Languages: the strange case of Pirahã and Aymara

In my last post, I wrote about the connections between language and thought, ie. linguistic relativity / determinism.

In today’s highly globalized world, languages get mixed and evolve at a much faster pace than ever before. English, for instance, is no longer only divided into British, American and Australian English; we could say that there is a variety of English for any other natural language: Spanglish, Chinglish and so on. When French was the de-facto lingua franca of diplomacy (and, by extension, of Western Europe), it was not substantially modified by other local languages. When English replaced it, after World War I and especially after World War II, it started changing immediately.

English, especially its American variety, was not only originally used for international diplomacy; rather, as the United States rose a superpower in many fields (technology, business, etc.), one could argue that its language became widespread from the bottom-up. The average Joe in most other Western countries was exposed to American words: they wore blue jeans, they put coins into juke-boxes, they went to a bar. As English words became naturalized over time, this ultimately led to the creation of what could be easily considered a series of creoles that are for the most part mutually intelligible.

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Languages: linguistic relativity, words vs. thought

One of the most intriguing concepts in linguistics is the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or linguistic relativity principle. Simply put, it states that the language we speak can influence the way we think. Another common name for this theory is linguistic determinism. There are some subtleties in the usage of these different names (no pun intended), but in order to avoid confusing them and giving wrong information, I’ll refrain from attempting. There are many resources online about the details of this topic for those who wish to delve deeper. For the sake of this post, I will freely use the terms interchangeably.

Anybody who studied a foreign language, even without reaching fluency, has most likely had an experience with the linguistic relativity principle. The farther the language in question is different from the native language, the more the phenomenon is obvious.

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Languages: life, evolution, death and extinction

To call a language “dead” is often an exaggeration. Languages seldom really die; they evolve, and sometimes they fade out of usage.

Latin, for instance, is usually deemed to be a dead language, but this is not the case. To begin with, Latin is still the official language of the Vatican, and while catholic functions have been in local languages since 1964, papal documents continue to be redacted in Latin to this day. Moreover, while there are no native Latin speakers, there are hundreds of millions of people whose native language is directly derived from Latin: Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Romanian; these are usually called “romance” or “neo-latin” languages. The word romance has unfortunately nothing to do with feelings, and is rather a reference to roman. Ancient Romans did, in fact, spread the usage of Latin around the world.

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