You Are What You Say

How much does language shape culture? Does English lead to more efficiency because of how precise it can be (with, by some estimates, more than twice as many words as the next verbose language)? Or does English delay learning because of its Byzantine and vermicular rules?* Is Spanish the opposite because of its relatively straightforward structure?

Of course there’s some chicken and egg stuff going on here. Culture undoubtedly shapes language, which then in turn shapes culture – if you live in an area with lots of snow, you may need a few more words for snow, and if you have a few more words for snow, you may have a better grasp of how snow works.

According to a new study, language has a built-in positivity bias, meaning we have a tendency to remember things in a positive light and this is reflected in our language having more words with positive associations. And different languages have different degrees of positivity bias, with Spanish coming out on top (at least in the ten languages the study examined). It’s yet to be determined whether this actually has an impact on happiness.

Interestingly, this study is another example where broad scale crowdsourcing can lead to previously unstudyable (there’s gotta be a word for that – it’s English) variables; the internet continues to weave its magic in unforeseeable ways.

Another recent study purports to show that one’s language does influence how one perceives the world. I wonder if anybody’s tried to tease out how much of this is cultural by studying how different cultures that speak the same language differ compared with two cultures sharing another language. For example, are there certain ways of perceiving the world that the French-speaking inhabitants of Saint-Martin share with people from France that differ from those that Dutch-speaking inhabitants of Sint Maarten (same island) share with people from the Netherlands?


*How many ways are there to pronounce “ough”? Tough, cough, through, thought, drought…

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