Listen to this story

--:--

--:--

The Littlest Language

What you speak is what you think. Or is it the other way round?

Badri Sunderarajan
Dec 17, 2017 · 11 min read

What language do you think in?

Sometimes, thoughts come into your head. Just like that. It’s only later that you put them into words. Other times, when you’re consciously thinking about something or trying to figure it out, the thinking happens in a certain language.

Even when I’m not quite aware of it, I often look back and realise I’ve been thinking in words.

What’s more, the words and languages can be different depending on the context. For example, while I speak English at home, there are some situations, like counting out money to pay the bus conductor, when I think and count in Tamil. Even when there’s no speaking involved, different thought-patterns seem to automatically happen in different languages. The switch happens without any, well, thinking.

Thoughts are not limited to spoken languages. Computer languages can work just as well. When I’m programming, I can think about field.on("change", function() { ... }); and design layouts and callbacks, without worrying about what happens in plain English.

Programming languages express things in a very different way from languages like Tamil or English. You don’t read them line by line but go back and forth to follow the flow of the code, and punctuation is a lot more important. Like a poem, the structure of the writing is as important as the words themselves.

In fact, programming languages have even given rise to a whole new art form: code poetry. Those poems are written with a mixture of computer and human languages, to express things in a way no spoken language can.

Languages are not just about expressing things. They can also change the way you think.

In English, you’re probably used to saying things like “I am going” or “he is walking”. But in German, that won’t be enough. You also have to say where they are going and walking.

Once, an experiment was conducted on bilingual people who knew both English and German. They were made to “switch” to either English or German, by making them repeat numbers from either language. Then, they were shown a few silent videos of people doing different things.

After the session, the people were asked to describe whatever they could remember about the videos. While the English-thinkers had more focus on what the people were doing, the ones thinking in German could also remember where they were going. They could remember ‘a lady walking towards a car’, instead of just ‘a lady walking’.

What’s amazing is that all the people in the experiment knew both German and English. Their answers didn’t depend on what languages they knew; it depended on what languages they happened to be thinking in at that time.

Languages can help you focus on different details of what happened. In some cases, it can even force you to do so.

Tamil has different verb-endings depending on whether you know something for a fact or not. போயிர்கான் (poyirkaan) means “he has gone (I know)”, while போயிர்பான் (poyirpaan) means “he has gone (I assume)”.

Of course, in English you can say something like “he has probably gone” or “I’m guessing he’s gone”. The difference is that, in Tamil, you simply must indicate that it’s an assumption. It isn’t possible to say “he has gone” when you mean “I assume he has gone”.

The Brazilian language Tuyuca takes this even further. You must not only say whether you know something or only guess it, but also indicate how exactly you know it: is it because someone told you, because you deduced it, or did you actually see it happening? Diga ape-kiyi means “the boy played football (I assume)”, while Diga ape-wi means “the boy played football (I know because I saw him)”.

This means, when Tuyuca speakers hear a fact, they also remember how exactly they know it. Their minds automatically separate what they guessed, what they saw for themselves, and what they only heard from someone else, instead of having it all mixed up in one place and later forgetting how true something was.

Other people can do the same too, but Tuyuca forces them to do it all the time. So when there’s a confusion between a fact and a rumour, Tuyuca speakers will get it sorted out first.

How much influence do languages have over our lives? How much do they control the way we think? A recent study by economist Keith Chen found links between languages and saving money for the future.

Saving money for the future is good. Everyone knows that. Rather than blowing it up the moment you get it, a better idea would be to save it up for when it’s actually needed. Everyone plans to spend their money wisely. The hard part is actually doing it.

Chen’s study found that people in some countries were more likely to save money for the future. And, the languages of those people had a different way of describing the “future”.

English is a “futured” language. That means it has different “tenses” depending on when something happened. You say “The stock-market crashed” in past-tense if it happened in the past, “The stock-market will crash” in future tense if it’s going to happen in the future, and “The stock-market is crashing” in present-tense (and perhaps a slightly panicky voice) if it’s happening right now.

There’s no extraneous word to say if something was in the past, present or future — but it’s all already there, embedded into the way you say it.

In Mandarin Chinese, you don’t have that way of talking about time: it’s not a “futured” language. So you just say “The stock-market crash” for everything. You can add a few words to describe when it happened, but you do that only if you really need to.

The result, it seems, is that English and Chinese speakers have quite different ways of thinking about the future. For English speakers, the future is another time, far away, quite different from the present. They prepare for the future, of course, but there isn’t so much urgency involved.

Incidentally, that’s also why people tend to put off unpleasant things for later, as well as go for immediate satisfaction even if they’ll have to pay for it afterwards. Psychologists have found that people treat their future selves a bit like different people, so they don’t think about future consequences as much as immediate ones.

For Chinese speakers, on the other hand, the future is as real as the present. If there’s a disaster happening, better start preparing for it now!

Sure enough, Keith Chen’s survey found that speakers of “futured” languages, like English and Greek, tended to save less than people who spoke “non-futured” languages like Chinese and Estonian. On average, the “non-futured” speakers saved about 20% extra.

Does that mean English-speakers have no choice but to put things off? Derek Thompson of The Atlantic has thought up one suggestion: try writing inspirational notes to yourself in present tense, so the future seems more immediate.

But don’t let that make you feel bad about having different tenses. Tenses can also be useful — especially in the case of Turkish, which has a different tense depending on whether you know something directly or heard it as a rumour.

Is language really influencing peoples’ spending-habits? After all, it could also be the other way round. Maybe those people always think that way about the future, and their languages just evolved to reflect the way they think.

To take another example, the Kuuk Thaayorre language never uses the words “left” and “right” for directions. In Kuuk Thaayorre, you have to use absolute directions like “east” or “north-west”, the same way I used to when I was younger. And the Pormpuraaw, who speak Kuuk Thaayorre, have a very good sense of direction. Send them to an unknown landscape, in a place where they can’t see the Sun, and they’ll still be able to tell which direction they’re facing.

So: do the Pormpuraaw have a good sense of direction because their language uses “east” and “west”, or does Kuuk Thaayorre use “east” and “west” because its speakers have a good sense of direction?

Or, is the real answer something more complicated?

The idea that languages control your thoughts is not a new one. In fact, it’s been debated back and forth for the past two-hundred years.

The name “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” is bit of a misnomer, because Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf never co-authored a paper; neither did they speak of their ideas in terms of a hypothesis. Nowadays, people prefer to refer to the idea as “linguistic relativity” instead. But while they didn’t write a paper, Sapir and Whorf did both have the same idea: that languages have absolute control over the way people think.

In some sense, that’s certainly true. Take counting, for example.

Numbers are something that humans aren’t born with. Of course, you can compare two sets of things, one by one, and say that there are as many cups of tea as people who want to drink them. But there’s no other way to look at just one set and say how much it is.

Have you tried counting a bunch of things without using numbers? I usually end up with at least a picture of the digits in my head, if not the words themselves.

Meanwhile, people like the Munduruku who don’t use numbers can’t count things either. They can’t say “there are as many devices as charger-cables” unless they actually compare them, one by one. Psychologists think the maximum humans can count by themselves, without the help of numbers, is three. The Munduruku are relatively sophisticated: they can go all the way up till five.

In other cases, however, linguistic relativity doesn’t seem to work out. You can’t always think in languages — otherwise, how would you end up with situations where you can’t put your thoughts into words?

Nevertheless, the weaker form of linguistic relativity seems to be true: languages may not have absolute control over the way you think, but they can still influence it greatly.

If languages are so powerful, why not use that power to do something good? That’s what Sonja Lang thought, when she created Toki Pona.

Toki Pona is a constructed language. It didn’t evolve on its own, but was deliberately made-up, designed to work the way its creator wanted. But it’s also a “living language”, in the sense that there are many people speaking it and adapting it to work for them.

Toki Pona is by no means the first constructed language. There are many others, such as Esperanto by L. L. Zamenhof, who wanted to make an international language for people across the world to communicate. Esperanto is designed to be very easy to learn — although it is still closer to European languages than languages of other places.

What sets Toki Pona apart is its size. Toki Pona could be the world’s tiniest language, with less than 150 words in total. That means, if you’re interested, you can learn the language in just one weekend!

The philosophy of Toki Pona is minimalism. There are so many words that people use without understanding what they really mean; Toki Pona tries to change that by making you really concentrate on what you’re saying. The complex part is not in the number of words, but in deciding how to use them.

Because of their limited numbers, words in Toky Pona have quite broad descriptions. “moku” can mean food, or anything to do with food, including the term “to eat”. For more specific things, you can join many words together: for example, “kili” (fruit) and “telo” (water) can join to become “kili telo”, describing a watermelon. Of course,you can also move them around to make “telo kili”: fruit-water, or, to use a more complicated term, juice.

Some things are hard to do in Toki Pona. You can’t use it to count large numbers, or to write precise scientific reports. But then, that’s not what Toki Pona was meant for.

The language is more about thinking carefully, and being more attentive about what you have to say. The words you use can also depend on the context.

“What is a car?” Toki Pona’s creator once asked. “You might say that a car is a space that’s used for movement. That would be tomo tawa. If you’re struck by a car though, it might be a hard object that’s hitting me. That’s kiwen utala”.

It all depends on what the car means to you, at that moment.

A recent study of scientific papers showed that they are getting harder to read over time. The papers of today are much more difficult for non-experts to understand than the papers of a century ago.

Part of the reason is that branches of science are getting much narrower and more specialised, and yet also more detailed within their speciality. New terms have to be invented to describe new discoveries. Terms that, to people not working on them, are impossible to keep track of.

Of course, it’s not just the language of scientific papers. All languages become complex over time, in their own way. They pick up new terms and expand old ones; they find ways to express things more widely or efficiently than before. In the case of programming-languages, new versions are released, adding new features, or making old ones better.

As languages evolve, the way people think must be evolving too.

Most languages evolve by adding new words, and changing or expanding the meanings of old ones. Which is why it’s a nice change to have a language like Toki Pona, which is tiny in terms of word count, yet complex in its own simple way.

Have something to say? At Snipette, we encourage questions, comments, corrections and clarifications — even if they are something that can be easily Googled! Or you can simply click on the ‘👏 clap’ button, to tell us how much you liked reading this.

Snipette

Bits and pieces about anything and everything. Usual topics from unusual perspectives. Information you can understand. We explain things in a storytelling style. Want to write for us? We’re looking for authors so check the homepage for details!

Badri Sunderarajan

Written by

Books reader, Websites coder, Drawings maker. Things writer. Occasional astronomer. Alleged economist. Editor@Snipette.

Snipette

Snipette

Bits and pieces about anything and everything. Usual topics from unusual perspectives. Information you can understand. We explain things in a storytelling style. Want to write for us? We’re looking for authors so check the homepage for details!

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade