Encapsulated Universes: A Conversation with Lera Boroditsky


Over at Edge:

I'm interested in how the languages we speak shape the way we think. The reason I got interested in this question is that languages differ from one another so much. There are about 7,000 languages around the world, and each one differs from the next in innumerable ways. Obviously, languages have different words, but they also require very different things from their speakers grammatically.

Let me give you an example. Suppose you want to say even the simplest thing, like “Humpty Dumpty sat on a …” Well, even with a snippet of a nursery rhyme, if you try to translate it to other languages, you'd immediately run into trouble. Let's focus on the verb for a moment. Sat. To say this in English, if this was something that happened in the past, then you'd have to say “sat.” You wouldn’t say, “will sit” or “sitting.” You have to mark tense. In some languages like in Indonesian you couldn't change the verb. The verb would always stay the same regardless of whether this is a past or future event. In some languages, like in Russian, my native language, you would have to change the verb for tense, but you would also have to include gender. So if this was Mrs. Dumpty that sat on the wall, you'd use a different form of the verb than if it was Mr. Dumpty.

In Russian, quite inconveniently, you have to mark the verb for whether the event was completed or not. So if Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall for the entire amount of time that he was meant to sit on it, that would be one form of the verb. But if he were to say “have a great fall” that would be a different form of the verb.

In Turkish, and this is one of my favorite examples, you have to change the verb depending on how you came to know this information. If you actually witnessed this event with your own eyes, you were walking along and you saw this chubby, ovoid character sitting on a wall, that would be one form of the verb. But if this was something you just heard about, or you inferred, from say broken Humpty Dumpty pieces, then you would have to use a different form of the verb.