Does your language structure your thought?

Vladimir Nabokov

There are some eminent scholars who do not believe it does. They do not accept that, for example, a Russian might see some aspects of the world differently from an Englishman because his language accesses different experience and shapes his thoughts differently. These non- believers assert and argue that we all have the same ‘mentalese’ language in our heads. We are born with it, whether we are Russian, Chinese, Eskimo or English. From this ‘mentalese’, or ‘language of thought’ we move towards the language we learn from our mothers or those who raise us from infancy. The most well know advocate of this theory, LOT, is the American philosopher Jerry Fodor, and his theory in turn fits in with the notion developed by Noam Chomsky of an innate and universal grammar that is a gift from our genetic inheritance. If we all have exactly the same language equipment how can we think differently about the same world?

But have any of these non — believers attempted the tricky business of translation? Particularly the even trickier business of translating poetry?

What is translation? On a platter
A poet’s pale and glaring head,
A parrot’s screech, a monkey’s chatter,
And profanation of the dead

These words are from the great Vladimir Nabokov, a literary genius and polymath who wrote brilliantly not only in his native Russian but in French and English too. He made it a personal mission to make the English speaking world aware of the greatness of Pushkin. By which he meant that he wanted us English speakers to feel what a Russian feels when he hears Pushkin. This is a more exacting standard than most translators’ set themselves — but it gets to the heart of the matter of language and thought. When, for example, Pushkin uses the word ‘dusha’, which is soul, roughly, in English, he is conveying a range of emotional responses which have been shaped by centuries of Russian experience and geography which is inaccessible to the English speaker. The Russian mind is thus traversing emotional territory which has never been explored by an English speaker, it has never been a part of an English speakers vocabulary. We can say the word soul. but we can’t mean dusha. The Russian mind has a pattern of associations with ‘dusha’ which the English speaker does not recognise and hence does not consider. This would suggest that the Russian language has structured the way that Russians think about life, and even death, and that these differences sometimes make it difficult for us to understand each other.

Add to this the way that poetry plays on alliteration, sound, consonance, rhythm and rhyme to amplify meaning and we may be mapping out vast differences of experience and hence thought.

I rest my case with Nabakov. Language does shape our thought, the English and Russians do think differently about some things because their languages nudge them towards different assessments. There is also, by the way, plenty of academic evidence that supports this case.

In his gloomier moments Nabokov thought it was impossible to translate Pushkin into English and thereby convey his full meaning and power.

Oh dear.

But Nabakov believed that English was the first second language that everyone should aim to master — because of its poetry and Shakespeare.

If you are learning English why not set yourself the goal of being able to enjoy Shakespeare. You will need a teacher to help you. At you can find over 500 online English teachers

Mark Rapley,
Co-founder Blabmate