication of hunger can reveal the way we regard the universe. An American says “I am hungry”; a Mexican says “I have hunger.” Both remarks imply that hunger is an impersonal, natural force arising from within. But the Navajo says “Hunger is killing me.”

We can only suppose the Navajo sees hunger as an outside force imposed specifically upon him. This way of looking at nature is inherent in the structure of the Navajo language. The drowning Navajo, were he able to speak, would gurgle not “I am drowning” (I am overcome by impersonal forces) but “Water is killing me” (a deliberate act of murder aimed at me).

About 30 years ago, a linguist named Benjamin Lee Whorf compared the ways different languages express simple relations, such as “he is running” or “a light flashed,” and concluded that differences in expression are associated with differences in cognition. Different linguistic communities, he said, conceive of and experience the world differently, and they do so in part becausethey use different languages.

For 30 years psychologists and, linguists have argued over and tried to test Whorf’s hypothesis. Some tend to go along with him, seeing language as a mold that determines the shape our thoughts and experiences take. Others believe that language merely describes and inventories reality, and say that Whorf put the cart before the horse.

One reason the controversy persists is that language and thought are extremely difficult to define and to study empirically. Another is that Whorf’s own ideas are far from clear. Psychologists have long rejected the notion that verbal language is a straightforward expression of thought processes, but Whorf seems at times to equate language and thought. In addition, he often seems not to distinguish between perceptions, attitudes and habits of thought on the one hand and the mechanisms of the brain on the other.

What Whorf meant and whether he was right are still open questions. One way to attack them is to ask: how does language affect perception? In what way does it shape ideas and attitudes? What influence does it have on the way we process information? And in what sense does language cause people’s minds to work differently from culture to culture?

People name colors in different ways. Our system is based on wavelengths of light. When a beam of white light is passed through a prism, it appears on a surface as a rainbow of colors, ranging from blue to red and including in all about seven million discriminable hues.

A few years ago, the anthropologist H. C. Conklin described the color-coding system of a Pacific Island group called the Hanunóo. Earlier travelers had reported that the Hanunóo were color-blind, because they classified together objects that looked quite different to Westerners. They used the same color name, for example, for both a blade of grass and a lemon.

As Conklin discovered, the Hanunóo are not color-blind. They use a color scheme based not on wavelengths of light but on wetness/dryness and lightness/darkness. Succulent, light objects (like most foods) have one color name, and desiccated, dark objects have another.

Linguistically, the Hanunóo treat black, blue and dark-green things as similar. In a sense, they must perceive them as similar too. But “perceiving as similar” does not mean “failing to perceive as different.” The fact that a Hanunóo might say a coconut and an olive are the same color does not mean he is incapable of seeing differences in their hues.

Similarly, the Bedouins have many words for camel; I have only one. But if camels were important to me for transportation, as sources of wool, or for companionship on treks across the desert, I might well invent words to describe a fast camel, a thick-furred camel, a loyal camel, and even a slow, balding, mean-tempered camel. At present all camels look alike to me, but I’m sure I could learn to pay attention to differences.

The point is that physical reality is immensely varied, far more varied than any language shows. The fact that each language has words for only a limited number of perceptions does not mean other perceptions are impossible. If that were the case, languages would never change.

What a language does is group some aspects of reality together. Things that have little significance for the culture are ignored or the things are lumped into large groups (camel). Whereas things with more significance are paid attention to or are named specifically (sports car, compact, sedan, convertible, etc.). Thus, as a child learns a language, he finds ready-made categories into which he can fit his perceptions. His language directs his attention to features of the environment that his culture has found important, and it helps him interpret them. A Bedouin child is alerted to differences among camels that are of no consequence to an American.

Language does not affect our capacityto perceive differences, but it does affect the likelihoodthat we will. It directs our perceptions into channels that are useful for social communication, and it gives us convenient summary terms. These perceptual pigeonholes (which vary, of course, from culture to culture) are valuable, especially for the novice. A regrettable corollary is that they may work against creativity, which seems to be based on an ability to see things from unusual angles or in unusual combinations.

At one point Whorf asked, “Are our own [Western] concepts of ‘time,’ ‘space’ and ‘matter’ given in substantially the same form by experience to, all men, or are they in part conditioned by the structure of particular languages?” What a daring question! The concepts of time, space and matter are thought by some philosophers to be the base of all conscious thought. In what sense did Whorf mean that they might be conceptualized differently by people who speak different languages?

One possibility is that language determines the way things are thought about. Whorf observed, for example, that the common metaphors of American English are very spatial and physical. “I graspthe threadof another’s arguments, but if its levelis over my headmy attention may wanderand lose touchwith the driftof it, so that when he comesto his pointwe differ widely, our viewsbeing indeed so far apartthat the thingshe says appear muchtoo arbitrary, or even a lotof nonsense!”

English treats ideas as if they were objects in space that can drift or wander or be grasped. Spatial metaphors like these do not occur in all languages; Whorf says they are absent in Hopi, the American-Indian language he studied intensively. What might this difference mean?

Languages classify things differently, and cultures have different systems of values and beliefs (different cognitive structures) that they use language to express. The same object or event, then, may convey an entirely different message and be described in entirely different ways, depending on one’s language and one’s culture.

However, a culture is more than a collection of attributes or facts; it is a style of life—an orderly way of coping with the infinite complexities of reality. Language is one way a culture expresses its style, and language therefore conveys a great deal of information about how a culture sees the world. For instance, English uses only one form of “you”; the Romance languages use two, polite and familiar; Japanese uses about a dozen, with another dozen or so ways of saying “I.” The Romance classification into polite and familiar is far more refined in Japanese, reflecting their concern for finely articulated formal gestures.

Since different cultures classify the world’s complexities in different ways, translations between languages are seldom perfect. The word “lamp” has a dictionary equivalent in most languages, but the English word usually refers to an electric fixture attached to the wall by a cord and turned on by a switch, whereas the Thai word may refer to a device that hums kerosene, is lit by putting a fire to it, and can be carried anywhere. How one treats a lamp in English and in Thai, and what one expects in return, would be quite different even though the two words are dictionary translations of each other and so, one might think, have identical meanings.

It is hard to say just what “meaning” is, but one part of a word’s meaning is based on the ways people manipulate the object referred to—on what they can do to it and what they can expect it to do back. When a common word like lamp has such different meanings in this respect, small wonder there is so much confusion over words like “democracy” and “socialism,” which refer to concepts rather than concrete objects.

People who speak more than one language often say they are different people, with different attitudes and even different personalities, depending on which language they use. Language X offers them one way to order information and cope with reality—one set of attitudes and behavior-styles—and Language Y offers them a different way. When they switch languages, they also move from one constellation of attitudes and thought-patterns to another.

As Whorf showed, dictionary equivalents are not experiential or phenomenological equivalents. Words and objects have frames of reference in which their meanings are embedded, and these frames of reference differ from culture to culture. The meaning of a word depends partly, (in the culture’s historical relation to the object described.

Foreign students I interview tell me that when they and their compatriots speak of home or their personal lives they use their native language, but when they discuss their studies or their work they use English. How would one discuss the dynamics of a field-effect transistor, schedules of reinforcement, or the details of transformational grammar and cognitive psyehology in, say, Thai, Hindi or Arabic? It is not just a matter of finding word-by-word equivalents; that can always he done, even if one must force the English word into a foreign mold so that “television” becomes televisior televuzuor telvush. The real problem is the connotations, assumptions and attitudes that words, especially jargon words, encapsulate. To understand a paper in any partly developed area of research, definitions are not enough; much goes unspecified, opaque to the uninitiated but clear to one who knows the code. For similar reasons, foreign students use their native language to discuss their countries’ political conflicts and to express their feelings toward each other. The words a mother uses to comfort a child are not learned from a dictionary; they are learned from behavior.

We speak of national languages; what Whorf showed is that we could speak of national metaphors instead, thereby acknowledging that every language distorts reality somewhat as it selects and classifies. Metaphors in American English, besides being spatial, are full of action and change; British English is much more tranquil and contemplative. Americans run an idea up the flagpole to see if anyone salutes, but the British let an idea get broody to see if anything will hatch.

As cultures change, metaphors change too. Consider the excesses of the English Euphuists, whose loves had hair of spun gold, voices that were perfumed whispers. and feet that barely touched the ground. Shakespeare poked fun at this elaborate style in one of his sonnets, arguing that the woman he loved was human, not divine. Her hair was a little stiff, and sometimes she had bad breath. At around the same time, Cervantes in Don Quixoteoffered an antidote to heroes who were paragons of virtue, never had a thought they regretted, never went to the toilet.

There is nothing wrong with metaphors, whether they are elaborate and artificial literary devices or commonplaces of daily speech, except that sometimes they are not recognized as metaphors. An unrealistic use of language can create false beliefs and false expectations. Recent commentators have pointed out, for example, that the elaborate figures of speech and rodomontade of contemporary Arabic create a climate in which it is difficult for Westerners to discuss issues. Apparently one cannot express mere displeasure in Arabic; one has to describe a cataclysmic state of total outrage and moral offense induced by a hereditary and incurable pathology in the offending person.

In the end, whether we say that minds run differently or not when people use different national metaphors depends on how abstract or general our conception of the mind is. The hearts and lungs of people all over the world work in the same way, and so do their brains. But there are also vast differences between the heart and lungs of, say, a South-American Indian who lives at an altitude of 11,000 feet and those of another who lives in the Amazon jungle, and there are vast differences between the way the minds of an Englishman and a Hopi Indian work. If this seems to present a paradox, it is because the first sentence is more general than the second. The first sentence may be less useful as well. At the present time a description of language and language use that is abstract enough to encompass all language users may be so abstract that it lacks empirical relevance or behavioral correlation.

Another problem Whorf raised, and one that has considerable interest today, concerns the possibility that language determines the way the mind processes information. Here Whorf cites variations in the syntactic metaphors of different languages—the way they order words, express appositions, distinguish subjects, objects and tenses, tolerate some sequences and call others ungrammatical. He implies that ordering rules (grammars) act as training devices, as avenues down which the development of mental skills proceeds.

Most European languages are right-branching. In English, for example, we usually state what we are talking about and then put in our qualifying remarks. Other languages, such as Turkish and Japanese, are left-branching. The qualifications are expressed first. The difference is illustrated by two sentences for which I am indebted to my colleague Kenneth Forster. The English form is, “I was amazed at the intensity of the sunshine when I descended (stepped down) at Miyazaki airport.” The literal translation of the Japanese form of the sentence is, “Miyazaki of airport at stepped down when exceedingly of sunshine of intensity at be (was) amazed.” Read backwards, the Japanese sentence almost duplicates the English one: “(I) amazed (was) at intensity of sunshine (exceedingly) when (I) stepped down at airport of Miyazaki.”

Does the difference in the way English and Japanese sentences are constructed indicate a difference in the way English and Japanese speakers process information? This is both an empirical question and one that affects linguistic theory. To test it, we might begin by displaying a complex scene to Japanese and American subjects and recording the movements of their eyes. The goal would be to find out whether the ordering rules that control the input of visual information follow the ordering rules of verbal expression. Is there a transfer from verbal processing to pictorial processing of information, or are the two skills learned and maintained separately? Is the syntax of input universal and only the syntax of output different, or do they differ in corresponding ways from one culture to another culture?

If the mind deals differently with information depending on the language used, as Whorf suggests, do all minds also use language in ways that can be usefully described as the same? Here again, the problem is how abstract we are in our description. We can attribute all behavior to innate physical endowment, for example, but theories based on innate endowment have almost no value for understanding or predicting events in detail.

To say that a man gets angry because he is innately endowed with a capacity for it tells us nothing about the conditions that induce anger or those that alleviate it. Similarly, to argue that a child learns to talk because he is innately endowed with the capacity to master syntax sheds little light on the process of acquisition of skill in the use of language. Obviously, everything that people do is tied to their biological endowment, but attributing performance principally to biological competence is not much help in understanding the forces that train and shape men and their cultures.

In the early years of experimental psychology the mind was studied principally through analytic introspection. The method fell into disrepute long ago, partly because of its untenable assumption that all the mind’s operations were accessible to the thinker.

Today we are more interested in function than in content, in activity than in state. We study how the unfamiliar becomes familiar and the clumsy becomes graceful. We are concerned with the way cognitive skills are acquired, the relation of skills to each other, and the relation of cognition to behavior. Language, as Whorf pointed out, is one training tool of the mind. Studying the functional relation between language and other mental operations increases our understanding of the way minds work, and the more we know about that in this increasingly interdependent world the better.

Psychology Today, 2, 12, 32-5, May 1969.