Babel's children
Jan 8th 2004 | LEIPZIG
From The Economist print edition


Languages may be more different from each other than is currently supposed. That may affect the way people think

IT IS hard to conceive of a language without nouns or verbs. But that is just what Riau Indonesian is, according to David Gil, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Leipzig. Dr Gil has been studying Riau for the past 12 years. Initially, he says, he struggled with the language, despite being fluent in standard Indonesian. However, a breakthrough came when he realised that what he had been thinking of as different parts of speech were, in fact, grammatically the same. For example, the phrase “the chicken is eating” translates into colloquial Riau as “ayam makan”. Literally, this is “chicken eat”. But the same pair of words also have meanings as diverse as “the chicken is making somebody eat”, or “somebody is eating where the chicken is”. There are, he says, no modifiers that distinguish the tenses of verbs. Nor are there modifiers for nouns that distinguish the definite from the indefinite (“the”, as opposed to “a”). Indeed, there are no features in Riau Indonesian that distinguish nouns from verbs. These categories, he says, are imposed because the languages that western linguists are familiar with have them.

This sort of observation flies in the face of conventional wisdom about what language is. Most linguists are influenced by the work of Noam Chomsky—in particular, his theory of “deep grammar”. According to Dr Chomsky, people are born with a sort of linguistic template in their brains. This is a set of rules that allows children to learn a language quickly, but also imposes constraints and structure on what is learnt. Evidence in support of this theory includes the tendency of children to make systematic mistakes which indicate a tendency to impose rules on what turn out to be grammatical exceptions (eg, “I dided it” instead of “I did it”). There is also the ability of the children of migrant workers to invent new languages known as creoles out of the grammatically incoherent pidgin spoken by their parents. Exactly what the deep grammar consists of is still not clear, but a basic distinction between nouns and verbs would probably be one of its minimum requirements.

Plumbing the grammatical depths

Dr Gil contends, however, that there is a risk of unconscious bias leading to the conclusion that a particular sort of grammar exists in an unfamiliar language. That is because it is easier for linguists to discover extra features in foreign languages—for example tones that change the meaning of words, which are common in Indonesian but do not exist in European languages—than to realise that elements which are taken for granted in a linguist's native language may be absent from another. Despite the best intentions, he says, there is a tendency to fit languages into a mould. And since most linguists are westerners, that mould is usually an Indo-European language from the West.

It need not, however, be a modern language. Dr Gil's point about bias is well illustrated by the history of the study of the world's most widely spoken tongue. Many of the people who developed modern linguistics had had an education in Latin and Greek. As a consequence, English was often described until well into the 20th century as having six different noun cases, because Latin has six. (A noun case is how that noun's grammatical use is distinguished, for example as a subject or as an object.) Only relatively recently did grammarians begin a debate over noun cases in English. Some now contend that it does not have noun cases at all, others that it has two (one for the possessive, the other for everything else) while still others maintain that there are three or four cases. These would include the nominative (for the subject of a sentence), the accusative (for its object) and the genitive (to indicate possession).

The difficulty is compounded if a linguist is not fluent in the language he is studying. The process of linguistic fieldwork is a painstaking one, fraught with pitfalls. Its mainstay is the use of “informants” who tell linguists, in interviews and on paper, about their language. Unfortunately, these informants tend to be better-educated than their fellows, and are often fluent in more than one language. This, in conjunction with the comparatively formal setting of an interview (even if it is done in as basic a location as possible), can systematically distort the results. While such interviews are an unavoidable, and essential, part of the process, Dr Gil has also resorted to various ruses in his attempts to elicit linguistic information. In one of them, he would sit by the ferry terminal on Batam, an Indonesian island near Singapore, with sketches of fish doing different things. He then struck up conversations with shoeshine boys hanging around the dock, hoping that the boys would describe what the fish were doing in a relaxed, colloquial manner.

The experiment, though, was not entirely successful: when the boys realised his intention, they began to speak more formally. This experience, says Dr Gil, illustrates the difficulties of collecting authentic information about the ways in which people speak. But those differences, whether or not they reflect the absence of a Chomskian deep grammar, might be relevant not just to language, but to the very way in which people think.

Word, words, words

A project that Dr Gil is just beginning in Indonesia, in collaboration with Lera Boroditsky, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is examining correlations between the way concepts are expressed in languages and how native speakers of these languages think. This is a test of a hypothesis first made by Benjamin Lee Whorf, an early 20th-century American linguist, that the structure of language affects the way people think. Though Whorf's hypothesis fell into disfavour half a century ago, it is now undergoing something of a revival.

Dr Boroditsky's experiment is simple. People are shown three pictures, one of a man about to kick a ball, one of the same man having just kicked a ball, and a third of a different man who is about to kick a ball. They are then asked which two of the three are the most similar. Indonesians generally choose the first two pictures, which have the same man in them, while English speakers are likely to identify the two pictures that show the ball about to be kicked—an emphasis on the temporal, rather than the spatial, relationship between the principal objects in the picture.

Dr Gil believes that this might be because time is, in English, an integral grammatical concept—every verb must have a tense, be it past, present or future. By contrast, in Indonesian, expressing a verb's tense is optional, and not always done. In support of Whorf's idea, Dr Gil half-jokingly cites the fact that Indonesians always seem to be running late. But there is more systematic evidence, too. For example, native Indonesian speakers who also speak English fall between the two groups of monoglots in the experiment. Dr Gil supposes that their thought processes are influenced by their knowledge of both English and Indonesian grammar.

Demonstrating any sort of causal link would, nevertheless, be hard. Indeed, the first challenge the researchers must surmount if they are to prove Whorf correct is to show that English and Indonesian speakers do, in fact, think differently about time, and are not answering questions in different ways for some other reason. If that does prove to be the case, says Dr Gil, their remains the thorny question of whether it is the differences in language of the two groups that influences their conception of time, or vice versa.

Dr Boroditsky and Dr Gil are not intending to restrict their study to ideas about time. They plan, for example, to study gender. English, unlike many other languages, does not assign genders to most nouns. Does this affect the way English-speakers think of gender? Languages also differ in the ways they distinguish between singular and plural nouns. Indeed, some do not distinguish at all, while others have a special case, called the dual, that refers only to a pair of something. Descriptions of spatial relations, too, vary, with languages dividing the world up differently by using different sorts of prepositions. The notion that grammar might affect the way people think may seem far-fetched, and even unappealing to those who are confident of their own free will. But if Dr Gil is right and there do exist languages, like Riau Indonesian, without nouns or verbs, the difficulty of conceiving just that fact points out how much grammar itself shapes at least some thoughts.

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