Some 50 years ago, the renowned linguist Roman Jakobson pointed out a crucial fact about differences between languages in a pithy maxim: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” This maxim offers us the key to unlocking the real force of the mother tongue: if different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.
This brings us (and Guy Deutscher, the author of the NYTimes piece) back to issues I've discussed like grammatical gender and relative versus absolute direction, as well as others like the defining of time periods (past, present, future). Here's another terrific quote from the article:
When your language routinely obliges you to specify certain types of information, it forces you to be attentive to certain details in the world and to certain aspects of experience that speakers of other languages may not be required to think about all the time. And since such habits of speech are cultivated from the earliest age, it is only natural that they can settle into habits of mind that go beyond language itself, affecting your experiences, perceptions, associations, feelings, memories and orientation in the world.This really spoke to me. As a speaker of French, I have always found it difficult to remember the grammatical gender of words. I know a large core number, but once I start getting to the periphery of that, I start having to guess. It's so frustrating! For the first time, during my visit to France this summer, I started having a glimpse of the worldview that lies behind knowing all these grammatical genders - the fact that when a French speaker (or Spanish speaker, etc.) looks at an object, it simply appears inherently masculine or feminine. We English speakers have an easy time differentiating between events in the past, the present, and the future, which our language requires us to specify.
While I'm not sure I could attempt it without living in France, I got a glimpse of what the world might look like if I thought in this way. It really stretched my mind into a place beyond where it had been before, and that's one of the most rewarding feelings I can imagine. Perhaps that's why I try to share it with other people through my stories.