Is "linguistic relativism" always about language?

Jan 20, 2011 by

As mentioned in yesterday’s posting, linguistic relativism (that is, the view that the language one speaks affects how one thinks) is gaining popularity in both scientific quarters and among the general public. But some arguments put forward in support of linguistic relativism are not about language at all!

Take, for example, the argument that concerns how people spatially represent temporal sequences of events. Imagine you are given three pictures that represent events that happened in a certain (contextually understood) sequence, such as pictures of a growing baby or an aging face. You are asked to lay them out on the table in a logical order. An English (or Spanish, or French, or Russian) speaker would lay the pictures out left-to-right in the order of the temporal progression: a smaller baby on the left, a middle-sized baby in the middle and the biggest baby on the right. However, a speaker of Hebrew (or Arabic) would lay out the pictures in exactly the opposite order: from right to left.

A similar “experiment” was inadvertently made by some soda advertizers. They made a commercial consisting of three pictures (from left to right): a man parched in the desert, the soda that’s beign advertized and a man running in the same desert. The advertizers who developed this commercial were English speakers, but when they took this commercial to Israel, it was a total flop. The reason? Israelis (speakers of either Hebrew or Arabic) “read” this commercial backwards: first a man runs in the deserts, then he drinks the soda and suddently he’s lying down parched and tired. In short, they “read” the commercial right-to-left, as they would read a text in their language.

But this cannot be taken as evidence for linguistic relativity because writing is not language. Linguists don’t tire to stress that writing is secondary to spoken language. There are no communities with a written form of language but without a spoken form (whereas the reverse — communities with a spoken language but no writing — are plenty). Children first learn to talk and then to read and write. Spoken languages is what comes naturally to us, whereas the written form needs instruction. Rather than being a part of language, writing system is a part of culture.

Whether a given language is written from left to right, or from right to left, or from top down or in any other spatial way does not affect the linguistic properties of language and is not affected by them either (although it is tempting to say that certain writing systems are better adapted to this or that language, but this is an artifact of those writing systems being developed for this or that language).

That a writing system is not tied to language can be shown by the simple fact that many languages have changed what writing system they use. For example, Turkish was written with Arabic-derived script until 1928, when the switch was made to Latin alphabet. Similarly, Azeri (a close relative of Turkish) was originally written with Arabic-derived script, then with Cyrillic and now with Latin alphabet as well. Another example is Vietnamese, which until 1910 was written with Chinese symbols and since — with an adapted form of the Latin alphabet.

Moreover, it’s not unheard of that two closely related and largely identical languages use distinct writing systems. For instance, Hindi is written with Devanagari and Urdu — with Arabic- (or Persian-) derived script. Similarly, Serbian is written with Cyrillic and Croatian with Latin alphabet. And while the languages of South and North Korea are practically undistinguishable, they use different writing systems too: Chinese writing and the hangul alphabet in the South and the pure hangul alphabet in the North.

What’s more, writing systems are fairly flexible and can often be adapted to be used for a completely different (and often unrelated) language. For example, Arabic-derived script is used not only for Arabic (a Semitic language), but also for Persian (a member of the Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family), Urdu (a member of the Indo-Aryan branch of Indo-European) and (as mentioned above) it used to be used for Turkish (Turkic). Likewise, Hebrew script has been used to write down not only Hebrew (Semitic), but also Yiddish (Germanic) and Ladino (Romance). Moreover, in the Middle Ages Hebrew script was often used to write other languages — Arabic, French, etc. — because the scribes were Hebrew-trained Jews.

As you can see, speakers of several languages have not only changed the writing system being used to write down the language, but even switched which direction they write in. There was probably quite a bit of confusion intially once the switch was made, just as there was when countries switched from driving on the left to driving on the right (as shown on the picture below of Sweden switching from the left to the right side of the road).

But once the initial confusion settled down, I bet speakers of these languages started spatially ordering temporal sequences of events in the opposite direction. Pity nobody thought of doing an experiment on this in Turkey before and after Ataturk had his countrymen switch from a right-to-left to a left-to-right writing system. It would have been interesting to see whether my prediction would be born out. As things are, we just need to wait for another government to want to make a switch in writing direction. Perhaps I should write to the UN about this…

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